Computer animation at Lucasfilm

The Adventures of Andre and WaIIy B. recieved a Special Award from the 1985 Canadian International Animation Festival in Toronto. The whole film was generated by computer. David Jefferson reports on a talk given by two of the film’s makers at the Annecy Festival.

Picture, if you can, a wide angle shot of a wooded valley at sunrise. The shot starts with a panoramic view across hills covered with thousands of pine trees, each one different. It then lowers down through the trees, with ever changing perspective that keeps them moving in relation to the viewpoint, to ground level where we find Andre sleeping against a rock. He awakes, yawns and stretches. The movements have the grace of a fully animated cartoon while the character has the three-dimensional appearance of a well modelled puppet. Enter stage left Wally B, another 3-D character whose bee wings blur in a realistic manor as he hovers over Andre’s head. Andre distracts Wally’s attention and then makes a run for it while the bee is looking the other way. The chase is on. We follow the characters along a woodland path with a tracking viewpoint. The scene is fully detailed to the point of having the shadows of the trees crossing the path in a convincing way. Wally B gets his stinger at the ready and dive bombs in for the attack. So ends the worlds first short film made to demonstrate fully motion-blurred three dimensional computer generated character animation.

The film was shown at Annecy 85 as part of a talk by William Reeves and John Lasseter on the work of Lucasfilm’s Computer Division. The techniques were described using a combination of colour slides and movie film. The audience were given enough insight into the process to be able to marvel at the ability of modern technology in the graphics field even if they did not understand the workings of computers. Those members of the audience who pursued a more technical line during question time at the end were referred to the many technical publications that covered the programming side of things. The point was being made that animators were being provided with a tool that they could use without having to be computer programmers. The process worked by selecting options from a list presented on the monitor screen. Animator John Lasseter did admit that his heart sank when he was first confronted with the list but he soon got to grips with it.

The Wild Things Test produced by Walt Disney Productions.

John Lasseter joined Lucasfilm in 1984 after five years as an animator at the Walt Disney studio. At Disney he worked on The Fox and the Hound and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. His introduction to computer graphics came while designing and directing The Wild Things Test, the first film to combine hand drawn Disney character animation with computer generated backgrounds. At the time the Disney studio was considering a production of Morris Sendark’s book Where the Wild Things Are. The test used the computer graphics system of MAGI Synthavision Inc. in New York.

In the test a boy and his dog were animated in the normal way to the line test stage. They were then photographed with a digitising camera, to convert them to computer images, one frame at a time. The computerised drawings were coloured to resemble normal painted cels. The backgrounds were input by a different technique where by all the parameters of the room were plotted. The computer programme could then use this information to draw the room from any angle that was required. The animator would ask the computer to draw the background to suit the position of the boy. If it did not look right it could be quickly redrawn at a slightly different angle. The resulting test shows the boy running around his bedroom followed by his dog. The viewpoint is constantly changing in correct perspective in the same way that the film from a live action camera would change as it tracks around. The boy then runs out of his room onto the landing and down the stairs. All the time the viewpoint moves ahead of him, turning corners and going down the stairs as required by the action.

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