Cartoons, Computers and Antics

There are many myths and mis-conceptions about what computer animation can and cannot do. Alan Kitching attempts to clarify things and answer the commonest questions.

Alan Kitching with the Antics set-up.

“Animation” is often synonymous with “cartoons” in many peoples’ minds: “Animation? – Oh, you mean like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny?” is a typical response, which can be frustrating for animators who are trying to do something a bit different. Nevertheless, cartoons remain the dominant form – in quantity at least, if not always in quality – and the voracious demands of television account for much of this. Many people are also surprised to learn that nearly all cartoons are still made by hand, mostly using conventional cel animation techniques, a very labour- intensive process.

The thirties and forties are widely regarded as a “golden age” of cartoon character animation, when big studios could afford the most elaborate and pains-taking efforts. Since then, rising costs, and the coming of television with its increased demand, have made this standard increasingly rare. The need for economy has forced many major studios in the West to send their work to South-east Asia, where low wages have led to the establishment of many paint ’n trace “sweatshops”. But now, the standard of living is rising in this region too. Increasingly, the production of cartoons has also had to rely on the merchandising of toys and other products in order to break-even, and today has reached the point where the cartoons may simply be promotional advertising for toy manufacturers.

The front cover features a demonstration film made on an Antics computer. Click the pic to see a larger version.

As a result of this the quality of animation has drastically suffered. Many of today’s TV cartoons are often pathetically crude, and rarely is animation seen that matches the sheer artistry of the earlier classics. The exceptions are mainly small individual studios making commercials and other short productions – only a few, like Sullivan Studios in Ireland, aim to return to classic standards in large-scale productions.

This can be said not only of the quality of animation artistry, but also of story content. There is growing concern over this, witness “The Great Animation Debate” at last year’s Bristol animation festival (reported in issue 22 of this magazine). Although this may be considered a separate issue to the question of the artistic and technical qualities of the animation itself, it may not be entirely coincidental.

With all these pressures on the cartoon makers, it is not surprising there has been increasing demand to find economical alternatives – and computers are perhaps the only obvious new possibility. What may be more surprising to some is that the computer industry has still not managed to come up with a clear solution, despite the enormous advances of recent years in related fields such as computer graphics and computer-aided design, and in spite of the enormous resources of time and money spent on it.

‘FilmNet’ title, Morphosis. All photographed directly from an Antics TV screen.

I have spent much of the last fifteen years developing a computer animation system called Antics, and, when fully developed, I believe it could well prove to be the solution that many people are looking for. Even today, it already provides a very flexible new tool for a wide variety of animation production, and goes much further in this direction that most other existing computer techniques.

Many myths and mis-conceptions abound over what these techniques can and cannot do, so clearly the time is ripe to try and clarify things a bit, and answer the commonest questions. First, let’s look at the available techniques.

‘Top Pops’ title by Adriaan Lokman, Morphosis, Rotterdam.

Paint-Box Systems are probably the most familiar and well- established area where computers are successfully used for graphics work. They typically consist of a magnetic drawing board and pen, connected through a computer to a colour TV display screen. The screen is like a blank canvas, and the artist can draw or paint onto this using the pen, much like an ordinary pen. The pen can usually be set to respond in many different styles: ink line, air-brush, wash-brush, chalk, etcetera, and in any colour. Many systems also include a facility to feed photographic images in from a camera or scanner, and use them in a composition.

However, most paint-box systems are designed for stills work – illustration and graphic design – rather than animation. Typically, animation can only be achieved by making a sequence of still frames one-by-one, and often there is a tight limit on how many frames can be stored. However, they are immediate and easy to use, requiring little or no technical knowledge.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Quantel Paintbox, now established as an essential tool in many TV companies and video studios, where it is used for title cards and diagram sequences in news, weather and documentary programmes. It can also be used as a frame-by-frame method for art working any pre-recorded film or video.

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