Bridging the great divide

Computerised video graphics have strongly challenged practitioners of diagrammatic film animation. They have also been used by Disney and Hanna-Barbera to create animation for segments of cartoon feature films. Ken Clark gives an overview of computer graphic systems available today and some advice about bridging the gap between traditional animators and computer technicians.

Still from Jetsons - The Movie by Hanna.Barbera.

When I began collecting information about the new form of picture-making using a computer I did not forsee the strides that would be made in its development. Film manufacturers have worked tirelessly to improve the speed, tonal range and granular structure of the film emulsion and that same drive has taken us from a 405 line television picture to 625, through to much higher resolution scanning systems, thanks primarily to space research. HDTV 1125 and 1250 line experiments will continue along with liquid displays, flat screens to hang on the wall, and optical laser disks.

International Time ‘90 – The Interactive Multimedia Event, held in London last October, endeavoured to convince us that the computer had become the heart of all systems. ‘Multimedia’ is interactive video involving a video recording device (tape/disc), a computer with appropriate software, and an input device such as a graphics tablet with stylus pen. This permits the combination of a wide variety of diverse activities: computer generated video graphics; word processing and photographic illustrations for publishing; voice and high quality music; still and live video images; material imported from film; and of course animation.

The key to this versatility has been digitisation. Digital sound and vision do not suffer the degradation which bedevils audio tape and film when subjected to multiple re-recording. However, each picture digitised by the computer requires a great deal of memory storage space. The problem is now being eased by microchips made by Digital Video Interactive (DVI). These control very high compression and decompression of video images, the answer to greater frame capacity. Other improvements in storage capacity include Hypercards and C-Cubes – all available at extra cost. The price of systems in the forefront of this technology is extremely high, indeed, so high it is beyond the reach of the majority. But this is one manufacturing area where prices decrease as improvements increase.

Electronic image generation challenges the old methods, and there are those who fear for their jobs while their rivals jealously guard their flanks. Hence the ‘Great Divide’.

Many years ago, active film cartoonists in Hollywood saw their numbers dwindle from 1000 to 600 over a period of two years because of work lost to cheaper foreign studios. Then a British national newspaper drew attention to the fact that Hanna-Barbera were trying to install a ‘computer cartoonist’ in their Hollywood studio.

Paul Connew reported, “The electronic marvel, they boast, can do the work of 35 flesh and blood artists and technicians. It can paint in background scenes, produce drawings, pull out stock file shots – and even do a limited amount of animation.”

Naturally, the effect of this revelation on the staff was predictable. Even at that early stage they anticipated it would “take the soul out of the industry.” We now know that in the wrong hands or to be more precise, used incorrectly, it can be totally soul-less.

The Walt Disney Studio was of the same mind. Their spokeswoman Jan Jorgenson was quite adamant; she said they would never go in for computers. They used nothing but hand-drawn animation, believing firmly in cartoon people.

The division grew out of the nature of the new medium. In the beginning there had been no need of film animators. The work was accomplished by computer engineers and designers. They made the frightening number of calculations and geometric manipulations necessary to the production of a single electronic image. It was only when the term ‘animation’ became widely used that film animators began to sit up and take notice. Yet there had been earlier warnings.

Speaking at a one-day symposium in Didcot in 1971, John Halas discussed ‘Past, Present and Future of Animation’, and advised his audience that the most important matter requiring immediate attention should be the reduction of the gap which existed then between artist and computer scientist/engineer. I have news for John – the gap still exists!

Recently a respected director told me he had entertained a video graphics salesman at his studio and not understood a thing he had been told. He had failed to appreciate how this technology might help him in his world of film and sent the man on his way with a flea in his ear. This is not an isolated response.

A few months ago I attended the Computer Graphics annual celebration. On my way round the stands I asked everyone why they did not call upon film animators for their advice. One representative volunteered the information that his company had invited a leading London animator along to address their graphics personnel. The experience had not been a success. The outcome had been a total lack of comprehension on both sides. I suggested that since their company specialised in formal graphics rather than comic cartoons they ought to have invited a diagrammatic film animator.

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