Computer Assisted Traditional Animation

Two events on the subject of computer graphics were held recently in London: the Time Multimedia exhibition, and Computer Graphics 1991 – a two day conference on computer animation. Report by Ken Clark.

“If asked four years ago about the future of computer animation,” said Jan Carlee of Don Bluth Entertainment, “I couldn’t see where it was going. It seemed to be concentrating on flying company logos. Great imagery, of course, but now there are many films in production using computer imagery, at Bluth, Amblin and Disney.”

The concentration on flying words, symbols and logos was much in evidence right up to 1990, but examples of current work are a clear indication of the many reasons why the film and computer animation genres are merging.

Are we seeing the story of film being enacted all over again in the development of computer graphics? Because full screen, full-motion, live-action computerised video has not been available in the past due to the massive data storage problems, images have had to be ‘drawn’ by computer engineers. Similarly, in the beginning motion pictures consisted of drawn pictures, twelve to thirteen drawings on a strip of paper and made to move in Victorian children’s toys. Early computers had limited frame stores too; the actual number of recorded frames being conditional upon the complexity of their content. When adequate data storage and ancillary problems have been overcome and a true full screen moving picture is generally available, will computer animation become the ‘Cinderella’ branch of the profession, as has its older brother, film?

1991 will go down in CATA history as the year in which they recognised the importance of ‘motion blur’. This essential factor was recorded by Edwin Lutz as long ago as 1920, although he called it ‘slighting’. Speed lines for fast motion also appeared in his book and, remember, Lutz was an artist not a film animator. The techniques he wrote about he had observed earlier in the studios of the day.

It seems the computer world is straining to invent the wheel all over again without reference to the ready-made item in their own backyard.

When they recognise that basic principles perfected by Disney in the forties are every bit as relevant in their profession, then progress into the electronic age will accelerate, It is no accident that John Lasseter’s work is so much better than his contemporaries. He had an early apprenticeship with the Disney organisation – and it shows!

At both Time, and Computer Graphics exhibitions the buzz word was VR -Virtual Reality. They are trying to synthesise in digital form ‘simulated reality’. If you want to witness it in action you may take your place in the queue at the Trocadera in London where, for £12 a session, you can don special headgear and a glove and step into and interact with an animated computerised environment.

Among the variety of subjects currently being explored we have seen humanoid robots walking, running, dancing and generally attempting to act in believable fashion. Unhappily, for the most part they fail in the attempt. Animated movements are robotic; the figures do not behave according to Newton’s laws; they lack weight, skimming across the surface of the floor as if on tip-toes while hanging from a string puppeteers control bar.

A few discerning people are aware that something important is missing from computer animated graphics. David Naltzer, Director of Computer Graphics and Animation Group, USA, observed, “We need to understand the emotional motivation regarding movement. Film animators have this knowledge in their heads, we need access to that information before we can refine our expertise with jaunty walks or angry walks, or simulated emotional responses.”

He admitted that close fidelity is still a few years off to cope with true realism. Strangely, he made no further reference to the technical expertise of the film animator coming to their rescue. Instead, he described the steps they were taking to overcome the slightly mechanical appearance of their figures. Timing pacemakers are being fitted to humans and animals to record rhythmic motions or wave gaits which can then be used to control their simulated robot figures. OK, so they will be able to button down an action but what of reciprocal action, the movement of mass on impact, acceleration, etc. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact the WEISS Organisation has observed that motor systems are governed by a six level hierarchy, and today’s computer animators are entering the field at level three – the Muscle Group.
Virtual Reality is but a step towards the true fidelity of live action. Which begs the question, “Why not film it live in the first place?” You do not usually animate reality. Even Disney’s ‘human’ characters lacked complete believability. VR’s proper place is in the realm of fantasy, imagination and prediction: in the world of entertainment; special FX; the depiction of a draughtsman’s drawings in simulated 3D reality before costly tooling and construction (in this it excels).

Conventional animators should take heart. Although there is now a new set of tools and techniques the basic rules of animation still apply. Your skills are necessary if computer generated characters are ever to be bestowed with the ‘acting ability’ to evoke laughter and tears and that other essential factor: contrived believability.

Some computer graphics organisations proudly boast they have on ex-film animator on their staff as part of a slowly growing awareness that the two fields of activity have something in common.

Francois Gamier, senior animator for the French company Video System introduced a two-and-a-half-minute short based on a Don Quixote episode, the tilting of the windmills. In an accompanying short we were told how it came to be made by four graphicists (computer graphic animators) and two traditional animators. Each graphicist was responsible for one character, with each traditional animator assisting two graphicists.

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