“When you do something brand new it takes a bit of research,” declared Goldberg. “You need to spend a lot of time on it and you are not going to produce footage as quickly as you would by hand. This has to be counterbalanced by introducing efficiencies, having other elements that can be turned out more easily so that overall the result remains the same.
Computers are used in two ways at Disney: for backgrounds or environments into which 2-D characters are placed, and for the generation of props, characters or effects.
Computer generated 3-D scenery was first introduced into Disney feature animation in The Great Mouse Detective in 1986. It gave a heightened sense of excitement to the climax of the film. The villain, a rat named Rattigan, pursues a mouse named Basil of Baker Street. The scene involved the inner workings of Big Ben and the computer allowed the camera to travel through the environment of moving clock gears.
The moving gears would have been very difficult to draw by hand, particularly in perspective with a moving camera. With computers it was no problem and the character and feel of a computer generated image was ideal for something like this. The image is hard and sterile and since the inside of a clock is hard and sterile, it worked well.
The computer images were drawn out on plots. These plots were then Xeroxed onto cels and the cels were painted in the traditional way to give them a look matching the characters.
Computer generated images were used subsequently in Oliver and Company in 1988 and The Little Mermaid in 1989. In Oliver and Company it was used for vehicles such as cars and a motor scooter. It was also used to generate some of the backgrounds. The Little Mermaid made use of computer generated props such as ships, which a computer can do very efficiently. They also generated some background fish and some gently swaying seaweed.
Disney used a computer for rendering for the first time in the 1990 film Rescuers Down Under. “It allowed the integration of computer elements placed within the scene. Integrating them with the background paintings was quite a job,” revealed Goldberg.
“As complex modelling and rendering became more manageable, computer prices came down, and we were producing work that was successful, so the directors’ confidence in the computer graphics group developed. The requests for computer graphics in features started growing and growing,” recalled Goldberg.
Disney’s thirtieth feature animation, Beauty and the Beast recently completed production. “There were dozens of our shots used in the film,” said Goldberg. “The computer graphics group did fully rendered backgrounds. We actually had characters registering tightly with the moving backgrounds in the majority of the scenes such as the ballroom sequence.”
“Our next film is called Aladdin,” announced Goldberg. “This is a very big film for the computer graphics section because it is the first time we are generating characters. We have a magic carpet that is computer generated. However, the carpet tassels and the carpet shadows were drawn by hand, which loosens up the animation a bit. We are animating the character on the computer in order to put a complex pattern on the carpet. It will appear in over a thousand feet of film, something that would drive an in-between artist crazy.”
The carpet animation falls into the efficiency category. One person producing the carpet will replace the character animator, the in-betweener, the inker and a painter. “You are also getting an increase in quality by generating a pattern on the carpet you could not get with traditional animation,” said Goldberg.
The carpet is hand animated first, but roughly, to get the keys. “The carpet interplays with a number of other characters and if someone is treading on the carpet, or riding on the carpet, it would be difficult for us to generate the carpet and have the animators place the characters on it,” explained Goldberg. “This is because the characters’ weight influences where the carpet is. At Disney the hand animators have far more experience with this than people like me who are working in computer animation. We can animate, but not to the level of the hand animators. So when there are scenes where the characters interact or a scene that plays upon the personality of the carpet the carpet is hand animated first.”
The animator will draw the keys and indicate on timing charts how the keys go from on to another. “We use those charts as we fit the in-betweens working on the machine,” said Goldberg. “In-betweens suggested by the computer do not work out. If you do splining in-betweens you get absolute curves. As anyone who works in computer animation knows, the computer doesn’t work out the timing. And when it comes to what we call character animation I don’t think there is a shortcut. It takes somebody who knows timing, and understands the principals of animation to make it work. I have never seen a program to this day that is going to give you good character animation unless you have a good animator running that machine.”
“Perhaps, one day, we are going to get very smart programes. The things happening with dynamics are absolutely wonderful but when comes to getting the genuine reactions of the fundamental character or object, that character still has to be moved about the scene in a convincing way. The only way you are going to get that is to have someone who understands the principles of hand animation.”
Printed in Animator Issue 29 (Spring 1992)