There is now a huge variety of paintbox systems on the market, varying from low-cost PC systems for business graphics and slides, up to expensive high- resolution systems for full-colour print publishing. Most have little real animation potential other than frame-by-frame use, except that some of them (like Quantel or Bosch) can be combined with 3-D systems, video effects machines, or other special FX units, (such as ‘Harry’) to allow paintings to be moved around and distorted in various ways. The best examples of this are found in the news and magazine programmes of the major TV networks, who have had the resources to tailor such systems to their specific purposes.
Colouring Systems aim to speed-up the painting of line-test animation. Line-test drawings are animated by hand in the usual way – these drawings are then “frame-grabbed” one-by-one with a camera or scanner, and coloured up directly on the screen. Essentially, it is a paint-box system specifically tailored for cartoon work. Some may require the outlines to be fully “inked”, others may accept a pencil sketch and include automatic facilities for “inking” them in various ways.
There are low-cost PC-based machines, which usually tend to be primitive and generally unsuitable for quality professional work. Better versions are coming onto the market now, including one that accepts as input a conventional line-test on 35mm film and some now also offer additional 2-D animation facilities.
Animation Factory Systems are basically colouring systems on a grand scale, for quantity production in a large studio, with added features for cataloguing, re-use of stock shots, addition of backgrounds, and so on.
The first successful example is probably the one at Hanna-Barbera. They have been trying to develop their own computer system for ten years or so. They have had animators’ strikes and costly failures, but now it seems they have succeeded and are satisfied. Their solution is a multi-million-dollar system including several powerful mainframes, a large central disc storage system, and a network of small work-benches dedicated to various tasks not dissimilar to the existing labour divisions recognised by animators’ unions. Essentially, it is a colouring system: animation drawings are prepared in the conventional way, with paper and pencil, then fed into the system one- by-one, and the machine is used to render and colour (i.e. trace’n’paint).
Everything is stored in the big disc archive, recording is scheduled, and filming is carried out automatically. Sequences are catalogued and can be recalled for further use. It took much time and effort to develop this system but at last it is reported to be the intended economical alternative.
Disney have also been developing a similar system and other companies like Filmation are following suit. These systems are complex, expensive and highly custom-designed to exploit some specific hardware to its maximum, and also to suit existing production methods and styles. This means they are not likely to be adaptable or even available to other studios, despite the apparent similarities in basic principles.
In summary, it is fair to say that use of computers for the colouring of hand-made line-tests is now established as a viable technique for cartoon production in quantity, but it has only just become so, and is likely to take several years before its use becomes widespread. However, colouring is not the only possibility the computer offers.
3-D Animation does not mean a stereoscopic film you view through special glasses – in principle, it is the computer equivalent of model animation – that is, the animation of actual objects and materials, as opposed to flat drawings. The computer graphics industry has devoted vastly more resources to this than to any other type of animation, and 3-D “animation” systems proliferate in abundance, ranging from low-cost PC’s to multi-megabuck super-computers. The reason is simply that most of these systems are designed for purposes of modelling and simulation in fields such as engineering, education, scientific research, and the like – very few are designed specifically for making animated movies.