They work by first creating a 3-D model of an object inside the machine. Various ways of doing this include building it up mathematically from geometric shapes like spheres, cubes and cones, or flat shapes like triangles or polygons, or drawing it as a set of matching plan and elevations, or by tracing with a special stylus over the surface of an actual model or mock-up. The 3-D shape is usually shown in “line-test” form initially (i.e. a transparent outline view, or “wire-frame”), and various choices may be available for rendering this to produce a finished “painted” view, varying from simple flat colouring, to super-realistic rendering with simulated lighting, shadows, reflections, transparency, textured surfaces, etcetera.
Once an object is created inside the machine, it can be moved around to any viewpoint and shown in full perspective. “Animation facilities” may mean just moving the objects about, or may include changing the shape of the objects themselves.
3-D computer animation is not usually an easy technique; top-quality results are often extremely time-consuming and expensive, even more so than conventional hand techniques. Nevertheless, during the eighties it has become the accepted method for much graphics animation, particularly TV programme titles and advertisements – flying metallic logos, dreaded green grids, and transparent rotating worlds are some of the fashions. Very little of this has been used for cartoon character animation.
From the viewpoint of most animators (including myself), the main snags with this technique are: the results almost always have the same machine- made look and feel, since the rendering is all machine-generated – it may look impressive, but usually with a lifeless quality that can soon become deadly boring, or even positively repulsive; most systems are extremely difficult to use, needing mathematical knowledge or computer programming skills to operate; good quality systems are expensive and slow. Even with systems costing well over £100,000 it can easily take a couple of months’ hard work by several people to produce 30 seconds of animation. Rendering times of half-an-hour per frame are not unusual. Current improvements in hardware will no doubt improve the cost/performance ratio, but are unlikely to do much about the first two problems.
Of the major cartoon animation studios, Disney has probably explored 3-D techniques the most, notably with the space-epic Tron including about 20 minutes of computer-generated special FX of flying spaceships and the like. The movie was not a major hit, but the lead was followed by other companies with movies like The Last Star-fighter and The Wrath of Khan. At least in the realm of big-budget fantasy features, the technique is established for producing model FX.
Disney has now made its first 3-D computer-animated character cartoon, a short called Oilspot and Lipstick, involving characters constructed of tin cans and other scrap m a junkyard – a curious film perhaps, but it definitely looks like a Disney cartoon.
The first notably-successful 3-D animation of a human character was Tony DePeltrie, a prize-winning short from the National Film Board of Canada, about a jazz pianist. It is undeniably impressive, a tour- de-force involving enormous effort of both manpower and machines, reportedly taking a couple of years for just a few minutes; much more expensive than any conventional technique. It certainly stands up as a film in its own right, although it still somehow is not totally satisfying – I could not help wondering if a conventional film might have been more effective for a fraction of the cost.
There are no such reservations with the unique work of ex-Disney animator John Lasseter at Pixar, whose 1986 Luxo Junior and 1987 Red’s Dream have been scooping film awards. They are delightful gems, by anybody’s standards. Both are animation of inanimate objects, table-lamps in the first, a uni-cycle in the second, brought to life with perfection. Nevertheless, these short movies also involved enormous effort.
In conclusion, 3-D computer animation is a long way from being a practical everyday tool for character animation, though it is not impossible in theory. What has been shown, though, proves one thing: it takes a talented animator to get good animation out of the machine, and to date this has rarely happened. 3-D animation is a very cumbersome technique, and it usually aims for photographic realism, so is not generally relevant for those wishing to animate freely with their own particular style of drawing or painting.
For cartoon film-makers, frame-by frame colouring is probably the only economic computer technique established as economic in use on large-scale production work. However, it seems this is not enough; increasingly the pressure is on to get the computer to do more.
Antics is one of the few available animation systems that does offer a lot more, including some real cartoon animation capabilities, (and as far as I know may perhaps even be the only one), so not surprisingly much of this demand has landed on our doorstep – and it has increased enormously in the last year or so.
Up to now we have not been able to meet this demand for two main reasons: the price was not right – at £90,000 or more for a complete Antics animation bench, it was too expensive, and not fast enough for our liking. Furthermore, we had no proper demonstration centre where people could actually try out the machine, and no resources to provide teaching and other support services: all rather essential from a customers’ point of view.
Many people have heard about Antics, but few know much about it and even fewer have ever actually seen it. Now, at long last, demonstration centres are being set up; a team of teaching and support people is being built up; a complete turn-key Antics machine can now be supplied for under £50,000, with very much faster performance than any earlier version. This puts it within the budget of even a quite small studio and means Antics is no longer some vague theoretical future possibility, but is becoming a practical solution.
Outside the UK, Antics has been well-established for several years, with some sixteen studios operating in six countries, all using older, slower and more expensive machines. However, the vast majority of this work is graphic animation, rather than cartoon: TV titles, commercials, educational, etcetera. So far, comparatively little cartoon character work has been produced and most this has been done in Japan. Studios like Nippon Animation use it in both TV cartoon series and cinema features as a supplement to their conventional production techniques. Other studios in Brussels, Dusseldorf, New York, Birmingham and ourselves in London have made short cartoons and pilot studies.
As yet, no-one has attempted a major cartoon project, like a feature-film or TV series with Antics. It is still early days, but with the arrival of fast and economical new machines, and the availability of teaching and demonstration facilities, the time is becoming ripe: several major projects are beginning to get under way.
Alan Kitching is the creator of the Antics computer animation system. He will be describing it in detail in the next issue.
Printed in Animator Issue 23 (Summer 1988)