Bridging the great divide – Page 3

Frames from the Harriet show reel.

John Halas combined computer animated effects with cartoon animation in Autobahn (1979), a little classic of its kind. A fantasy, featuring a green space boy wearing dark goggles, with the ability to fly through surreal space, the film is pure inventive imagery. As a mixture of old and new techniques it is completely successful. As Eric Morecombe was wont to say: “You can’t see the join!”. There is no structured story to follow, each set of images and sequences come as a complete surprise. This constant invention is sufficient to whet the appetite and sustain interest. The musical soundtrack was by Kraftwork with Roger Mainwood responsible for the animation, design and assistant direction.

Despite their earlier declaration, Disney combined computer generated graphics with conventional drawn-animation in The Great Mouse Detective (1986) for a wild chase sequence within the works of a clock. The film inspired additional experimentation which led to the work in Oliver & Company (1989). Unlike Mouse Detective, where the animator had to work through a computer graphics engineer to realize his drawing, Oliver’s two computer animators were able to interface directly with the computer. In Oliver computer graphics were used for a chase sequence on a trike, with action in a subway and on Brooklyn bridge, and again in a song sequence for a carefully orchestrated descent down a spiral staircase. The Little Mermaid (1990) featured computer graphics in many underwater sequences, creating numerous fish and bubbles.

In 1989 Universal Studios invited deGraf/Wahrman to create computer generated establishing shots and backgrounds with a ‘cartoon look’ in true perspective at rest and in motion. They were wanted for Hanna-Barbera’s Jetsons: The Movie. Using Symbolics’ paint and animation system they supplied a 45-second establishing shot panning through the Jetsons’ hometown of Orbit City as if the viewers were flying in a ‘jetcar’. A total of ten minutes of complex computer generated animation went into the production.

Disney trained animator, John Lasseter, has earned well deserved praise and recognition for his computer generated entertainment shorts: Andre and Wally Bee (1985); Luxo jr (1986), involving parent and baby angle-poise lamps; Red’s Dream (1987), depicting the fantasies of a unicycle; Tin Toy (1988), featuring a memorable one-man-band, but thought by many to be marred by a monstrous ‘human’ baby with a questionable skin texture and a variety of strange, unbabylike facial expressions; and my particular favourite, Knickknack (1989), involving the efforts of a snowman trying to escape from one of those semispherical glass domes which, when shaken, produces a snowstorm effect in its watery contents. Working at Pixar, he seems set to show the world that all things are possible.

Today there are ready-to-run systems at various price levels. Quantel’s Harry Suite is described as the heart of their Digital Production Centre, providing digital video recording, editing, processing and composing in one machine. To accomplish these tasks it uses Paintbox for graphics, Audio for stored sound, VTRIDVTR Interfaces with analogue and digital ports, Encore/Mirage for ultra high quality perspective effects and a new ‘corner pinning’ facility. Harry may be bought for a little under £400,000. A basic system costs £250,000.
Harriet was introduced to complement Harry’s achievements. By integrating the memory storage with Paintbox, Quantel has made available a powerful 323 frame animation effects package which can cost between £120,000 and £125,000. Expensive – yes! But trade houses offer to sell time on their systems.

Engineering Computer Services Ltd exhibited their Alias range of industrial design and animation solutions at the Computer Graphics ‘90 show at Alexander Palace. Alias Power Animator was projected as “the first easy to use, truly interactive and integrated 3D modelling and animation system based on geometry known as non¬uniform rational b-splines (NURBS).” A new interface permits access to a collection of built in effects including water, wood, marble, clouds and fog. Of principle interest to graphic designers, it retails at £40,000.
Symbolics 2D Paint and Animation System (PaintAmation) and 2D/3D animation systems run on Symbolics proprietary hardware and on an Apple Macintosh II based system at prices ranging from £28,000 to £38,500.

Even though systems designed for use by film animators are available, you do not have to be a mathematical or engineering genius to become acquainted with computer techniques — although it makes it easier — neither can you afford to ignore them. Computerised video graphics have already strongly challenged practitioners of diagrammatic film animation. The solution must be adaptation and integration.

Meanwhile the old battle of traditionalists versus computer designer/engineer continues. Instead of wearing blinkers we should be studying the market. Joining classes to learn how the new techniques might help. Even though you may not see the relevance now, be assured the knowledge will stand you in good stead on the morrow because, without a shadow of doubt, it is on course to touch your lives. It is too late to ignore, but the right time to make yourself heard on the question of future design and development.

Walt Disney wrote an article published in the ISMPE Journal in January 1941. It contained a paragraph which summed up the underlying reasons for his studio’s success. It was also a sensible guide-line for others to follow both then and now. He said: “Our business has grown with and by technical achievements. Should this technical progress ever come to a full stop, prepare the funeral oration for our medium. That is how dependant we artists have become on the new tools and refinements which the technicians give us. Sound, Technicolor, the multiplane camera, Fantasound, these and a host of other less spectacular contributions have been added to the artist’s tools, and have made possible the pictures which are the milestones in our progress.

That should be our attitude too, when acknowledging the latest tool – computerised video graphics.

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Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)