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All This and 230M MIP-Mapped Textels/Sec, Too

I get fliers...I get phamplets...I get emails about all the amazing technology available to today's animators. And while I can't use any of it, we can all appreciate how new technology is making bringing `toons to life more easy.

(Author's note: Mention of the products listed below does not imply endorsement, especially since the author does not remotely understand how any of them actually work.)

One of the joys of publishing articles and columns on animation is that I somehow get placed on mailing lists that could lead me to an exciting new career. Of late I have received several sales pitches and special offers from animation technology companies. These promotions mistakenly presume that I work in the industry (seemingly as an animator), and that I will soon be sending checks their way for the latest and greatest personal animation studio(s) ever digitized onto software. They also presume that I have peripherals for my computer that could only be installed through the use of several paychecks and the sale of my car. This is way cool, but here are the facts: Given a stencil of Mickey Mouse, and with Fred Moore's spirit hand guiding mine, I would still produce a drawing that more resembled Popeye. If I actually attempted to install and use the software in the brochures, the result would make the Y2K prophecy look like a gypsy palm-reading and much of the Midwest would be plunged into cyberchaos. In short, it would have been a better idea to mail this literature to my Yorkshire Terrier, except I'm certain that he would humiliate me by installing the software correctly.

All images courtesy of Art Today. © 1996 Arca Max, Inc.

All images courtesy of Art Today. © 1996 Arca Max, Inc.

Internal Innovation

Still...how can I not be impressed by how far technology has extended the animator's reach? Back in the age before silicon, advances in animation technology were largely the result of in-house labor. In 1911 Winsor McKay thought that his Little Nemo film would be more impressive in color, so he painstakingly hand-tinted every frame. Not long afterwards, John R. Bray patented most of the inventions that would move his studio into the modern age of animation production. Animator Raoul Barré came up with the peg registration system, and another animator, George Stallings, developed the rotating glass disk for animation tables. When Max Fleischer wanted more realistic animation, he developed the machinery for the rotoscope. Again, when Max wanted to create 3D backgrounds he built and perfected his famous rotating tabletop system and achieved his goal using nary a consultant. The multiplane camera, a more sophisticated method of replicating 3D, was developed in-house by Disney's technical wizards. Ub Iwerks decided that he could use a multiplane too, and reportedly improvised one out of spare automobile parts. Disney did use an important outside source when he struck a deal with Nathalie Kalmus for the use of Technicolor, but during the making of Fantasia new special effects were developed by Disney's own artists using airbrush, transparent paint, stipple paint and other novel tricks. For that matter, the Fantasound system that Walt Disney intended for use with the film was developed within the studio under the direction of Bill Garity. This forerunner of true stereo sound was just one of many noteworthy innovations that tumbled out of animation studios over the years. Some ideas were simple, others awesomely complex, but all were invariably produced through the ingenuity of a given studio's own animators, artists and technicians.

Turnin' the Tables Today the art of animation is the beneficiary of the computer industry. A well-written program and/or workstation can now makeany individual animator the equal -- or better -- of a traditional Hollywood cartoon studio. When I say any animator, I mean just that:last month my mail included an invitation to purchase the AXA Team 2D Pro, described in the exciting literature as "Your PersonalAnimation Studio." For only $2,995 (which I keep readily on hand for just such offers) I could own the same technology that produces the cartoons and commercials that I see on TV. Classesare not a prerequisite; the software itself does the educating and there is a direct tech support hotline. If you believe I was mistaken in saying that this software can make one the equal ofa studio, the folks at AXA assure me that: "...one animator can scan, paint, and output a 30 second spot, complete with multiplane camera moves, in a single day." I forgo the details here; they are awesome indeed, but no less jaw-dropping than the fact that AXA Team 2D Pro is only one of many available products that can turn a desktop into a one-man (or woman) production company.

Witness, for example, the Dell Precision 610 Video Workstation: Suppose you are Bob Clampett, an experienced animator tired of the studio game andready to make a pilot cartoon based on your popular puppet showTime For Beany. Money is tight, so are TV production deadlines, and you face the problems of renting a studio, finding personnel, paying them, and delivering the `toons on time. Now suppose you could get your hands on the following (quoted from Bijan Tehrani'sarticle in Animation Magazine, November 1999): "Dual 550MHz Pentium III Xeon processors with a 100MHz system bus, 512MB of 100Mhz SDRAM (upgradable to 2GB), and dual 18GB Ultra2/Wide (10,000RPM) SCSI drives. Add to that a Diamond Viper 770D 32MB graphics card paired to a Dell 17" LCD flat panel display and a Pinnacle Systems DC 1000 video capture card..." This system can alsobe used in conjunction with other billion-kilowatt treats like Sonic Foundry's ACID music program, which can produce, mix and edit soundtracks.Mr Clampett, the keyboard is yours.

For the right price, in fact, one could outperform all of Termite Terrace. Just check out a few of the many products on display at last year's SIGGRAPH: LIGHTS! Discreet's Lightscape 3.2 creates rendering effects by mimicking the actual physics of light rays. CAMERA! Minolta teamed up with MetaCreations Corp. to produce the Minolta 3D 1500, a digital camera that can create photorealistic images in 3D for Internet use. ACTION! Ascension Corporation's MotionStar ® system includes wireless technology for advanced motion-capture animation. SOUND! Can't get top-level voice actors? Vocal Editor by V-Star lets you whip up voices for your characters with a few strokes of the keyboard; auto lip-sync is available for realistic registration. These innovations (and others much like them) have one thing in common that goes even beyond their supercharged capabilities -- by next year's SIGGRAPH there is a decent chance that all of them will be revised, upgraded...or obsolete. How far has the computer advanced animation? Here's a telling point: In Israel we can find Dream Team Ltd., a software company specializing in programs designed for the entertainment industry. This company has its own in-house production studio that puts the software through its paces. Thus we come full circle; where it used to be the animation studio that developed the technology, the motion-captured tail now wags the 3D digital dog. Although traditional types of animation such as paint-and-cel do not figure to become obsolete, even this process is aided and enhanced by software. Stop-motion animation, as noted in last month's column, could have been dealt a knockout blow altogether were it not for committed artisans like Nick Park and the fact that stop-motion is very useful as a digital referencing tool for CGI. Still, all things change and we are changing with them. The next generation of hard- and soft- ware (probably out tomorrow and available next week) promises even greater wonders. It may not be a stretch to predict that we will be flying along with the whales in Fantasia 2020 by means of wide-screen holography. Still Just A Tool Only the most intransigent Luddite could reject the changes that production technology has brought to animation; it is now a science as well as an art, and we have the sages of SIGGRAPHs present and future to thank for it. However, there are areas in which production technology will never touch animation. The basic creative ideas will forever spring from human minds, and technology can only follow suit. Storyboarders may use the computer for increased clarity, organization, and feedback, but the ideas in each panel are unique works of human imagination. Databases may be able to compile billion-gigabyte files containing every gag known to toondom, but it is still the director's deft touch that will choose the right ones and time them to the rhythm of his work. Software can digitally represent anything an artist can draw, but that artist must have the vision first. A computer system may well be able to generate an episode of, say, The Angry Beavers from pre-to-post production, but it takes a Mitch Schaur to dream up said beavers before that can happen. The old dictum of computer programming remains unchanged since the days of 256K, DOS and floppy floppy disks: GIGO, or "garbage in, garbage out."

In this spirit, I wish to give a little time to a viewpoint I offered while writing for Animation Nerd's Paradise several years ago, a plea to future animators to study the past while learning the latest in digital tricks. To wit: "...without a solid, detailed knowledge ofthe history of animation, future animators are doomed to be shortchanged however financially successful their studios and works are deemed to be. The study of animation's history and of the successes and travails of those who worked in the medium can only lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the craft. It is vital to be able to trace the evolution of animation from its roots as a graphic form, initially gagged by routines taken from vaudeville and refined over the decades into complex patterns of timing, plot, and character until cartoons became what they are today." That being said, let's fire up those Sony PFM-500 A2W2 Flat PanelDisplays, rev up those Digimation RETAS Pros, and max those Maxon CINEMA 4Ds! The future is now, and there are `toons to be made! Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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