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Book Review: 'Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation'

Tom Sito’s new book is the definitive take on computer animation history and CG’s rapid rise to creative content technological hegemony.

Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, by Tom Sito.  Illustrated.

Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, April 2013, hardcover $29.95 (ix + 362 pages).

Speaking as a fan of animation who has seen computer generated films grow from brief oddities at film festivals during 1985-’86 like “Tony de Peltrie”, “The Adventures of André and Wally B.”, “Chromosaurus”, and “Quest: A Long Ray’s Journey into Light”, into the theatrical features today from Pixar, Blue Sky Studios, Illumination Entertainment, Prana Studios, and a flood of others, this book has been vitally needed for the past decade.  Up to now, the only documentation of this trend has been the glossy art books on these studios’ individual CG films.  A comprehensive history of computer animation is long overdue.

Tom Sito has been a professional animator since 1975.  He has seen CG, also referred to as CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), rise from the shadows of academia to become so prominent that a major animation studio like Walt Disney Productions has announced that it was ending production of traditional animation and all its features would henceforth be done in CGI (a promise that it soon backtracked on).  He has also written previous histories of the animation industry.  As such, he is excellently placed to write this book.

Sito approaches the history of computer graphics from seven directions:  1. Academia; 2. Industrial and defense research; 3. Special effects for live-action movies; 4. Games; 5. Avant-garde and experimental filmmakers; 6. Corporate research; and 7. Commercial animation.  If illustrations mean anything, almost all of the illustrations in this book are 1970s to 1990s photographs of men sitting at the computers on which they made some breakthrough or other, and the finished result.

“For the first thirty years of CG development, you needed at least a PhD in mathematics or engineering to know what you were doing.  For most of the twentieth century, Hollywood workers were rarely required to possess more than a rudimentary public school education.” (p. 8)  Sito dates the key advances in computer development, from transmitting more information faster to the beginning of electronic entertainment, to 1963 when Ivan Sutherland, a MIT graduate student, created the first true computer animation program.

The progress of computer graphics can be seen in the chapter titles.  “1. Film and Television at the Dawn of the Digital Revolution”  “2. Analog Dreams: Bohemians, Beatniks, and the Whitneys”  “3. Spook Work: The Government and the Military”  “4. Academia”  “7. Nolan Bushnell and the Games People Play”  “9. Motion Picture Special Effects and Tron”  “12. The Cartoon Animation Industry”  “14. The Conquest of Hollywood”.  Animators may be interested more in how computer graphics have affected the animation film and the live-action film special effects industries, but Sito shows that those cannot be featured without a solid history of how CG came to exist.

Due to telling the history of computer graphics from seven directions, there is a lot of back-and-forth.  For example, Sito tells how CG pioneer John Lasseter, as a young animator, was fired by Walt Disney Productions in 1983; then tells the history of the traditional animation industry; then tells how Lasseter joined the Lucasfilm Graphics Group, which became the independent Pixar Animation Studios, and how he was instrumental in persuading Pixar to go from producing TV commercials and VFX for live-action movies to the entertainment shorts and features that were soon topping the box-office records and winning Oscars.

Moving Innovation has its sections of dry facts, but Sito peppers the text with as many human-interest stories as possible.  “Even the opening titles for A Computer Animated Hand [1972] were groundbreaking.  The original titlecard was hand-written, but shortly after, Robert Ingebretsen designed titles of the names of Ed Catmull and Fred Parke.  They appear as 3D block letters and then rotate 180 degrees to read ‘University of Utah.’  This may be the first ever example of ‘flying logos,’ the animating technique that would become the bill-paying trick of CG studios for the next twenty years.” (p. 64)  “[Robert] Taylor had convinced Xerox that instead of being near the company headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, the new lab should be located out west in Palo Alto, California.  […]  What this also did was give the lab independence from the stuffy office environment of older corporate America.  In that time, at IBM you would be reprimanded for wearing anything other than a pressed white shirt and dark tie.  The dresscode at [Xerox] PARC was long hair, tie-dye tank tops, love beads, torn jeans, and sandals.” (p. 82)  “While all this [computer effects in production of 2001: A Space Odyssey] was going on, Arthur C. Clarke stood watching.  After the script is done, screenwriters have little to do on a movie set other than wait for rewrites.  To pass the time, Clarke made small talk with the craft-service boy.  Clarke told him that someday all the power of this sophisticated computer technology he saw would fit onto a tiny chip the size of a fingernail.  The boy couldn’t fathom what Clarke was talking about.  2001: A Space Odyssey went on to become one of the most iconic films in history and inspired a generation of science fiction writers and filmmakers.” (p. 148)  “Digital cinema projection spread around the country, and at old Hollywood film vaults like CFI and Technicolor, alleyway trash dumpsters bulged with unwanted 35 mm and 16 mm film cans, fulfilling Francis Ford Coppola’s prediction.  Studios announced a phasing out of all 35mm celluloid by the end of 2013.  By 2010 an Oxberry downshooter animation camera stand, which used to retail for $40,000-80,000, could be yours for nothing if you came with a truck that could haul it away.” (p. 266)

The book is current to Disney’s Paperman in 2012.  For the academically inclined, there is an 11-page Dramatis Personae of the important names in computer graphics history, a 3-page Glossary of CG technical terminology, a separate 4-page list of CG acronyms and abbreviations, 28 pages of Notes, an 8-page Bibliography, and an Index.  Moving Innovation is the book for anyone who wants to know where Computer Graphics came from, and how they shot to ascendancy in the animation industry.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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