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CGI: A Rich Country's Toy

Computer animation is prevalent in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France and Japan, but what about the rest of the globe? Olivier Cotte investigates...

We often hear about computer generated imagery (CGI) from the U.S., U.K., Canada, France and Japan. Advertising, special effects for feature films, musical clips and TV jingles give us proof of this reality and festivals exhibit the best of the best new creations. However, outside of these five countries, we don't know, or have little idea, what is being produced. Why do we know so little about computer generated imagery from the largest part of the planet? There are several possible answers: 1. Computer generated imagery really doesn't exist in some countries. 2. There is an industry of computer animation but these can just be broadcast in there own country of origin (for cultural, legislative or quality reasons). I have in previous articles insisted that computer animation is very expensive. This represents the major problem for the creation of an industry. It's obvious that CGI is a rich country's toy. If you want to do a quick survey, just consider how many average individuals own a personal computer around the world. It's important in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and some Asiatic countries, but just try to estimate what proportion of the population in Gabon owns a personal computer. We also have to understand that working with sophisticated software requires specific training that can be learned at school or in studios. But if there are no schools or not too many studios, the face of the industry is difficult to change or even create. The last problem, can be faced everywhere regardless of a nation's economic status. When no one wants to make something different or unusual, visual evolution ceases. However, if interesting films are produced or inventive companies try something new, the others in the industry have to follow and change is inevitable. In a country where few films are produced, the images will generally look more old-fashion to viewers from a more media saturated country.

Now, let's ride across the globe's surface to see what is there...

Western Europe

Europe houses hubs of activity in countries like France and the U.K, but other European countries are also engaged in interesting productions. While most of Germany's advertising is made in the U.K. or France, Germany still has several studios that specialize in computer animation. However, the most important point about Germany is the universities. They are gems. For instance, the University of Karlsruhe is one of the most important and one of the first to be interested in teaching CGI. In 1986 they produced Clip8 by W. Leister, which was synthesized by Vera-Raytracing. The school focuses on giving a future-oriented education. The ZKM, Institute for Visual Media, is linked with the University of Karlsruhe. Ninety-two people from all over the world create CGI in a multimedia laboratory, where a spirit of cooperation between artists and programming experts exist. The German culture has generated interesting creators, such as Monika Fleischmann and Stösser Achim. Monika Fleischmann was awarded at Ars Electronica in 1992 for Home of the Brain. She believes that, "If we don't support digital art and media culture the quality of life will be lost through the dominance of the machines." She works with Wolfgang Strauss, (media Architect), Christian Bohn and Dirk Luesebrink (computer scientists). CGI is important in Belgium because the country has a long tradition of comics and animated films. Early on they began to produce CGI films like, Fourmis by Luc Petitot in 1988. Several schools even have specific CGI training courses and for a little country is certainly contains many studios. Some of the more prominent ones are: Little Big One which is well known for it's rides like Devil's Mine; Imagique who have a Silicon Graphics station and several Macintoshs; NewWave International; Movida; and Bertvan Brande Compagni BVBA. These companies produce a large range of images and film sequences as well.

Things are different in Scandinavia however. Due to a small population, the countries have a small market. Therefore, while the countries have high economic standings, and plenty of schools and engineers there are few studios with equipment. Finland has just 5 million people and a lot of their advertising on television comes from the U.K. Their film industry basically does not use special effects or musical clips. Production is largely made solely for television. In Norway and Sweden the situation is basically the same but the market is bigger. The quality of their advertising is well-known, but generally shot in live action. Even if many classical animation studios exist, CGI is not used.

The Netherlands has a strong industry and several interesting creators like Irit Rosen, Robin Noorda, Peter Lemmen, creator of Electrogig's Adam & Eve (1990), and Kees Van Prooijen, creator of Electrogig's Crossfire (1989). Of course, Susan Amkraut, creator of 1989's classic computer animation Eurhythmy with Michael Girard, is also Dutch. They now work on more virtual reality projects with a system named 'Menagerie.' The Dutch have several elements working for them. They have a number of excellent fine art schools and we cannot forget that there are a number of television channels in the country as well. This brings a market to the people and important advertising activity. Plus, let's finish with a specific culture that always pushes them toward finding something new and better. Switzerland is a small country with three languages but no economic problems! Schools have an important part to play, especially the School of Art in Lausanne (École Cantonale d'Art de Lausanne), and the Genève University where Nadia and Daniel Thalmann both work. Daniel Thalmann began in 1977 in Montreal where he directed a CGI and animation department. Now he has directed several films and he's the creator of the famous Marilyn Monroe in 3D. Nadia Thalmann directed Dream Flight and Flashback. She was nominated Woman of the Year in 1987 by the Montreal community. With more than 900 television channels in Italy we would imagine that we would find a lot of computer animation studios and in fact, that is the case. Unfortunately, the productions have low budgets and as a result it is difficult to create important studios. Very often, post-production companies will have a CGI department rather than real, big time CGI studio.

A country in Europe that has changed very quickly in the last ten years is Spain, but the situation is quite the same as in Italy. There are a number of small companies like Animatica, VideoCamino, Telson S.A., Producciones Triplefactor and ONIS. Something that may change the face of the Spanish industry is the creation of a unique university. Silicon Graphics has created, with the University of Balearic Island, a training studio named StudioBIT. Classes include 2D and 3D modeling and animation, digital editing, compositing and virtual set production techniques for the real-time market. Eastern Europe CGI became interesting, both technically and artistically in the world, exactly at the same time as all the countries of Eastern Europe turned into an economic nightmare. Industrialization is still weak and of course, the production of CGI is not the first preference of the presidents of these countries. Despite this, we can make note of a new generation of studios that have arrived. For instance, in Minsk, Belarus, a television company named Validia, was created in 1994. They perform work for other countries in their own well-stocked animation studio. In February 1996, they created their first film, Home Sweet Home, that was widely awarded. Now they produce 10-15 minutes of material per mouth. They are, at this time, finishing an animated film, Sharman (5 min.) and an animated serial for a German television company. We can always find individual pioneers in Eastern Europe. For instance, we have to know the work of Hungarian Tamas Waliczky. Born in 1959, this painter, traditional and computer animator and member of the ZKM Institute for Visual Media has had his works selected at Ars Electronica, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and SIGGRAPH. For a time, he even used to work with an Atari!!!

Africa

When discussing Africa, we have to separate the northern part from the rest of the continent. The North has an Arabic civilization and language. Several studios exist in conjunction with small television stations as CGI is predominately used for this medium. A large part of the television that is broadcast to the North African countries comes from Egypt where the television industry is very important. Below the Sahara there really isn't a CGI industry of which to speak. Due to the small specific market and weak economic powers CGI is not used in this part of the continent. Producers do not have enough money to use this technique and many advertisements are live-action. Feature films are rare and also use only live action. South Africa is the exception to this rule. A lot of international productions come to shoot in this country, as a result a range of post-production and CGI facilities have been present for years.

South America

For the same reasons, the economical situation in South America does not allow an important CGI industry to thrive. In advertising and on television, post-production effects replace computer generated images. Brazil is their one exception. We all remember TV Globo. In fact, the multimedia division of this television channel, ruled by José Dias, is the biggest in Brazil. Ten years ago, we waited with interest to see the imagination and the beauty of their productions. Now, this department continues to give us a fresh look of what good quality pictures can be. Some other companies also do great work. For instance, Mario Barreto's Intervallo produced an advertisement for Mastercard which became a Finalist in the Computer Animation category at the London Festival `96. They also produced a television series that included CGI. In their studio they have 18 micros and 3 Silicon Graphics machines. Also deserving a mention is Argentina's Profilms, run by Pablo & Florencia Faivre. Middle-East In Israel there is important production. Television is popular and advertising is a huge industry. They have the economic power, a market and trained people when they need them. All conditions are go! The Israel Institute of Technology is a university that produces interesting work as well. Unfortunately, the rest of the Middle-East is not as active. Thank goodness, Egypt continues to give programs away via satellite.

Asia

India is the largest film producer in the world. In fact, India has a very big film industry, but specialized in live-action. Even classical animation is rare. CGI is, one more time, replaced by post-production effects. Their post-production equipment is modern because of the U.S. having economical interests in it. I remember I saw The Mahabharata on television and it contained a lot of electronic thunder lights, live characters on blue screens and other phenomenal effects. Furthermore, this was when I visited the country in 1989!!! But things change. Several companies are interested in building studios in India. For instance, Gribouille, a French company has a studio in Madras where a television series Excalibur, which is based upon the drawings of Philippe Druillet, is produced.

From the sub-continent, we visit Asia proper. It's necessary to know that in these countries, the situation changes very quickly. For instance, let's look at Vietnam. After the war and a hard political situation, this country has just reached freedom. Now, new industries can be developed. Today, two studios are already being created, sometimes through an international collaboration. For instance, Sparx, a French company has a studio in Saigon for television series production. Sometimes French animators will go to Vietnam and teach the people how to use software. The other company is Sang Tao Corporation who work with PC computers. Hong-Kong and China have a CGI industry. China has several studios with 10 to 15 individual SGI stations each. This is possible because CGI companies are financed by large Chinese companies. For these big companies, a CGI studio represents a tiny percentage of their overall activity. Of course, a lot of Occidental groups have begun to be trading partners. In Hong-Kong, the most famous company is AeroGraphix. Europeans and North Americans wonder why they know so little about Asian production, but in several countries, like Indonesia, a law requires production companies to make advertisements solely in their own country. Thailand has excellent studios and schools like Kingmongkut Institute of Technology, however, they only work for national distribution and for other countries such as China. This kind of product will never reach the Occidental community. The rest of Asia is sprinkled with activity, the heaviest being in Korea where there are a number of companies. The most famous is Seoul-based Bisontek, due to their work with France's ExMachina for The World of the Material directed by Jerzy Kular. The National University of Singapore produces exciting works, like those of Dr. Tat-Seng Chua. In Bangkok, a company named Iloura, a subsidiary of an Australian studio, produces mostly advertising. They use SGI stations and Explore software. Usually, they finish their film with post-production stations like the Harry from Quantel.

Australia and New Zealand Australia and New Zealand are two countries that are becoming more and more interesting and powerful. As part of the Pacific culture (understand U.S. + Japan + Korea + South East Asia), they are destined to have a huge importance in the years to come. Australia already has many studios and several very good schools for studying animation. The School of Design at Curtin University of Technology (Perth, Western Australia) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (Media Arts, Department of Visual Communication) where M. A. Gigante works are just two. New Zealand is particularly involved in film production. The landscapes are so beautiful and various that many American production companies shoot there and, like South Africa, utilize the post-production facilities. Furthermore, The University of Otago, with Dr. Geoff Wyvill, is a very attractive place, especially for research. Finally...

There is an important difference between Japan and the Occidental countries and the rest of the world - not a cultural difference, but an economic one. CGI is less vital than other industries like producing electricity for the population. CGI is a toy not necessary for a large part of the world. For instance, there is nothing in Cambodia or Laos. North Americans and Western Europeans are beginning to create studios all around the world for economic reasons, i.e. cheaper animators. As a result, it will bring knowledge to developing countries that they can then use as a tool. The next years will be interesting to follow. Olivier Cotte is a Paris-based director and computer animation artist, whose credits include Terra Igconita.

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