Dr. Toon: Silent Revolution
Describing the changes in 3D CGI animation on the small screen is worthy of a book in itself, and there are in fact several good ones available. While the transition from traditional TV animation to digital was subtle, the initial appearance of CGI animation on the small screen was revolutionary. The first acknowledged show using CGI, Insektors, made its debut in 1993-94. Its impact was minimal due to primitive animation, unappealing character designs, and a generally uninteresting storyline. ReBoot, which hit the screen in 1994-95, established CGI as the coming medium of small-screen animation.
ReBoot featured human characters, a storyline tied to computers, and scripts that veered into heady adult themes. The animation was also more refined than that of Insektors; Vancouver’s Mainframe/Alliance Studio had a dedicated CGI team working with (then) cutting edge Silicon Graphics hardware in conjunction with the Softimage animation program. Creators Ian Pearson, John Grace, Gavin Blair and Phil Mitchell were already proficient, having worked on some of the nascent CGI videos shown on MTV.
From these beginnings – a mere twelve years ago – CGI animation proliferated on television. From the mightiest superhero adventures to the most unassuming preschool productions, CGI has assumed a major role in TV animation. Although
In 1997, maverick animation producer John Kricfalusi discovered that a program called Flash, developed by Macromedia, could produce passable animation. Flash-based cartoons were, of course, also uploadable to the Internet. Creators watched Kricfausi’s groundbreaking series The Goddamn George Liquor Program and realized that, with a few bucks, some skill, and a bit of creativity, they could bypass the network suits. Contracts, censorship, and corporate ownership of characters could be eliminated. Kricfalusi’s series was more than just the last laugh on Viacom, which had parted him from his popular creations Ren and Stimpy; it was the first shot in what turned out to be a full-scale revolution. Flash animation made the jump over to television when Showtime broadcast the Web series Whirlgirl on its premium cable channel. A simultaneous webcast was aired, and two worlds came together in the name of progress.
By the early 1990s the Internet was filled with sites such as Icebox, AtomFilms, Camp Chaos, and Newgrounds, among others. Shows such as Mike Reiss’ Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln entertained audiences along with Queer Duck (also by Reiss), the cheerfully gory Happy Tree Friends (Rhode Montijo, Kenn Navarro, and Aubrey Ankrum), and Rob LaZebnik’s Starship Regulars. Anyone with sufficient time and money could now take a shot at creating and directing the next Bugs, Homer, Woody, or Popeye. Even though many of the Web Cartoon sites sank along with the legendary dot.com bust that marked the new millennium, the cartoons did not. More powerful and versatile versions of Flash made creating them even easier.
The five short years from 1994 to 1999 comprised a revolution that was unprecedented in animation history. Not only did the technology of the entire medium change, that same technology made everyone who wished to give it a try a potential creative force. Even the failures and missteps could be considered the price of adaptation and growing pains.
And so back to ReBoot, which itself rebooted in its third season (1997). By this time the look of the show had changed drastically, mostly due to updates in software technology. The original Softimage 3D program had been augmented by GRIN, a proprietary program that allowed improved synchronization between facial expression and dialogue. Mainframe Studio also booted up a rendering program, Mental Ray, to support the existing technology. Mental Ray had the ability to produce distortion-free texture maps, and soon ReBoot was in the forefront of CGI animation for the small screen.
ReBoot never made it to a fifth season. In 2007, the property’s new owner, Rainmaker Animation, proposed a trilogy of feature-length film based on the series but these plans never came to fruition. Although the show’s many fans remain deeply disappointed, there is solace to be had: ReBoot will always be the defining symbol of a silent, ongoing revolution. While it is true that CGI feature films, beginning with Toy Story (1995) were highly visible and widely regarded, the changes in television animation took place mostly behind the scenes. They were encoded into startling new software programs that not only entertained millions, but gave those same millions a chance to entertain each other.
As with most of entertainment technology, there is no predicting where the improvements and advances will end, and it is likely that only those working in the medium will fully appreciate and understand them. The only certainty is that ninety years will not pass before animation radically changes again. Whatever animation fans are watching on television today, the next generation will surely be looking at something entirely different. And wonderful.
--Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.