World Magazine, Issue 2.5, August 1997
by Bill Hilf
Good storytelling is magic. And good magic, often, is good storytelling. Since the start, storytelling in film has been a craft of illusion. Today, that craft has reached astounding heights with the assistance of digital animation and visual effects. What was once smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand, is now pixel manipulation, transposed motion capture, and digital mattes. However, the goal is still the same: the perfect effect that drops the jaw, boggles the eyes, and tingles the spine.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park features photo-real computer animation
dinosaurs, created by visual effects masters, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
The digital entertainment industry develops at breakneck speed, making it impossible to pinpoint a definitive latest and greatest technology (and the latest/greatest has probably lost it's position as you're reading this!). But when you survey the past ten years of filmmaking, it is undeniable that computer generated imagery (CGI) has become a major part of the craft. Digital animation has grown from a momentary glimpse (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982, Return of the Jedi, 1983) to the driving force behind such films as Toy Story (1995) and The Lost World (1997).
This transition was initiated from many sources: technological advances, the position of the entertainment market, emergence of new talents, and so on. On a higher level, the move can be viewed as a fundamental shift in the "reality" of film imagery. In essence, a change in both the way film-stories are created and what types of content the audience views. If we look at the change from "computer graphics" to "computer generated imagery" we can see how the digital effect moved from being an isolated, "special" effect to a full-featured method of film production.
Buena Vista's 1982 live-action feature film, TRON, was a milestone
in the development of computer animation visual effects.
A Major Shift
The shift between computer reality and photo-reality marked the evolution from the "local" to the "global." As you may know, in animation, local pertains to the level of detailed description within a particular frame. Global, on the other hand, is often used when referring to the work on a larger scope, such as discussing the keyframes within the overall movement of the scene. * "Local" and "global" are part of the animation and computer lexicon, yet they can also serve as metaphors of the growth and change of computer art from the level of graphics (local) to computer-generated realities (global). This aesthetic transition is a key developmental step in the history of CGI.
The move from the traditional animation proportions (2D) to real-world proportions (3D) appears less an encroachment on the art of animation (as purists advocate), and more of a new magnitude of possibility. The difference between two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation is often (wrongly) described as an evolution, yet the difference is actually an important aesthetic distinction, rather than a development.
However, the principles of manufacturing photo-realistic 3D CGI stem from the world of classical 2D animation. The metamorphosis from traditional, or cel animation, into CGI is an extension of an art form. What is produced is a technological artistry, much like the scientific and artistic fusion that gave birth to the motion picture medium. Leslie Bishko, author and computer animator, discusses the use of technology for creative expression: "Some would say that creativity is possible, just as early photography and cinema had to defend the artistry of mechanized representation."*
New Line Cinema's live-action feature film Spawn (not to be confused
with the comic book, animated series, or CD-ROM game), hits U.S.
theaters this month with terrifying CGI effects by ILM.
A New Story Tool
The metamorphosis from cel to byte was induced by the artists and filmmakers who desired photo-realistic, 3D images to use in their storytelling. The groundwork had been started by pioneers in the computer graphics world, such as John Whitney and Ivan Sutherland. As the technology developed, the artistic possibilities began to open up, as seen in Star Wars and TRON. Richard Taylor, a commercial art director, explains, "It [computer animation] started as a technical process first, and not as an aesthetic process, and then it evolved as a result of artistic people trying to make things happen with it."**
Therefore, the transformation of animation from cel to byte at once perpetuates and deconstructs the craft of animation, generating a native landscape, on which a new method of storytelling may grow. The art form remains animation, but the medium is now the computer. If this is the case, where is the modern animator left at the end of this transition? Are traditional skills coupled with new technology enough? Or, do technological skills with a lesson or two in life-drawing constitute a digital artist? I asked Steve Williams from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) some of these questions. Williams is a master at creating, bending, hiding, and tweaking reality - his CG animation credits include films such as Eraser (1996), Jumanji (1995), The Mask (1994) and Jurassic Park (1993). Presently, he's directing the animation for the live-action feature film version of the popular comic, Spawn, due to be released this August.
"The entire flat, 2D [film] medium will change," Williams predicts. "It's levels of reality in the future, a film with visual effects won't be termed an `f/x' movie." Williams likens it to a transition from a manufactured reality to an art form, much like the transition from black and white to color film. Along these lines, today's digital effects and animation will be viewed in the future as a distinguished art form, similar to the "artsy" quality often assigned to black and white films today.
Williams is also quick to point out the importance of true and fundamental animation skills. "Moving an image on the screen is one thing, putting a soul in that image is quite another." Computers cannot serve as a substitute for talent. As Williams points out, "Anyone can move a keyframe around a screen."
In this scene from New Line's Spawn, the caped character, who is a live
actor throughout most of the film, is entirely computer generated.
Visual Effects or Reality?
Today, digital effects and animation are used for many different purposes; from high-profile stars, such as T-Rex, Woody, and Babe, to virtually indistinguishable illusions, such as virtual stunt doubles, removing celluloid blemishes, and animating a wind-blown cape on a live actor. All of these elements (and many more) compose the digital effect. The rapidly growing use and application of digital effects in film has made it very difficult for the audience to determine what is "real." No longer do we see the "computer graphics" scene, such as the stained-glass knight scene in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) or the body-alteration scenes in Death Becomes Her (1992). Today, films such as The Fifth Element (1997), James Cameron's Titanic (tba), and Spawn (due August, 1997) utilize digital shots both evident and hidden throughout the narrative. But, because of the increase of skilled artisans and advances in technology, the digital shot is used to support and enhance the narrative rather than a quick whiz-bang gadget.
Furthermore, digital animation is pushing the envelope to the extreme by attempting explicit duplication of organic tissue. In the past, digital character animation was primarily surface-based, mimicking the skin and the exterior of surfaces (à la the tremendous overuse of morphing scenes). Today, digital artisans, such as Steve Williams, are digging deeper, using digital animation in "layers" to recreate the internal anatomies of creatures and the complex interrelationships between skeletal and muscular systems. This is accomplished by utilizing commercial applications such as Softimage along with custom code modules that call for specific functionality for specific tasks. As a programmer, trends such as these show tell-tale signs of similar moves in the software industry, most importantly the migration from endless lines of code (read: Assembly, Cobol) into an object model where chunks of code (modules) can be used and reused on different projects. With customized animation software, 3D model libraries, and the emergence of the next generation of digital animation software (most likely object-based), it appears both inevitable and greatly beneficial that the digital animation industry is venturing in this direction.
The move from cel to byte has thus expanded the animator's toolset both theoretically and economically. Most importantly, this evolution is not driven solely by technology. There will be increases in processor power, RAM, and software capabilities for as long as the computer exists. What has propelled the influx, popularity, and success of the digital craft is the marriage of exceptional technology with exceptional talent. This convergence of skill and tool is the foundation for an entirely new mode of digital storytelling the future of film and television production.
Blue Sky Studios created cartoony, fantasy-like visual effects for
Bubble Factory/Universal's current release, A Simple Wish.
The Effect Becomes Art
Where does the future lie? According to Steve Williams, the camera will become more like the radio. Puzzling? At first glance yes, but what Williams is alluding to is the increase of input, data gathering, and modifiability. He sees the camera evolving into a tool that allows the filmmaker to "sample" an entire environment in 3D. Once that environment is sampled in a spatialized format, the digital artisan then has the ability to choose from endless angles and positions as well as the ability to introduce new items into that environment with ultimate control and precision. Along these lines, Williams foresees a greater synergy between motion capture and digital animation, with digital libraries stocked with models and character motions to be molded, concatenated and spun like virtual clay.
The future belongs to the artist who can bring an understanding and skill of the wonders and dynamics of animation into the digital arena. It's not as simple as swapping pencil for mouse (or stylus), or animation stand for hi-res monitor. What it takes is a strong understanding for both the cel and byte how they work, where the boundaries exist, and most importantly, how to break them. Steve Williams hits it on the head, stating, "It's all about the challenge -- the challenge of doing the impossible and to pursue blind curiosity."
Telling stories and creating illusions is magic and today's digital magic has made the word "reality" infinitely pliable. As history has proven, what is often initially viewed as simulation, be it the art of the 16th century Flemish and Dutch Masters or black and white films, is often later revered as art. So too will the digital hyper-realities that we've seen over the last fifteen years be revered, making today's "effect" tomorrow's work of art.
* Leslie Bishko, "Expressive Technology: The Tool As Metaphor of Aesthetic Sensibility," Animation Journal, Fall 1994: 74-91.
** Valliere Richard Auzenne, The Visualization Quest (London: Associated University Press, 1994), 127.
Bill Hilf lives in San Francisco where he works for C|NET: The Computer Network as Technical Producer for NEWS.COM (http://www.news.com). He has studied and worked in animation and wrote his master's thesis on the new forms of storytelling in the digital age (available online at http://www.sirius.com/~webwonk/thesis.html).
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