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Dig This! Using computers to simulate cut-out animation techniques on South Park and Blue's Clues.

Animation World Magazine takes a jaunt into the innovative and remarkable: this month we look at two productions that are using computers to simulate cut-out animation techniques: South Park and Blue's Clues

In this age of technology, many "old-fashioned" animation techniques have been abandoned for computer-generated imagery. However, a new trend is emerging, one which uses the computer as a tool to achieve the look of old-fashioned techniques while taking advantage of the ease of production that technology offers.

Case in point: South Park and Blue's Clues. "What could these two radically different shows--one for adults and one for pre-schoolers--have in common?," you may ask. The answer is that they both use computer animation software to create a look that many uninformed viewers assume is the product of painstaking cut-out animation. What most people don't know is that quite a bit of technology is at work to achieve that "home-grown" look, shadows, textures and all.

South Park. © Comedy Central.

South Park

At a production studio hidden away in Marina Del Rey, California, animators and technical directors on the South Park TV show and feature film use high-end equipment: Silicon Graphics workstations running Alias|Wavefront's PowerAnimator software to create a virtual plane--in 3D space--on which "flat" computer-generated characters are animated. Even the texture of construction paper is applied in the computer, and that "no-platen" shadow look is achieved by separating the character's parts with a small layer of space as would occur in real cut-out animation, which is, in case you were wondering, the technique Trey Parker and Matt Stone used to create The Spirit of Christmas, the animated short that spawned the Comedy Central series. Monica Mitchell, a production manager on South Park, pointed out that it would have been nearly impossible to produce the show with construction paper. "Time and flexibility are the bottom line," she said, noting that changes to the show are often made the day before broadcast.

Blue's Clues. © Nickelodeon.

Blue's Clues

At Nickelodeon's digital studio in New York, animators on Blue's Clues are using Macintosh computers running Photoshop and Adobe After Effects software to combine animated sets and characters with a live-action host. Even storyboards are created in Quark, so that they can be revised after various stages of the show's extensive kid-testing process. While live-action is being shot on video (against a green-screen, color-key background), artists create props and characters out of clay and simple materials, then photograph them with a digital camera. The images are then cleaned-up and dressed-up, a process series co-creator and designer Traci Paige-Johnson calls making the images "yummy," then imported to After Effects where they are animated and composited with the live-action footage. Series co-creator and executive producer Todd Kessler said that when the show was being developed, the technology decisions came out of the needs of the content. "The whole idea behind going 'low-tech' and animating on desktop computers was to spend as little as possible on equipment, so that we could spend the largest portion of our budget on creative talent." Nickelodeon recently started production on a new series called Little Bill which will employ the Blue's Clues process.

Both Blue's Clues and South Park creators use the computer as a very sophisticated camera which enables the production process to be broken down into stages that can be handled by different teams of people: storyboards, design and layout, lip-sync, and animation. Both shows use relatively small production teams--ranging from 15 to 30 people per episode, compared to the huge staffs, both in-house and overseas, needed to produce a typical 2D or cel-animated series. We can expect to see more of this kind of computer use in animation, blurring the line between CGI and traditional animation, and breaking through once-prohibitive cost and time barriers.

Wendy Jackson is associate editor of Animation World Magazine.

What else should we dig? Every month, Animation World Magazine will highlight the most interesting, exciting happenings in animation, in "Dig This!" Send us your ideas, suggestions, videos, products or works-in-progress today. You dig? E-mail: