Computer animation is on everyone's lips, but what exactly is being said? Heather Kenyon discusses the good and the bad.
When I mention that I am involved in animation to people outside of the industry, I often immediately get asked the following question, `Isn't that all done with computers these days?' It's very depressing. Even Disney animator, Nancy Beiman described receiving a similar reaction before attending CalArts in the 1970s. "People used to tell me, `Animation? What a stupid profession!' I was told, `You're in a dying profession, there will be no work for you, everything'll be done on a computer by 1980!'" Don't they know the effort, the work that goes into making an animated character act and in turn, endear themselves to the viewer? I found this issue to be very heartening. Every article I read and every person I spoke to described the computer as a powerful tool but one that would be useless in the hands of someone lacking fundamental animation skills. Well, while there is no denying that computer animation is here to stay, there is also no denying that highly trained and skilled animators are just as needed. There is something warm and comforting in knowing that no matter how fancy our technology becomes people still want to create and watch meaningful stories. In fact, I am more excited now about the technological future because time after time creators said they believed the implementation of new devices would give them greater storytelling freedom.
This issue also looks back on the origin of computer animation with articles describing John Whitney, Sr.'s amazing achievements and Joan Collins' article on SIGGRAPH: Past and Present. Both articles offer insight into computer animation's academic, government and military beginnings. Joan Collins is correct when she says that everyone remembers historical milestone events differently. SIGGRAPH has several projects in the works to document the history of computer animation. Just my limited research for this issue has proven to me that nothing is more needed, vital (would we lose or not document the history of steam powered machines?) and fascinating. I think it is the biggest irony that John Whitney, Sr. was able to take objects of destruction and turn them into a mechanism for art. Facts, stories, anecdotes...as the role of computer animation continues to grow we will only become more curious about its origins.
In film schools across the globe, students study the effects of technological advancements like the introduction of sound and color film. We all remember giggling at some point or another at a man speaking into a vase of flowers or three young ladies wearing dresses of different shocking hues, standing side by side. One day the introduction of computer generated imagery will probably be presented in much the same way. What will the reactions be? Will students laugh at films built around amazing twisters and roaring dinosaurs, thinking we were silly to be so impressed? At that point, will they be taught by an actual human professor or a photo-real digital human that can interact in real-time?
We have been watching the results of those more academic computer animation beginnings for several weeks now - the Mars Pathfinder. William B. Green, who was recently interviewed on CNN regarding the Mars mission, and Eric M. DeJong have included in the midst of their very busy schedule (how often do you have to keep track of something on Mars?) an article describing the benefits of using animation in space exploration. One of Green's points is that animation captures the audience's imagination. Well, we can all attest to that.
While in traditional circles the recruiting rush has lost some of its frantic pace, the search for computer animation talent remains on everyone's lips. Georges Lacroix said one of his biggest challenges in running a digital studio is, "the constant training so that we can maintain a high level of quality." Jo Jürgens has contributed a crash course in digital animation so that more experienced traditional animators can get started. Don't count out those students though. In our second installment of The Student Corner we are profiling three schools that are expanding in order to meet the industry's needs. These days, studios are employing small herds of recruiters in order to scour the schools and festival circuit for that talented "diamond in the rough." Why even the Ottawa International Animation Festival is branching out with the upcoming SAFO, a film festival designed to showcase only student animated works.
On a more serious note, I found Olivier Cotte's article quite interesting in that it outlines the growing schisms between the top five CGI producers and the rest of the world. Developing nations are being left behind in this visual revolution, perhaps, so far behind that they will not be able to catch up. While this won't impact a typical Saturday night at the movies in suburbia, it may impact the rare screening of a developing nation's work. Perhaps, Olivier is right and the images will appear so old to us that we will not pay attention because their stories will not have been told in such a vibrant way. Then an even larger cultural gap will appear between those that have and those that do not. In an interview with me, Bikic Studio's Milan Zivkovic attests to the difficulties facing studios in struggling nations like the former Yugoslavia.
Until next time. Keep in touch.Heather