Computer Animation: A Whole New World

by Frank Foster

Rita Street's new publication on computer animation, Computer Animation: A Whole New World, makes no attempt to be a "how to" book, instead it's a richly illustrated portrayal of the process and passion that a select group of animators have brought to the field. She avoids the dry technical read of a reference book and lets the reader instead experience the art form through the eyes of the talent that works so hard to create it. It's through their stories that we inadvertently pick up on the various forms of digital technology that just happen to make the process possible.

The author's previous experience as a magazine editor and writer, is apparent in the approach taken in the book. You won't find the intense detail of a Cinefex article or SIGGRAPH paper here. However, the snapshots of each kind of computer animation does provide an insight as to what aspects of the process are specific to the genre.

Ed Catmull Explains Pixar
No one epitomizes CG more than Ed Catmull, who relates in the book's introduction a condensed history of the field. Mr. Catmull has the uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time. He just happened to be born in Utah where computer graphics were practically invented. He was at the University of Utah during the pioneering days of 3D textured objects and studied under the legendary Ivan Sutherland, where he happened to invent the Z-buffer. He then left for NYIT just as it became the hot bed of 2D paint systems, where he helped develop the alpha channel and early compositing techniques. Catmull then departed NYIT to work for George Lucas and established the computer graphics department that later morphed into Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a digital production group. Finally, he spun off Pixar as a separate animation company.

Certainly the lessons learned from the spectacular series of Pixar animation shorts is a virtual time line to the success the industry now enjoys. With each short, the Pixar animation group tackled a new set of problems. The book's first chapter, devoted to Feature Film applications, communicates this in a colorful, yet understandable, way. Rounding out the Feature Film chapters are entries from ILM's work on Spawn, New Wave International's success in the ride film arena and an interesting description of how a student film, called Plug, was produced at the USC School of Cinema-Television.

Chapter Highlights
The Television chapters are represented by Mainframe's ReBoot, the Saturday morning cartoon show that has helped pave the way for other CG productions. A television commercial produced by (Colossal) Pictures for Coca-Cola is also included, and followed by an insightful presentation of Medialab's production pipeline for the use of real-time performance animation to create a television show based on the video game Donkey Kong.

The final section of the book is devoted to films that were personal projects used to test and prove the production worthiness of new technologies. At the 3D software company Softimage, the director of visual research, Charlotte Davies created an immersive virtual environment. Called Osmose, the production is a real-time 3D experience via a stereoscopic head-mounted display with 3D localized sound and a motion tracking vest. The audience of one is called an "immersant" and the encounter is apparently comparable to scuba diving where the movement is controlled by the chest expansion of breathing and the position and motion of the spine.

The world of motion-capture is explored with a project at Lamb & Company. Babaloo the Beast Boy makes use of all three main types of motion-capture: facial, body and hand. The facial system uses reflective markers glued to the actor's face to track expressions and lip-sync dialogue. Hand gestures are recorded through a glove, and body motion with a suit.

In the short film Sleepy Guy, Raman Hui of Pacific Data Images (PDI) brings some of his traditional animation sensibility to a fully CG cartoon. The author effectively uses Hui's production story, to point out some of the important parallels that are true for all forms of character based animation.

The book appropriately concludes with the landmark short the end by Chris Landreth. Created as a test of Alias|Wavefront software, the filmmaker incorporates many recent advances into a thoroughly engaging film. Techniques such as motion capture, procedurally generated and animated hair, digital explosions, smoke and lens flares are all thrown in, but some how they seem to fit the offbeat theme of the project.

In the End...
While perhaps not the big slick coffee table volume on CG that many have been waiting for, Rita Street's Computer Animation: A Whole New World, will excite those with a passing interest in the subject and perhaps inspire a new generation of animators to embrace digital tools. If you are thinking about getting into CG, this might be the encouragement you need to get the bug. Or if you are an animator that's tired of trying to explain to your relatives what you do for a living...this might be the perfect holiday gift!

Rita Street'sComputer Animation: A Whole New World is now available on-line in the Animation World Store.

Computer Animation: A Whole New World by Rita Street. Gloucester, Massachusetts, Rockport Publishers, 1998. 144 pages. ISBN: 1564963772 (U.S. $29.99 hardcover).

Frank Foster is a founding vice president at Sony Pictures Imageworks. His computer film contributions include sequences in such feature films as:
Speed, Johnny Mnemonic, The Craft and Contact. He is currently directing the High Definition documentary film The Story of Computer Graphics, a feature-length production from the SIGGRAPH organization.


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