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A Traditional Animator’s First Foray into Computer Animation

Academy Award-winning claypainting animator Joan Gratz ventured into strange territory when she took a Combustion course at Oregon3D. Find out how she handled the change from clay to computers.

Traditional animator Joan Gratz took the digital plunge at Oregon 3D.

Traditional animator Joan Gratz took the digital plunge at Oregon 3D.

Be warned: This article is written by a Luddite whose primary use of the computer is playing Scrabble. I am an Academy Award-winning director of animated short films and commercials. My career consists of pushing bits of colored oil-based clay with my fingers to create seamlessly-flowing images. I animate directly, one frame at a time, before my pre-World War II camera and have happily avoided contact with the computer in every aspect of my work beyond post-production.

I left this blissful state of computer innocence when I was offered the chance to take a class at Oregon3D. I took the class because I was intrigued by this well-funded, well-equipped training facility that had sprung up in downtown Portland.

The school offers a variety of professional courses in 3D modeling, animation, special visual effects, editing and compositing (as well as real-time image generation for data visualization and simulation.) I chose to take the Combustion class, which according to the users guide, provides painting, animation and 2D/3D compositing, all within an intuitive workflow environment.

Painting and animating are what I do alright, but from my experience nothing having to do with the computer is intuitive all is learned with great effort and frustration. So I was curious to see what intuitive might mean in this case.

Instructor Gary Davis (standing) demonstrated patience with the four-day class for computer novices. Courtesy of Oregon 3D.

Instructor Gary Davis (standing) demonstrated patience with the four-day class for computer novices. Courtesy of Oregon 3D.

Our teacher, Gary Davis, is a trainer for Discreet products 3ds max as well as Combustion and a practicing production artist in Florida. As I learned from his interaction with me, as well as with others, he is a man of unlimited patience and enormous enthusiasm for his subject.

I could tell from his demonstrations in class that he is also a very talented artist.

Over a four-day period, Gary explained the various aspects of this complex program and led us in hands-on exploration of Combustions many features.

During class, I was often confused but never bored, uncomfortable, or without help. I have never had a teacher who was more generous with his time.

Gary succeeded in making me aware of the possibilities that this program could bring to my own work. As I mentioned, my animation is usually created by hand under a camera in a straight ahead fashion with very little post production just smearing the oilpaint-like clay into new positions, clicking a frame and moving it again. One of the hardest things to accomplish with my style is to move an image for example, a clay-animated dancer across (really through) an existing image, because the underneath image has to be disrupted and then revealed again by re-animating it so that it looks the same as before. I imagined that with Combustion I could work in a multi-plane fashion on separate levels so that the image underneath was not really changed. Because I like to do most everything myself and not leave effects for later, I welcomed the idea of having mastery of a program that would give me the effects I wanted within my own studio. I could experiment more, I thought, with less stress and cost.

Within this friendly, relaxed environment, sitting in an Aeron chair before a state-of-the-art computer, I realized becoming a geek at Oregon 3D might not be a bad life.

I was especially intrigued by the paint and animation aspects of Combustion, which allowed me to paint images in my style and place them in layers over one another. For example, I had an animated blooming cactus move across the screen in front of a house as an animated sun rose behind some mountains. Using the key frames and motion paths, I was able to experiment with the speed the cactus moved as well as its size. I was also able to get the sun to rise at the right moment and with the subtlety I wanted.

The world at Oregon 3D started to make sense to Joan. Courtesy of Oregon 3D.

The world at Oregon 3D started to make sense to Joan. Courtesy of Oregon 3D.

From this experience I could almost almost being the key word here imagine working on a project in Combustion alone in my studio. Realistically, until I developed a lot more skill, somebody like Gary would need to be nearby to hear me whimpering and weeping as I lost my intuitive grasp of the program. There were many functions, layers and controls to keep track of, and it was hard to imagine working under a deadline with the small amount of training I had at that point. It might be but I am not completely sure that with more training I could get comfortable with most of the process. Given my primitive understanding of the computer it was invaluable to have a teacher introduce me to this complex program.

Probably most eye-opening was coming to understand that it is now possible on a computer to do work that has the look and sensibility that you expect to come from one persons personal vision and style. This is a very important aspect of work I admire, whether it is personal art or a television commercial.

I have to admit, the experience was a good one and I do see possibilities of making satisfying work where before I only saw Scrabble.

For more information about Oregon3D, visit the Website at or call 866-626-9100.

Director/animator Joan C. Gratz worked as designer and animator for Will Vinton Studios (1976-87) before beginning her own company, GRATZFILM, in 1987. Her work at the Vinton Studios includes Return to Oz, Rip van Winkle and Creation, the first film to exclusively feature "claypainting," an animation technique Gratz pioneered. Working with bits of clay as if they were oils, she blends colors and etches fine lines to create a seamless flow of images. Among Gratz's commercial credits, most notable are Microsoft, United Airlines (which nabbed first prize at the London International Film Festival), Knorr Soups (Bronze Lion at Cannes) and Coca Cola (Clio Award). Her own work includes Mona Lisa Descending the Staircase, Candy Jam, Pro & Con and The Dowager's Feast. For more information about Joan C. Gratz, visit