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From the June 1984 issue of Graffitti

Technically Speaking:
Crystal Ball Time

By Philip Denslow

When I hear people talk about the future of animation (a subject not generally overheard in elevators, but you know what I mean), the subject usually involves technical innovations as the main topic. Whether it be the latest video magic box, allowing for new forms of visual trickery, or a new depth of detail achieved through the use of a multi-million dollar image generator, this is the subject that captures the imagination. The recent burst of new technology offers seemingly unlimited areas for speculation.

Sometimes it seems that people involved in our artform are a cargo cult waiting for the expected salvation that is lurking over the horizon. I am a member of this ever-hopeful group, breathlessly anticipating a new computer, some form of software/firmware/hardware breakthrough that will lead us all to the fullness of the rewards we deserve. Someday, I think, animators will be like rock stars, the subjects of adoration and the receivers of vast wealth.

With this I am not referring to the technology that network cartoon producers are hoping to use to replace their ink and paint departments, but rather the technology that will open new forms of production and distribution for the makers of independent short films. Technology that will enable the animator/artist to more fully partake in the culture and commerce of our times.

Some of the more recent items that seem (or seemed) to hold great promise are the vari- ous things that comprise the "home entertain- ment revolution." Videodisc and videotape players and recorders lead me to dream of a boom in the sales of animated material for the insatiable appetite of consumers who can now possess great works by past and present artists. The spread of cable television and satellite dishes make me anticipate a new birth in the use of animated shorts as program material for broadcast, much like the theatrical use in pre-television days.

The use of tape and discs for home use is still limited to feature films, exercise programs, and pornography. Since the purchase of a tape or disc implies multiple use of the material, an important quality should be how the program holds up when viewed several times. Recently a survey was done to find out what people would watch repetitively without losing interest, even when the quality was minimal. For adults, the answer was pornography. For children the answer was animation. Perhaps in the future there will be animated porn for adults with childish taste.

Cable channels do show some animated shorts, but so far they are unwilling or not required to pay anything worthwhile to the fiImmakers. Most cable outlets pay around $100 per minute for short films. Then the distributor takes half. This entitles the cable company to use the film for a year. If they show a five minute film 20 times, they are paying the artist $12.50 for a minute of program material. What a bargain! Unless filmmakers stop giving away their product, this practice will continue indefinitely.

0ne way around this is to make production less expensive, which brings us to computers. How many animators, working on drawing number three-thousand-and-something have thought: "it sure would be nice if I could get some machine to do this for me." Computers provide this possibility. Most developments in using computers to create objects, simulate a scene, or travel through imaginary images are the results of research by the Defense Department and/or scientific institutions. Slowly this technology is working its way into entertainment areas, notably in commercials and network sports programs. And, of course, Tron.

By today's standards, Tron is already dated in terms of the sophistication of the computer programs used to create it. Why aren't more movies being made in this manner? I suspect it is partly because the film was not a super smash at the box office. Also, I suppose it is unreasonable to expect Hollywood to embrace something that might make actors, film crews, and studio lots unnecessary. (Actually, Tron only had about 20 minutes of computer animation in it. The rest was live-action treated to . look computer-like).

I expect there will be other innovations in both the way animation is produced and distributed. Perhaps people will have moving paintings that hang on their walls. Perhaps art and music will be synthesized live for audiences that will interact with the performance. Perhaps soap operas will be generated continually on TV, where actors, plots, and scene simulation will be cranked out by a large computer that will never repeat itself. Perhaps there will be endless new "reruns" of I Love Lucy that include the characters from Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The mind boggles.

But would this still be "Animation?" Is someone who sits in front of a console twiddling a bunch of joysticks an animator? Who is responsible for the understanding of motion and timing that is required? Is the person who gives a computer the elements of control for manipulating an image the primary animator, or the person who uses the machine to create the final product?

It would seem that as technology pushes animation into new areas, the definition of animation itself can become fuzzy. Typically, animation is considered to be that form of film created frame by frame. But any "real time" applications, such as video graphics, don't qualify. ASIFA, the international animation organization, in their charter defines animation as that which isn't live action. This is disappointing in that it only tells you what it isn't, not what it is. When my relatives ask for an explanation of what I do, should I say, "I make films that aren't live action?"

Perhaps a better, though admittedly simplistic, definition of animation is that which is performed for the first time when someone views it. Live action records a performance and then replays it. The only time an animation performance can be seen is when it is finished.

In the late 19th century, painting underwent a revolution as a result of the introduction of photography. Realistic imagery became the province of the new technology, and painters felt encouraged to experiment with form and subject matter. Maybe a similar revolution in film is at hand.

I think there will always be a place for independent animated films like those made now. A place for those artists willing to work hard without any guaranteed rewards. What the future will bring in the form of popular entertainment for mass audiences may be animation, but I don't know whether today's animators would recognize it. In the future every form of entertainment may be called "simulation" and all other terms will disappear. No, let's say it will be called animation, and animators will be treated like rock stars.

Graffiti: published by ASIFA Hollywood. For more about ASIFA activities call (818) 842-8330.