[mag cover pic]

From the August 1984 issue of Graffitti

TechnicaIIy Speaking:
Starting Over

By Philip Denslow

What would happen if one of Disney's greatest animators became a user of computer animation? I suppose that's like asking what would happen if Santa Claus became a truant officer. This would somehow defy the laws of nature. But it really happened. It was brought about by one man's curiosity and willingness to try something new. Not only new, but also risky. After all, many years of hard work were invested in his career and reputation. This new endeavor might mean failure and humiliation at the hands of a technology that threatens to replace his skills. A less secure personality might not want to put himself in such a position.

Well, Frank Thomas did it. One of the nine old men, he is the co-author of Illusion of Life, and the animator of characters such as Bambi and Pinocchio. He is one of the people responsible for developing the art of animation to heights that perhaps will never be reached again. This is the man who put aside personal safety and bravely ventured into the territory of the cold and unfeeling computer.

What Frank actually did was ask if he could spend some time with the computer animation system at the UCLA Animation Workshop. He was guided along by Neil F. Richmond, who is a graduate student in animation and who wrote a good deal of the computer program that Frank was to use. They spent a couple of hours each Saturday, gradually putting together a 15- second film made with computer generated drawings. Frank learned a good deal about the abilities and limitations of computers while Neil was treated to some great stories about the Disney Studio (and saw his program put through a tough test).

The system at UCLA involves creating objects and moving them around and/or moving yourself around them, using a microcomputer and a TV monitor. The objects and movements are described in three dimensions: width, height, and depth. The proportions and distances are described with numbers that indicate positions along the three dimensions. The computer interprets these numbers and creates a perspective drawing of the world you have created. The image is a "wireframe" one, where all objects are transparent and all edges visible (as if made with pipe cleaners). Frank's greatest frustrations were in having to live with the perspective of his objects that the computer drew, rather than the more flexible views he might want.

Motion is created with the system using a sequence of " keyframes" that tells the computer what you want to see at any particular point in time. Keyframes are made by positioning yourself and your objects with a joystick and telling the computer when in your sequence this view should appear. The computer figures out the images between the keyframes according to a curve-fitting formula that is influenced by factors meant to duplicate physical reality. For example, if you ask for an object to make a very tight turn around a corner, the resulting motion might cause it to slide away from the path you expect after the turn. The more keyframes you use to describe a section of movement, the more predictable the results. Not too suprisingly, Frank had lots of keyframes. The influence of many years' experience with complete contro1 over his character's movements wouldn't let go.

Because of limited economic resources, the UCLA system is fairly slow. This meant that Frank had to wait a couple of hours after completing a sequence of keyframes to see the in-betweens. More waiting was necessary to record the images from the screen one frame at a time and play back the sequence at 24 frames a second. Large and expensive systems can do all this in minutes, reducing the dis- tance between creator and creation. What is available at UCLA is an adequate system for teaching, not a system for production.

But Frank persevered, conquered the computer and animated a sequence of a fly buzzing around and landing on a face. He succeeded despite constraints of time and limitations of equipment. He also demonstrated his willingness to learn a new way to do something he was already a master of.

Frank said about his experience: "We will each do best in the medium that is right for us and there is no reason to feel inadequate because we cannot master them all. There is torment enough in trying to achieve a suitable result in any of them. The computer may indeed seem like our most threatening and unpredictable adversary in this creative process, but the real enemy will always be the limitations of our own thinking."

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