Special Report on Animation: Animation takes center stage for week-long celebration

Zowie! Oof! Whoooooahh! My mouth is stre-e-e-etching all the way to your cuppa cappuccino. Slurrpp! Good mo-o-o-rning!...
May 1, 1997

Zowie! Oof! Whoooooahh! My mouth is stre-e-e-etching all the way to your cuppa cappuccino. Slurrpp! Good mo-o-o-rning!

Hah! I’m whirling in the centrifugal force called the World Animation Celebration in Pasadena, California, and I assure you, even if it’s not possible to morph into a digitized cartoon sharing your breakfast, I feel like it is.

Animation rules! It’s taking over the world! And if it hasn’t yet, it will soon!

This industry is in such an advanced state of frantic development, it can’t hear itself think over the crashing of the tidal waves.

Ten years ago, Michael Hirsh, chairman of Nelvana, was being shunned at cocktail parties, branded a geek. And Los Angeles-based Klasky Csupo got its big break after five years of slow growth when it was hired to produce a series of one-minute teaser cartoons for The Tracey Ullman Show. The characters? The Simpsons.

Film companies around the world started to eye The Walt Disney Company’s big animated feature bucks with envy and began inventing digital production methods to try to compete. Technology pulled on its high tops and the fun began. Now, a decade later, almost 7,000 companies worldwide deal in animation.

And Michael Hirsh is very popular at cocktail parties.

Animation has come a long way from the pencil sketchings of Walt and his friends. It includes stop motion, claymation, computer digital imaging and who knows what else?

The World Animation Celebration, a week-long affair that ended on Easter weekend, has brought together many factions within the industry, helping players from around the world to meet each other to share their expertise and artistry. Leslie Sullivan, festival director, agrees the energy is tumultuous. ‘We’re in the eye of the storm. No one’s really sure what’s going to come out of it,’ she contends.

Technology’s the lure. The people with the brightest glint in their eyes, the electricity coming from their veins, are the first to admit they can’t keep up with it. Dan Philips, artistic liaison and co-head of the computer effects department of DreamWorks Animation, is one such electrical field. He was seduced by 3-D because you can do impossible things with it.

‘There’s going to be a substantial leap over what we know,’ Philips gleams.

‘A lot of things are happening in parallel . . . in computer science [and] business. When we’ve learned how to use this stuff, the next boom will happen.’

In the meantime, animators are turning in their pencils and turning on computers. If they are hesitant in the beginning, once they’ve mastered the genre, they’re hooked. 3-D digital imaging has become the cutting edge.

Or, as award-winning Canadian animator Richard Condie, freshly star-dusted with an Oscar nomination for his first 3-D computer animated short, La Salla, slyly comments, ‘there’s an expression called the bleeding edge . . . I understand that now.’

In 1992, he taught himself an intricate animation software program by Softimage, considered one of the top in the field. Why did he do this?

‘Because I’m like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. I’ve always got to try something new. It’s exciting, there’s no question. But it’s like plowing an unplowed field. Uphill. And you don’t know where the rocks and tree stumps are.’ It was a tough go. But worth it.

The animators employed by such companies as DreamWorks, the now hugely successful Klasy Csupo and Nelvana have the world as their oyster. And they can dance it to life on state-of-the-art computer digitizing equipment.

This means that instead of working on a movie sound stage, they’re simulating 3-D space in which they can capture the mysteries of the ordinary, build sets and characters and plunge them into magic and mayhem.

Peter Plantec, of DreamScape Productions in Beverly Hills, giddily proclaims Softimage’s Sumatra as the software that’s going to create a seismic shift in the industry, one that ‘will change forever the way we do things in animation.’ Softimage describes its product as a ‘fully integrated animation, modeling and rendering tool set with the mind of an artist.’

Plantec waxes a little more eloquent. ‘It offers a tremendous number of techniques in which the director literally tells the characters what to do, and they do it automatically. The character has a great deal of intelligence built into it.’

DreamWorks has chosen Sumatra to create its newest film, Shrek the first full-length, computer-generated film to use motion capture slated for release in 1999.

Shrek, Philips elaborates, is a film about the ugliest man on Earth looking for love and finding it with the ugliest woman on Earth.

Motion capture is a tool that captures the dimensional with information. For instance, sensors attached to an actor’s body translate movements into digital information.

The images achieved are spectacular, as is the lighting. Plants and flowers burgeon in dizzying splendor. Shapes, movement and colors come from a subconscious so deep it’s primal.

It’s tempting to think this technology is available only to the moneybagged, but there are also groundbreaking new companies, such as Coulter Studios in Burbank, California, that show as good as the best. This artist-driven company, founded by Allen Coulter (who started in puppetry and special effects) and only four people strong, has created knockout animation.

While some animation companies spend millions on computer hardware, Coulter Studios is able to get in the game with the infinitely more affordable IBM clone. What sets the company apart is its attention to story and character, the foundations of all the best animation.

And audience response proves over and over that believable, wonderful characters are the way to viewers’ hearts. Because as spectacular as the effects can be, they are no replacement for that chime of recognition that awakens some emotion within us. And gosh darn it, we love to laugh.

Ten years ago, Chris Wallace, president of Topix, a Toronto, Canada-based computer graphics studio, mortgaged his house to buy equipment to sell computer animation to people who didn’t know they wanted it. Now, he’s proving that creativity and determination can slice that cutting edge as sharply as the next mega-buck.

If the tool d’esn’t exist to satisfy the craving to push boundaries, Topix creates it even when that means going beyond the high tech and back to basics. Wallace tells a story of wanting to get a certain texture to a lighting effect behind a logo. His shop finally hit on flicking on a slide projector without any slides in it, pointing it at a screen, blowing smoke from a cigarette and waving chopsticks up and down to get a vibration. Eureka!

If there’s one thing that resonates within all of these successful companies, it’s that core value of integrity toward the art form. From the mega-corps such as DreamWorks, down to the fledgling Coulter Studios, it’s the animator who is the star.

And the sky’s a million miles high! There’s no limit, which is what’s so exhilarating about this moment in animation history.

All of this begs the question, will the day arrive when an animated character actually looks human? Tim Bloch of Klasky Csupo, creators of Rugrats, AAAHH!!! Real Monsters and Duckman, thinks that yes, with motion capture, it will be possible.

On the other hand, as Wallace sees it, why would you want to recreate the human? After all, he says, ‘I can always pick up a camera and shoot an actor doing Hamlet. But can I pick up a camera and shoot a jelly bean doing Hamlet?’

Japanese animation is world-renowned for its technical expertise. A screening of Ghost In The Shell touted as the most expensive and technically advanced Japanese animated feature ever made had great blood splats, clouds, raindrops in puddles, buildings and landscapes, all fantastically rendered and very realistic. But the humans? The only things that came close to scoring in that department were the women’s bare breasts. And even those were obviously implanted.

Back to Peter Plantec of DreamScape, a virtual art director, writer, teacher, psychologist and breeder of endangered cockatoos. What will this incredible tidal wave of technology wash up on shore? Live animation with artificial intelligence, he says.

‘People get mad at me for this. I’ve been working on this for years with Michael Malden, a professor at Carnegie Mellon. We’ve imbued characters with artificial intelligence and tested with an artificial entity called Julia for eight years.’

Julia is very intelligent, with a memory of both recent and long-term events, Plantec explains. For instance, she’s communicated with people on the Internet and recognized that she met them months ago. ‘You were lost and I gave you directions to such and such,’ she’ll say, and a conversation is re-established. She’s sassy and clever. Guys fall in love with her. One guy made sexual advances toward her and she handled him beautifully.

Julia was presented at the Artificial Humans Conference last year.

Plantec is also developing a CD-ROM game in which the bad guy will be much more human. ‘He’ll have weaknesses, and if you can figure out what those weaknesses are, you can play on them. One of the great things in coming games is, instead of killing the guy, you get him to come around to your way of thinking.’

This dovetails nicely with an observation from Laurien Towers-Gatlin, conference director of the International Business Conference of Television Animation (presented as part of the World Animation Celebration), and the producer of the first Soviet and Mexican co-production of an animated film. She says that for her, the Soviet wall came down the day she picked up the finished prints. ‘It’s such an incredible tool,’ she says. ‘If you create something in animation, people’s barriers are brought down. All their preconceptions of whether they’re Mexican, Chinese, black or white are gone. You can transcend cultures, language barriers, ideologies, philosophies and politics.

‘It’s like music. It’s an international visual language.’

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