Magazine article American Cinematographer

Computer Animation Demystified, Part II

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Computer Animation Demystified, Part II

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: In the October issue of American Cinematographer, technical directors Eben Ostby and William Reeves discussed the first phase of Pixar's computer animation sequence - modeling. In Part 2, John Lasseter, Don Conway, Ralph Guggenheim and Craig Good explain the animating and rendering steps, editing and sound.

John Lasseter, animator, director and writer, has an Oscar on his mantel as a reward for his contributions to Pixar's computer animated film Tin Toy The film's reputation has spread far and wide, but it was preceded by three others - all part of the Pixar learning curve. First there was The Adventures Of Andre and Wally, then LUXO, Jr. followed by Red's Dream. Tin Toy appeared in 1988 and now in 1989, Pixar has released Knick Knack in both 2-D and 3-D versions. Each trip into the land of giga-bytes has been both entertaining and exploratory.

Said Lasseter, "In every film we try to do something we can't do in traditional animation. I don't like it when people come up to me and ask why we did it with computers. It's a criticism often heard about computer graphics - especially when someone has really tried to reproduce reality. There is no reason to try to reproduce reality in a computer. As Ray Smith said, 'We shoot for reality, but it's just a convenient measure of complexity.' We now have the tools to virtually recreate reality, but what I like to do is mess around with the audience's mind. I want to create something that looks real - like the lamps in LUXO Jr but simply can't be. The way the lamps are hopping and moving around, they look like they're real. This is what I really like doing. This is character animation."

Early in his professional life, Lasseter was a Disney animator. In fact, it was at Disney, in the era of Tron, that Lasseter first saw a connection between computers and animation. Since that time, he has been strengthening and expanding that connection with his work at Pixar. But the transition from traditional animator was not always smooth and easy.

Lasseter explained, "When I was an animator at Disney Studios in LA, it became clear then that the easiest things to do in traditional animation are the hardest to do in computer animation and vice-versa. For example, it is very easy to create a squishy, deformed character with drawings. There are no limitations. But to a computer, squishy things are very difficult It has to understand the form of something. It doesn't deal with just a line drawing. It needs a three-dimensional form and a squishy form is hard to define - that's why Billy the baby in Tin Toy was so difficult. Billy was one of our first attempts at something that was very organic."

Andre and Wally marked Lasseter's transition from cel to CRT. He reported that, in some ways, computer work is more like stop motion animation than cel animation. "Computer animation is model (or stop motion) animation with the same kind of control that you have in drawn animation. It's a combination of the two. When I began on the computer, I was used to drawing poses - flat 2-D art. I would look at the characters on the screen the same way from one point of view. Then I would work out the pose the way I liked it. If I looked at the pose from a different point of view say I turned the character - often the arms were through the body or something equally horrible.

"Obviously, the big difference is that the computer is truly a three-dimensional environment So I began looking at my animation from two camera views. That way I could understand what was going on. It would be great if eventually we could devise a 3-D interactive system that would allow me to look at the characters in 3-D regardless of whether the end product was a 3-D film.'

"There are other differences between computer animation and traditional eel animation," continued Lasseter, as he tweaked the little lamp from Luxo, Jr. into position on the screen. "In traditional you do extremes. …

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