High-Tech 'Toons Rapidly Developing Computer Technology Aids the Skilled Hands of Today's Animation Artists by Speeding Up Production Time and Creating Fantastic Special Effects

By Fred Hift, | The Christian Science Monitor, July 27, 1992 | Go to article overview

High-Tech 'Toons Rapidly Developing Computer Technology Aids the Skilled Hands of Today's Animation Artists by Speeding Up Production Time and Creating Fantastic Special Effects


Fred Hift,, The Christian Science Monitor


SOPHISTICATED computer technology is bringing an exciting new dimension to cartoon animation, improving and speeding up that complicated process.

But ingenious as computer chips may be, there are no indications that they will ever completely replace the artist's skilled hand.

Animation these days is enjoying a renaissance all over the world, partly because of its greatly improved quality and partly because of the insatiable programming demands from the world's television stations.

The power of computers has been harnessed primarily to speed up the tedious, time-consuming job of generating quality animation that moves smoothly and provides previously unmatched visual and color effects.

What's more, computers are now guiding animation camera movements, and they are providing enormously efficient and highly inventive new methods of translating the animators' ideas and concepts to film, tape, and even to optical disk. They create a striking three-dimensional look, they edit, and they manage and help organize the immensely involved animating process.

They are, to an increasingly significant degree, time- and money-savers since they can do in minutes what it takes an army of painters literally days to do.

Animation consists primarily of basic drawings, later color hand-painted on thousands upon thousands of acetate sheets called "cels" that are then overlaid, photographed, and reduced to individual frames. The more cels per scene, the more seamless, refined, and detailed the final progression of the images.

On 35mm animation film, designed for use on television, some 15,000 new drawings are required for a 22-minute subject. In terms of painted cels, of which there are usually many piled onto a single frame, the number doubles, which means that for a quality TV image, the number of cels rises to around 30,000 for 22 minutes of film.

More demanding theatrical animation can go as high as 60,000 cels per half hour.

Cels these days are painted and inked mostly in the Far East (South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, among other countries), and, to a lesser degree, in Eastern Europe, where costs are much lower than in the United States. Some companies even have cels painted in China.

But while the computer performance in animation has been dazzling, and new computer animation techniques are being rapidly developed both in the US and in Europe, the top animators are convinced that the computer chip will never replace the artist or his creative genius.

"Animation can only be as good as the story and the characters it offers," says Peter Keefe, director of production and creative development for Zodiac Entertainment, which produces the highly-popular "Mr. Bogus" and "Widget" series.

"I think of animation as a puppeteer working his puppets. They can only be as good as his hands. That is what creates the magic. In animation you need characters that have video velcro, and then you must have the minds of top animators to translate all that to the screen.

"Computer animation can eliminate a lot of waste and damage. It can create fantastic special effects. It can save time and {a lot of manual labor}. But it can't do the whole animation job. And it never will."

Bill Kroyer, who animated the recent "Ferngully - The Last Rainforest" feature, looks at the computer as the future, but warns: "People get mesmerized by the computer, and they start using them in areas where they are not really necessary or even appropriate."

Tom Burton, president of Calico Entertainment, one of the top animation companies in Hollywood, Calif., says "computers will play an increasingly important part in animation. There has been an almost incredible acceleration already. …

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