01 Jun

Computer animation

Animation currently has a high profile after Nick Park won an Oscar for his (clay-mation) ‘Creature Comforts’ shown on Channel 4 recently. This form of animation seems to be a reaction against computer animation. Chrome logos have been replaced with clay models, as in the British Gas advertisements, for example.

Current Trends

One of the strangest things about computer animation and graphics is how little the language is understood by ‘the public’, including artists. Television/video graphics is surely the most popular visual language today, and the way that computer animation imagery is created should be explained. The watching audience ought to understand the ease with which photographic illusion is fabricated, the extent of the illusion, and how this magic is performed. Some would argue that it is so complex that it would not be understood by those not conversant with the technology and terminology. I think it could and should be explained, complexity not withstanding.

We are now less aware when computer animation is being used because of the integration of the technology. In the beginning the animator’s main tools would have been cel painting, eg Disney, or models, latex dinosaurs. As the technology progressed the animator might then have used ‘computer assisted’ methods, and then perhaps chosen to use 3D computer animation. Still further on it became possible to use a mixture of 3D and 2D computer animation, and a dash of live action with rotoscoped animation added on the computer. Now the name of the game is INTEGRATION, which used to be refered to as MULTI MEDIA when it wasn’t quite integrated enough. The plethora of methods and effects available to the animator/designer means that the animator must understand the basics of each method necessary to achieve the required effect. Take the Radio Times advertisement shown recently on BBC television. It included motion control filming (a rostrum camera controlled by a computer), 3D computer animation, Paintbox, all edited together on Harry (‘a digital recording, processing, compositing and editing system’). Five years ago there were companies that only provided computer animation facilities. Now increasingly facilities houses have to provide a full-service, computer graphics/animation, alongside video and sound editing.


Computer animation systems used today for 3D graphics include the Silicon Graphics Iris with a variety of software. For 2D graphics, animation and paint systems are merged with Paintbox, Harriet, and Harry. (1) Meanwhile, the distance between video editing (image manipulation) machines and graphics (image creation) machines continues to close. These systems are not easy to get access to outside the commercial environment and are very expensive to use, with or without an operator.


The Artist versus the Designer

Most computer animation on television is commissioned by production companies for presentation or for advertising. Like most areas of design this is, or rather, has become, a client-led industry. The client comes first. There was a time not so long ago when clients could be so seduced by the scarcity of the kit, and the skill of the designer, that the designer could give a realistic estimate of time and cost. It was short lived, though these factors still make the difference now as to where clients choose to go. State of the art kit can still keep a facilities house in business, bur in this year of recession the big have gone down with the small.

Spaces for the non-commercial use of computer animation are too few. The work produced by artists who do manage to get access to facilities often shows a lack of understanding of the capabilities of the machine, not surprisingly perhaps. Some have seemed to use a limited range of effects, while others are so overcome by the seemingly limitless possibilities they use everything at once. You cannot really imagine or create effectively before you know the possibilities.

Channel 4, sometimes in collaboration with the Museum of the Moving Image, has provided sponsorship for animation, and BBC2’s ‘Late Show’ slot has provided a showcase for videographics. Sonia Boyce is currently being funded by the Impressions Gallery, York, to work at ARTEC with a still video camera and use the Apple Mac. to alter and animate her images.

Artists will have more and more access to computers. As computers become easier to use it means that it is not necessary to know how to write programmes, or deal with operating systems that seem to have been designed by Computer Science Phd.s from Harvard for use by other Computer Science Phd.s from Harvard. Most people leaving art school now get some access, and many more are training specifically in this area. The artist still needs to understand, not just the program menu, but the whole range of what the computer, software and additional editing equipment is best for. And that means a lot of work with, and access to, computers. This is made easier with the development of desktop computers, such as the Apple Mac, and relevant software for animation.

A friend of mine said he believes that the desktop computer is an unsociable instrument. He used to have a good relationship with a typographer, now he talks to his computer; be used to have a good relationship with a video editor, now he talks to his computer. And the trouble is the typographer and the editor knew what they were about. The animator too.

Let’s recall traditional methods of animation, as computer animators like to refer to them. You had cel animation and model animation. Cel animation has traditionally been full of people apprenticing, before becoming animators. Model animation has employed sculptors, working in the special effect model-making studios, or model studios for animation, such as Henson’s. There are model builders and animators. The skill of modelling in 3D using computers is not that different from that of sculpture/3D design, but, within the 3D computer animation programme used to build the computer model you have to set up lights and then to animate, ie you have to be both a lighting cameraperson, and an animator.

In a way the computer is the least of your problems. It is all the skills like animation and lighting, that you are apparently supposed to pick up from reading a 3D animation package manual. And then there is output to video (or film). A small additional problem: you can’t just understand computers and animation. You have to know about video too, or you’re like a painter who doesn’t understand how to prepare a surface for painting. You can start off learning ‘a bit’ about video, then you realise you have to understand at least three quarters of a video engineer’s job.

The Designer versus the Operator.

Although someone who has not used a computer can pick up a Paintbox pen and use the machine in a few days, it is only six months later that they realise they knew nothing then, nothing but the menu items, not how to use them. The amount you have to learn to use computers.

Can an animator really design animation without knowing how to use animation tools? Yes, bur it may lead to inappropriate design or storyboarding. If you think you know what you want, and you don’t want to use the computer yourself, use an ‘operator’. Convey through them what you want to achieve.


Women working in computer animation and video

In conventional animation studios there are many women assistants, few women animators. And with computer animation there seems to be an imbalance of another sort. In Paintbox there is more or less an equal ratio of women to men, but in the area of 3D animation there are more men than women. Why? It is not to do with the hours, although the hours I know that most women in this area work would make an MP’s look favourable. Paintbox/Harriet designers work round the clock, blinding themselves with electro magnetic radiation with carefree abandon. Can you take a break for 10 minutes, as union regulations suggest you should, when the client is pacing across the room?. Harry operators/animators/editors tend to be male, mainly because they begin their careers in the area of video editing which seems, judging by ‘Televisual’s Top 50 Editors for 1990’, in which out of 50 4 were women, predominately to be a male preserve. 3D computer animation is similar. Is it that fewer women are attracted to computer animation? No, I think not, and nor is it children. Plenty of women do not have children.

Women working in the television graphics industry are aware that they form a minority, and why. Nevertheless, women’s involvement as designers within the industry has grown. I even believe it is noticeable from recent computer animation that more women are involved at the design stage. Somehow I do not believe many of those flashy chrome logo animations of 5 years ago had storyboards designed or approved by women.

Computer animation will continue to become more interesting because o f the greater use and understanding of the technology by artists whose prime intention is to experiment, to comment and to be critical, not to please clients. That depends on funding, and, to an extent, on how much artists decide to involve themselves with the technology, at the expense of the time they spend creating images.

I continue to hope that more women will work with computers, in either commercial or funded animation. Women have traditionally stayed away from computers, from fear of number-crunching technology. But the computer is a wonderful tool and more and more easy to be friendly with. Number crunching is the least of your worries. The diversity of skills required in computer animation is far harder to achieve. As to whether there are any ill effects of this compulsion. I don’t do enough drawing. And computers probably ruin your eyesight …