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The Animation Dance: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Digital and Traditional Animation Become Co-DependentThe past decade has wrought more technological changes within the animationindustry than in the 90 years prior, with the result that there ispractically no cartooning being doneanywhere without some kind of digitalinput. But as the medium leaps ahead technologically, many animators andproducers are looking to the past for creative inspiration.

The last hold-out for the traditional way of doing things was Chuck JonesFilm Productions, headed up by the legendary creator of the Road Runner,Marvin the Martian, and Michigan J. Frog. Over the past few years, Joneshas attempted to revive the theatrical cartoon format that flourished inthe 1940s and '50s with new shorts such as Chariots of Fur and AnotherFroggy Evening, which were completely hand-made every step of the way, frominitial storyboard through painted cels.

Similarly, Fox's animated primetime hit King of the Hill, co-created byBeavis and Butt-head's Mike Judge, still does it the old way-almost. "Wedon't use any of the new digital technology in the final production of theprogram," states Mike Wolf, animation producer for Film Roman, Hollywood,"although we do use a lot of computers in the process."

Before the animation of an episode begins, key layout poses of thecharacters are scanned into Film Roman's Mac-based system and created asfiles. Working primarily in Adobe Premiere and Illustrator, toontechnicians assemble the files and match the whole to the pre-recordeddialogue and a rough M&E track. The resulting animatic gives a rough ideaof what the half-hour episode will look like. This process, which is commonin animated features but rare in television, is used primarily as a toolfor the writers.

"We're using TV writers and writers who are not familiar with animation,"Wolf says, "and they're able to watch the show and give comments andre-write jokes, and maybe give additional acting direction to the animator,much like they were doing with dry-runs in a sitcom."

For series like King of the Hill and The Simpsons, the script is not onlythe starting point, but the most important element. Some TV producers,though, are trying to return to animation's roots by recreating theso-called "lost art" of stretch-and-squash gag animation in the six-minuteformat.

In particular, The Wacky World of Tex Avery, a syndicated show produced byFrance's Les Studios Tex (in which DIC Entertainment is a partner) and apaean to the great cartoon director Tex Avery, is employing moderntechniques, such as digital ink-and-paint, to goretro.

"Digital ink and paint has come a long way in the past five years," saysRobby London, executive vice president of creative development for DIC,Burbank, and the series' executive producer. "What's terrific is that itfits it; it doesn't feel like a hodge-podge blend of technologies whereyou're trying to marry something that looks very hard and technical withsomething that's hand-drawn." It was also one of the techniques thatenabled the studio to turn out 195 six-minute cartoons in a year and a half.

The desire to go retro has infiltrated even the computer-laden halls ofDigital Domain. For a new Taco Bell spot titled "Mario Kart," which hypes apromotional giveaway through the chain restaurants, CGI supervisor and leadanimator Mark Glaser (a proud member of the studio's "NT Group") broughtNintendo game stars Mario and Donkey Kong to life for a wild auto race,using Lightwave. The spot, agencied by Seattle's Big Bang Idea Engineering,offered the digital artists at D2 a rare chance to work with cartoony,rather than photorealistic, characters.

"There's a lot of people here who want to push character animation, and nowwe're doing it," says Glaser. "I think most of the push is trying to bedone on the SGI platform using Softimage, but this product had a reallyshort schedule [five weeks], and we've proven many times that usingLightwave on NT, you get things done a lot faster."

Before building the character models in the computer, the artists made avideomatic of Mario Kart's storyboard to see how the scenes fit together."In some cases we've retooled entire scenes," says effects supervisorMichael Gibson. "We saw that there were three or four scenes that were notworking as well as we'd hoped, and we came up with new ways to handle them,so it looks a lot more exciting now."

Perhaps the ultimate in digital cartoons is being done by the tinyDallas-based toon shop DNA, which produced a half-hour, all-CGI cartoonspecial for ABC titled Santa Versus the Snowman. Having started withregional ads, DNA achieved notoriety in sick and twisted circles for theirtraditionally animated but truly demented Nana & Li'l Puss-Puss shorts.

Now the company specializes in CGI, but with a squash-and-stretchsensibility. "It's pretty much straight-ahead 3-D," says DNA co-owner JohnDavis. "The main thing that makes it more cartoony is the design. It isalso being textured and lit to be colorful and more cartoonish."

According to Davis, Santa Versus the Snowman set a number of milestones: Hecalls it the first all 3-D network special, as well as being the first onedone in Lightwave (on NT), and also stresses the record speed ofproduction. "We produced this in about three months with about 12 people,"Davis says. "Since we were able to design and write the show, it was alldesigned and written to be very animation-friendly. We designed scenes thatwork for the story and have a lot of movement, but are easy to pull off ina short turnaround."

If computer techniques were eagerly welcomed by DNA's directors, veteranfeature animation filmmakers Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, producer/directorsof Anastasia, were far more skeptical when tapped to run 20th Century Fox'snew digital animation dream factory in Phoenix, Arizona.

"[Digital technology] frightens me a lot," confesses Bluth, whose pastfilms include The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and Thumbelina. Butafter realizing such advantages as the ability to fix paint colorsinstantly by keystroke, Bluth converted. "The computer suddenly said, 'Hey,don't be afraid of me, I'm your friend,'" he claims.

For Anastasia, which was filmed in Cinemascope's 2.35:1 aspect ratio, theactual animation was done on paper, with the animators frequently referringto live-action study footage shot by Bluth on a stage and then scanned.

To populate many of Anastasia's epic-sized scenes, the original animationwas replicated, re-colored and often re-sized and placed elsewhere in theshot, using Toonz, which comes from Italy's Digital Video. This processallowed for the creation of shots, such as one set in bustling St.Petersburg, that contain some 940 moving figures.

Even in less challenging scenes, the interaction of the characters wascoordinated through the computer. "An animator will draw it and we'llcomposite it for them with the other characters, and they'll see how it'sworking," says Mark Weathers, Fox Animation Studios' director of computertechnology. "The iterative process at our studio was very, very intense toget things right."

By the time the characters, props, sets and special effects consisting ofeverything from 2-D fireworks to 3-D snow were composited, some scenescontained as many as 100 separate layers (contrast this with cel animation,where colors begin to shift more than six layers down). Weathers says thatin the final year of production time (Anastasia took 30 months tocomplete), the entire film was rendered at least eight times, averaging7,000 to 10,000 frames a night. "The big threshold for us was when we wentover a terabyte of online disk space," he says, "and with a terabyte, wecould still only keep about 10 percent of the movie online."

While Anastasia is being touted as the first completely digital 2-D film,Touchstone's new thriller Deep Rising holds the distinction of featuringthe first movie creature created entirely in CGI with no practical oranimatronic parts. Designed by monster-master Rob Bottin and brought tolife by animators at Dream Quest Images, Deep Rising's creature (nicknamed"Crusty" by the crew) is a multi-tentacled, octopus-like beast, with thevoracity of Jaws and the attitude of Alien.

And unlike some CGI monsters, whose textures tend to show a telltaletranslucence when composited into the live action, Crusty looks horrifyingly real. "It is rendered in Alias [on SGI]," explains CG creature supervisor RobDressel. "Most of the big movies are all done in RenderMan, and it's toutedas the great renderer. But using Alias's layered shaders we were able toget a nice, raw skin with a thick, gooey surface to it."

Adds digital effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw: "It became evident from a lotof the CG we had seen that they never really rendered for the full colorrange of film. We're able to scan the full range of the negative and lookinto the blacks and the lower parts of the color range to make sure our CGmatches that."

One reality-threatening problem, though, was the tendency of the creature'stentacles to pass through one another. "In early tests you see one tentacleslice right through another tentacle, and there's nothing to stop it fromdoing that," says DeLeeuw. "The animator had to roughly block it out thencome back and refine all the spots where it penetrates."

One thing Deep Rising proves is that synthetic creatures have now advancedto a degree where they can carry a picture through a performance, ratherthan simply a series of "boo-scares." But having reached that goal, DeLeeuwpredicts the industry will now step back from fantastical creatures andconcentrate more on commonplace figures.

"You've seen things like dinosaurs, alligators, dragons and sea serpents;we've kind of run the gamut of scales and wet-looking skin," he says. "Thenext brave frontier is getting into human skin, and the nextstate-of-the-art place to go is with hair."

Like all that hair covering Mighty Joe Young, perhaps?

With everything from painted mice on cels to digital lip-synch for pigs nowcovered under the heading "animation," it is getting harder to define theparameters of the medium. For most, this is not a big concern. But for theInternational Animation Society, ASIFA-Hollywood, which every Fall bestowsits "Annie" awards for Excellence in Animation, it is a challenge that willalways be faced.

"You could say: 'Is something like Space Jam an animated feature?'" asksASIFA-Hollywood president Antran Manoogian. "That is subjective, but ourfeeling is, if it's incorporating a great deal of animation, it'sconsidered an animated film."

For the record, Space Jam was pitted against Hercules and Cats Don't Dancefor this year's best feature Annie.

The waters are likely to be muddied further by such films as Lost World:Jurassic Park 2, whose dinos can hardly be ignored as animationachievements, but are considered special effects by mainstream Hollywood.

"It's always going to be a challenge," he states. "Some people are sayingthere should be a computer animation category. But you try to make it work.You do it and see what people say, then proceed accordingly."