Bridging the great divide – Page 2

At the Odeon, Marble Arch that same evening I watched a succession of short sequences which they called idents and stings, all demonstrating the current state of the art and competing for the annual awards. The most memorable effects were those which simulated water; raindrops falling on to dry sand and building up to a flood; a torrent of water thundering down a ravine towards the viewer – very realistic. The programme demonstrated a wide range of applications but the lasting impression was of images and type twisting, turning, gyrating through space, hell-bent on displaying their 3D propensities. There were a few exceptional examples of character animation but for the most part I witnessed progressive manipulation of images rather than anything resembling full animation.

Computerised video graphics has a long way to go before it can compete on equal terms with traditional feature cartoons. It still has a lot to learn – if it is prepared to listen.

Conventional animation has been around for over 90 years, growing, experimenting and evaluating. At best, the computer industry has had a little over 15 years in which to develop their present level of expertise.

When Alan Kitching began working on Antics in the late Sixties/early Seventies it represented the first professional attempt to link the traditional with the emerging technology. More importantly it tackled the task from the viewpoint of a film animator. Subjected to constant upgrading, it is still too expensive for the smaller studios who would have to outlay something in the region of £50,000. The more affluent however have taken it on board and are making it earn its keep, notably in Swedish studios, and at Nippon in Japan.

It is my belief that the computer based line tester is the gateway to the bridge across the divide. Stan Hayward with his Amiga 2000 line tester, featured in Animator issue 27, shares the same ambition as Alan Kitching. Both men would like to see video animation become a curriculum subject with appropriate equipment installed in every school. Stan’s experience with children of all ages has proved that animation fascinates them and inspires their imaginations.

Chromacolour’s Amiga 2000 line test system costs approximately £10,000. A system based on the Amiga 500 around £3,000. But if you already possess a video camera, an Amiga 500 computer and a domestic television set then the extra equipment may be brought for under £700.

The Amiga systems have ‘Paint’ software to colour your line drawings, the ability to sync a sound track with sound playback one frame at a time, making it easier to ‘read’ the track, and even a built-in simulated voice which can be programmed by the user.

EOS Electronics AV Ltd have made available their Supertoon line tester at a little under £5,000. Their model uses a colour camera, S-VHS video and safe low voltage lights. Like the Chromacolour system it is targeted at universities and colleges with tight budgets.

The Quick Action Recorder from NAC Inc.

Probably the best known line tester is the Quick Action Recorder by NAC Inc. Launched in 1979 it can be found in over 30 countries including the Yorum Gross Film Studios, Australia; N.F.B. of Canada; Shanghai Animation Film Studio; Wang Film Production, China; there are four units in the Walt Disney Studio, and 68 units scattered throughout Japan. In the UK there were 24 at the last count, two of them at Cosgrove Hall and two at Universal Pictures. A 4 Megabyte QAR will accomodate 960 frames, storable on floppy disc. The basic QAR is £11,500.

All these line testers do a similar job but the quality and frame storage capacity is reflected in the price.

The computer based line tester has proved to be a great advance on the film or video line tester. Once the animators’ drawings are photographed they can be viewed at different frame rates, forwards or backwards, and in any chosen order, by giving the computer a few instructions via the keyboard.

Computers that manipulate or ‘animate’ the image are a big step up from line testers in terms of computing power and complexity of software but they have at least two things in common: someone supplies the images they work with; someone decides how the images will move. Computer based animation systems must be regarded as another tool, one that can relieve the film animator of a great deal of drudgery. Much of the present output is limited in style of presentation. They may call the results ‘animated graphics’ but for the most part they are little more than camera pans over, under, round and through the chosen subject, combined with squash, stretch, ripple effects and metamorphosis.

I have received a large number of computer graphic show reels. They consist of immaculate type and graphics going through their paces like well trained circus performers eager to show their expertise and versatility. This they do to perfection, but oh so relentlessly! After three reels of constant gyration the eye wanders from the screen to rest thankfully on inanimate furniture. They do succeed in proving to a lesser or greater degree that the occasional spot effect in the right place can be very effective. If they do not attempt to emulate the cartoon or model films we know and love, it is due to cost, lack of computing power, and often a genuine desire to deliberately avoid that market. What comes over quite clearly is that this tool is available to all and sundry, so why not let the old techniques benefit?

Traditional animators have much to offer the computer animators, especially those who are beavering away re-inventing old principles. Principles which were first defined and illustrated in Animated Cartoons written by E.G. Lutz and published in 1920.

Sophisticated computer imaging systems do not differentiate between a spaceship’s flight through space, a flying logo, a simulated drive up a motorway which only exists as a set of draughtsman’s drawings, or a pan round the Seven Dwarfs’ cottage. They each have their place in the scheme of things.

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