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Disney's Frank Thomas on the dawn of computer animation

While researching The Pixar Touch, I spent a day at a university library looking through computer graphics journals of the 1980’s just to see what people were thinking about computer animation in its early years. In a 1984 issue of Computer Pictures magazine—now defunct, as far as I can tell—I was surprised and delighted to find this article by the renowned Disney animator Frank Thomas assessing the future of computer animation with a thoughtful, but skeptical, eye.

At this time, Thomas, one of the so-called Nine Old Men of Disney animation, was retired from a 43-year career at the studio. He had animated, among many other characters, the dwarfs of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and young Bambi.

Ever eager to learn, he had taken trips during his retirement to visit a number of groups working in the new field of computer animation. Among these were the Computer Division at Lucasfilm, where a young animator named John Lasseter was working.

He came away with a generally negative view of the ability of computer animation to match the expressive qualities of hand-drawn animation:

An artist must sit at a console for long periods to program a motion, or create a movement that is complicated both in action and keyboard input. It is so much easier to pick up a pencil and simply draw the action. Old-fashioned animation has more control and more freedom, and also confers a greater range of expression.

He ended his commentary, however, on an encouraging and optimistic note. Read the whole thing:

“Can Classic Disney Animation Be Duplicated on the Computer?” (PDF, 1.8 mb)


Art challenging technology

In explaining the relationship at Pixar between art and technology, John Lasseter often describes it this way: The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.

Here’s an early example of art reaching out to technology at Pixar before it was Pixar. The predecessor to Pixar, Ed Catmull’s Computer Division at Lucasfilm, contracted with Lasseter in late 1983 to work on a short film directed by Alvy Ray Smith; the film eventually became The Adventures of André & Wally B. The group’s modeling software at the time offered only basic geometric shapes like cones and cylinders. Lasseter asked Catmull and Smith for a new shape, a flexible, teardrop-like form, that would let him create a more appealing character.

Below, Lasseter reaching out to the technologists. (Click to enlarge.)


Visual Effects Society student competition

The Visual Effects Society, an organization of visual effects artists and technologists, gives Oscar-like awards each year for visual-effects work in feature films, TV programs, commercials, and videogames. (In this year's awards, Outstanding Special Effects in a Motion Picture went to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Outstanding Effects In An Animated Motion Picture went to Ratatouille.) VES recently announced that its competition next year will include a student award for the first time.

The award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Student Project is open to any project "created by a student or group of students while attending an accredited school." VES adds that the visual effects "must serve the story being told."

The deadline for submissions is December 5. More details are at the VES awards site.

I love this because it illustrates how the computer graphics revolution envisioned and started, in part, by Ed Catmull et al. at the University of Utah, the New York Institute of Technology, and Lucasfilm is becoming more accessible every year to creative people working in their dorms or (metaphorical) garages. Admittedly, the competition is not limited to computer effects, but I suspect the majority of entries will tap that revolution in some way.


Hello, world!

I'm kicking off this blog to accompany my book The Pixar Touch. This will be a place where I can offer new material on Pixar and computer animation in general, including material on Pixar's history that didn't make it into the book. If all goes well, I'll be posting once a week or so.

I don't expect to cover day-to-day announcements from Pixar, as a general rule. Two other blogs already do a good job of that: The Pixar Blog and Upcoming Pixar. Check 'em out. Jim Hill also runs interesting Pixar-related pieces.

Hope to see you back here.

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