I recently received a copy of Tom Sito’s Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (The MIT Press, April 2013) to review for Animation World Network. It is a very good book. In my review, I said, “He [Sito] has seen CG, also referred to as CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), rise from the shadows of academia to become so prominent that a major animation studio like Walt Disney Productions has announced that it was ending production of traditional animation and all its features would henceforth be done in CGI (a promise that it soon backtracked on).”
So have I.
I don’t profess to have studied it with the professional eye that Sito has, but I have been there. I am a lifelong fan of animation. I’ve said that the earliest animation that I can remember was my mother taking me to a theater to see Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, which had to be from the first theatrical rerelease in October 1945, when I was four years old. My parents took me to Disney’s features (at the time the only theatrical animated features) to about the mid-1950s, when I started going to the movies on my own. I saw the first Japanese animated features, Magic Boy, Panda and the Magic Serpent, and Alakazam the Great when they came to Los Angeles’ theaters in 1961. By then I was going to college at UCLA, and I never missed a campus film program of animation. That was when I saw my first Soviet animation; Soyuzmultfilm’s 1947 The Magic Horse and 1957’s The Snow Queen.
In the late 1960s I got into “the inner circle” of animation professionals and hardcore fans who invited me to private 16 m.m. screenings of animated shorts and features, including programs showcasing the works of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones. I remember being invited to a preview screening of the 1972 Fritz the Cat by Milt Gray, one of the animators, who was anxious to get my opinion of it. (I could not see any reason for the changes to Robert Crumb’s plot, which turned Fritz’s story from an exaggerated but believable satire on shallow college student protesters to an over-the-top anarchist fantasy in which all adolescents were out to destroy themselves and society.)
And I started seeking out and attending the “professional” animation festivals. The International Tournée of Animation and Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation were the principal annual festivals, with occasional college and art museum animation festivals. From about 1970 to the late 1980s, these were the places to see foreign animation, art animation, college student animation, experimental animation, and the like. (These festivals became obsolete after about 1990 because of the new video market.)
At first these were all “cartoons”, even when some of them were stop-motion or other forms of animation. For example, one that particularly impressed me was Soyuzmultfilm’s 1987 Выкрутасы (Frills), stop-motion wire animation by Garri Bardin. I don’t think that I have ever seen anyone else make a film in wire animation. But around 1984, more and more animated computer imagery started appearing in these festivals.
In retrospect, it is hard to say which were the first to appear. Certainly one of the first was Brilliance, a 30-second commercial for canned food that was first shown during the January 1984 Super Bowl. Brilliance was sponsored by the Canned Food Information Council through Ketchum Advertising, which commissioned the Hollywood special effects company Robert Abel & Associates to produce it. Brilliance was considered “groundbreaking and influential”, as much for its “sexy robot” as for its computer graphics. Both Ketchum Advertising and Robert Abel & Associates showcased it in their own advertising. In 1985 Ketchum Advertising produced a 6:30-minute documentary, The Making of Brilliance. By then the 30-second commercial had appeared in several 1984 and 1985 animation festivals.
The Adventures of André and Wally B by John Lasseter and the crew of “The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project”; not yet the independent Pixar Animation Studios, was the next CG standout. The not-quite-2-minute The Adventures of André and Wally B debuted at the 1984 SIGGRAPH in July, and immediately started appearing in just about every animation festival. The annual SIGGRAPH convention in the mid-‘80s was responsible for many of the short computer films that jumped immediately to animation festivals.
Tony de Peltrie debuted the next year, at the 1985 SIGGRAPH in San Francisco. Tony de Peltrie was made by four students at the University of Montreal; Pierre Lachapelle, Philippe Bergeron, Pierre Robidoux, and Daniel Langlois. It was the first CG film to feature a “realistic” human character for 6 minutes. The producers took advantage of the then-current limits of computer graphics, and developed a bittersweet story of an ageing pianist sitting at his piano, reminiscing about his past stardom; told entirely through facial expressions and body language. The pianist was grotesquely exaggerated, but his facial expressions were so emotive that you hardly noticed. Time magazine hailed Tony de Peltrie as “De Peltrie looks and acts human; his fingers and facial expressions are soft, lifelike and wonderfully appealing. In creating De Peltrie, the Montreal team may have achieved a breakthrough: a digitized character with whom a human audience can identify.” The film won over twenty international awards, and became an animation festival favorite for the next few years.
Chromosaurus was another 1985 festival favorite. This was a 43-second demo by Pacific Data Images, known today for its theatrical features like Shrek and Madagascar distributed by DreamWorks Animation, but just getting started in 1985. Chromosaurus does not have a plot, but its shiny chrome tyrannosaurs racing along brought smiles to audiences.
Quest: A Long Ray’s Journey Into Light was produced in 1986 by Apollo Computer in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. It was just about the last of the plotless look-at-the-awesome-computer-imagery films to wow the audiences at animation festivals, because the same year the newly-independent Pixar Animation Studios produced its computer graphic Luxo, Jr. After that, it was Pixar, Pixar, Pixar! Pixar got a standing ovation for Tin Toy at the 1988 SIGGRAPH, and its first Oscar. After that, Pixar was getting theatrical releases, not just animation festival screenings. Toy Story, Pixar’s first theatrical feature, came out in 1995, and since then CGI has gone on to triumph after triumph.
CGI for its own sake, rather than to tell a story, is pretty much passé, but during the 2000s one company, Animusic, LLC has semi-revived it with a series of short films of CGI musical instruments playing themselves. The films are basically music videos, packaged seven or eight per Animusic DVD.
I have always thought that cartoon animation looked “pretty neat”. Up until about a half-dozen years ago, cartoon animation was the only real way to bring anthropomorphic animals to life. A good example was Chuck Jones’ animated feature version of The Phantom Tollboth in 1970. It wasn’t practical to have the boy and the animals appearing together until Milo went into the cartoon-animation world. Real people in animal makeup or mascot costumes might look good, but they never looked realistic. Then in the 2000s movies like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out, and suddenly you could have perfectly realistic anthropomorphic animals alongside real humans! I am waiting for the next remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau with CGI Beast-Men.
Considering the CGI theatrical features of 2013 from Disney/Pixar (Monsters University), DreamWorks Animation/Pacific Data Images (The Croods, Turbo), 20th Century Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios (Epic), Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2), and Universal Studios/Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me 2) – even DisneyToon Studios and its subcontractor, Prana Studios in Mumbai, India (Planes), and the first feature coming from Reel FX Creative Studios in Dallas (Free Birds) on November 1 — you might think that CGI animation in its variations has been perfected by the movie industry. The Last Flight of the Champion, released in August 2013 by Omnipulse Entertainment of Houston, Texas, proves that not all studios have mastered CGI yet. But they’re getting there. Boy, CGI has come a long way in the last thirty years!
This is pretty much off the subject, but I want to take this opportunity to document my own brief brush with CGI animation. I worked for Streamline Pictures, a company specializing in licensing Japanese animation and releasing it in the U.S., theatrically and on VHS video, from 1991 to 2002 when it went out of business. Streamline was founded in late 1988 by Carl Macek and our own Jerry Beck. Streamline’s original logo, designed by Jerry, was based on that of Streamline Films, a NYC stock-footage company owned by a friend of his; a still picture of a streamliner locomotive.
Carl Macek was never fond of it, and when Jerry left Streamline Pictures in July 1993 to pursue other projects (I think that editing The 50 Greatest Cartoons was the first of them), Carl did not take long to replace it. It was around early 1994 when Carl called the Streamline staff into the lunchroom to announce proudly that the company had a new, totally original, CGI logo, produced by a friend of his. (He mentioned his name, but it was nobody that I had ever heard of, and I promptly forgot it.) The new logo appeared on Streamline’s theatrical releases and videos for the next couple years that Streamline was in new production.