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Computer animation a boon that looms.

The future is catching up with TV animation. Gradually, but steadily, computers are capturing an increasingly important role in the animation process, without any indications - as of yet - that the computer chip is likely to replace the human hand altogether.

Nor is it clear this time that technological progress is significantly reducing the costs of producing animation. What it is doing is to improve and shorten the labor-intensive which is currently forcing studios to ship the major part of their ink and paint work abroad, particularly to the Far East and to Eastern Europe.

Computers also are now playing a key role in modernizing the data-base sorting, filing and organizing process. According to Tom Burton, president of Calico Entertainment, they are making "an amazing impact' in that area. They also are substantially widening the technological animation horizons. allowing shots that just couldn't have been done before.

But, warned Burton, "while the creative process has been enhanced, there has been an expectation level for computers that sometimes outstrips the reality of what is available."

For instance, Calico now works with a new computer system called AVID, a digital, non-linear editing system for animation which Burton called "a mind blower."

In Europe, intense research into computer animation is going on, and a number of animation firms have banded together in an effort to speed up progress.

"Europe is a |developing country' when it comes to computer animation research,'" said Maureen Polaszek, manager of Triangle Film Productions in Berlin, which is obtaining one of the first "test" computers from Cambridge University.

In London, Ivor Wood of Woodland Animation is working with French software provided by the Institute National Audiovisuel. The system digest key computer drawings which are fed to it and fills the in-betweens. The work is then stored in memory. No cels are necessary. "The computer does away with that tedious job, but it still needs key people to operate it, and these people have to be trained," reminded Wood, adding that "the Europeans are trying to combat the established policy of sending work out to other (cheaper) countries to be painted."

At the other side of the world, in Korea, which today is doing the major percentage of cel painting work for the Americans, one of the key animation companies - Sei Yung - is developing plans to install 50 work stations of the new, American-developed Metrolight computer animation system. Peter Keefe, director of production and creative entertainment for the Zodiac Entertainment company, considers this the most significant advancement in computer animation. The Koreans are spending some $3 million on acquiring the new computer.

Metrolight takes the animators' hand-drawn work - there can be as many as 15,000 manual drawing and up to 30,000 cels in a half-hour episode, as in Zodiac's successful Widget and Mr. Bogus shows - and inputs them. The computer is then used to position the digitallized art, and allows movement of the characters on a 360 degree axis so they can be viewed from all angles.

The computer puts a 3-D perspective on the drawings and also creates shadows in a matter of minutes. "No inks is involved," said Keefe. "The system produces beautiful shine and luster. There are thousands of color permutations. There is no density shift in the cels, no paint flashes." Zodiac has co-production plans with Sei-Yung.

Top animators note that computer animation today often relies on simply staging human drawings on computers. "There is no genius in the drawings or the character development," Keefe said, adding that, when computer animation is mentioned it usually involves only about 45 seconds of a full half-hour episode.

Costs of animated shows vary a great deal, depending on the producer's determination to achieve quality. "They can range from $200,000 to $400,000." said Brian Lacey, Zodiac's director of marketing development.

Lacey maintained that today's use of computers in animation is best labelled "computer-assisted animation," which mostly lacks the quality of hand-drawn inked cels. "Why would we at Zodiac want to pay more money for computer work and obtain a less fluid piece of animation than what we get from work done by hand?" he asked. "It's not even faster. Just more complicated."

"When people talk of computer animation they are looking to the concept of machines doing it, which is more fantasy than reality," said animator Bill Croyer (FernGully - The Last Rainforest0.

Top animation specialists can't visualize a time when the computer might take over completely.

"You can't ditch the blueprint and you can't ditch the architect," said Keefe, "and you can't pretend that, just because we have computers, these little bits of silicon have acquired imagination and a wildly fanciful hand.'

"Amen," added Burton to this. "You can't do animation in a fast-food stand environment. The demand has outstripped the ability in many cases for the medium to perform properly. People keep looking for quick, cheaper, faster solutions - and the result can be quite terrible."
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Title Annotation:for producing children's television programs
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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