Leading Digital Animators Make For Colorful Academy Event

Although “Toy Story” (1995) is widely seen as a flashpoint for computer animation, the form had already done a lot of growing up by the time Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the first-ever computer-animated feature sprung from Pixar’s toy box.

At last night’s Marc Davis Celebration of Animation event, 10 digital artists—including Oscar winner, Academy governor, and the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, John Lasseter—gathered to discuss their craft. Animator and author Tom Sito moderated two panels and a Q&A that revealed how computer animation has evolved to this point, and where it may be going next.

The first panel took the stage after a highlight reel that spanned more than a half-century and culminated in “Toy Story 3” and “How to Train Your Dragon” (both 2010).  The earliest was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), for which legendary designer Saul Bass enlisted artist John Whitney—and his computer—to make Bass’s main title graphics move.  (Panelist Jeff Kleiser noted that Whitney performed this task working out of a garage and using Navy technology that previously served to help fire shells.)

Sito and his first group of guests discussed this and other watershed moments in computer animation’s early history. “It’s amazing that it’s all happened in one lifetime,” Sito reflected. “We’re in the midst of the 20th anniversary of the Gettysburgs of the digital revolution,” he added, citing such groundbreaking films as “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), and “Jurassic Park” (1993). “Before those movies, the idea of making a motion picture with computers seemed ridiculous. After those movies, the idea of making a movie without computers seemed ridiculous.”

The first group of panelists included David Em, a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group, and others; Rebecca Allen, whose work is featured in the permanent collections of museums in New York and Paris; Philippe Bergeron, an actor and animator whose short, “Tony de Peltrie” (1985), introduced the world to one of the first CG characters; and the husband- and-wife team of Kleiser and Diana Walczak, co-founders of the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company and Synthespian Studios.

Em’s interest in computer animation was kindled in the early 1970s. As an artist experimenting in video, he realized that to control everything the audience saw, “you had to control every dot.” Like Em, Allen also began her career as an artist. She had been dismayed to discover that, like the Disney legend Alice Davis (and widow of the animator for whom the lecture series is named), Allen’s gender would prevent her from becoming an animator. But computers offered Allen a way to create her own animated works. Walczak and Kleiser, on the other hand, started out in the sciences (as an engineering student and a math major, respectively). Sitting alongside their colleagues, they reflected Sito’s observation that in the early days of CG, there were two types of people: “engineers who had always wanted to be artists, and artists who wanted to create in non-traditional ways.”

Introducing the second panel, Sito noted that between 1975 and 1982, the “basic tools” had been developed and that the next decade would see these tools become powerful enough to deliver complex images and user-friendly enough to encourage artists to adopt them. These artists included the night’s next group of panelists: Tim Johnson, a director and animator (whose commercial work included animating the first digital Pillsbury doughboy); Bill Kroyer, who was trained in classic hand-drawn animation at the Walt Disney Studios, and whose later work on “Tron” (1982) would represent one of the first shots of the digital revolution; Phil Tippett, an Academy Award winner and visual effects supervisor on the last three “Twilight” films; and John Lasseter.

Lasseter saw the potential of CG technology while working on the Disney lot. “Disney used to be the place where incredible advances in technology were combined with artistry to advance the storytelling. And I felt like it had reached a plateau with ‘101 Dalmatians,’” recalled Lasseter, who was invited by Kroyer and Jerry Rees to see the first dailies from “Tron” on 35mm film. “We threaded it up on one of those ancient movieolas that had helped to make ‘Snow White,’ and when I saw that, that was my ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Johnson and Tippett may have been more reluctant converts. “I had decided I would never do computer animation,” confessed Johnson. But he was later swayed by CG’s offer of providing the animator with instant feedback. This realization, coupled with the prospect of no longer burning off his fingernails (as he had been by working with harsh chemicals) changed Johnson’s outlook.

“I went into it kicking and screaming,” Tippett said of his first foray into computer animation. This occurred while making “Jurassic Park,” the film that convinced Tippett that a CG tidal wave was looming. (In fact, it was Tippett who provided Jeff Goldblum’s response to Sam Neill’s wry remark about having just become obsolete: “Don’t you mean extinct?”) Of course, what counts is how Tippett emerged from that introduction: with his second Academy Award.

Kroyer sees the challenge not as the threat of obsolescence, but as “this quandary of tools.” He compared the digital age to his first day at Disney. “I sat down at a desk. There was paper and a pencil, and I ‘learned the interface’ in about four minutes. Everything else that I learned was art. But there was no learning curve with the technology.” While Kroyer would prove his adaptability, he still encounters challenges—though perhaps less technical than experiential. “When I was animating on paper, I always felt like I got into this magical zone. I don’t know if you can get that when you’re separated by all these tools.”

Johnson offered a different perspective. “I’ve felt the zone digitally,” he said. “When you’re doing this key frame and anticipating the next, and all of a sudden you have a full bladder and you haven’t eaten in eight hours? I’ve found that zone.”

“Really, what we’re talking about is tools,” offered Lasseter, reconciling computer animation’s break with the past with its continuation of it. “They’re unbelievable tools, but they’re no different than a pencil and a piece of paper. No one would go to Marc Davis or Ollie Johnston and say, ‘Wow, what pencil do you use? I have got to get me a box of those.”