Computer Animation In The Movies Essay Research

Computer Animation In The Movies Essay, Research Paper

The purpose of this report is to explorer the evolution of computer animation and how far it has come by representing its beginning and what has been done to create the animations we see on a daily basis. The computer graphic industry is still being developed and there is much more to come as technology advances.

Hollywood has gone digital, and the old ways of doing computer animation are dying. Television networks, advertisers, and movie studios have embraced animation and special effects created with computers. Film editors, who for decades worked by carefully cutting and gluing film segments together, now sit in front of computer screens. There, they edit features while adding sound created and manipulated with computers (Baker 2). Moviegoers are experiencing sights and sounds they never dreamed of. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all this, the digital effects and animation industry is still in its infancy.


In the beginning, computer graphics were cumbersome and hard to control. The huge and awkward hardware systems, (or muscles,) of early computer graphics often filled entire buildings. Software programs, (or brains of computer graphics), were hopelessly underdeveloped (Baker 2). Fortunately the evolution of brains and brawn were pumped up in only three decades. (Hirsch 5)

Imagine sitting at a computer without visual feedback on a monitor. The only way to interact with a computer at that time was through toggle switches, flashing lights, punchcards, and tele-type printouts (Hirsch 5).

In 1962, this began to change. Ivan Sutherland, a Ph.D. student at MIT, created the science of computer graphics (Hirsch 5). For his dissertation, he wrote a program called Sketchpad that allowed him to draw lines of light directly on a cathode ray tube (CRT), which is shown in figure1.

Figure 1: Ivan Sutherland at the console of the TX-2 Sketchpad


The results were simple and primitive: a cube, a series of lines, and groups of geometric shapes, but his simple results offered an entirely new vision on how computers could be used.

In 1964, Sutherland teamed up with Dr. David Evans at the University of Utah to develop the world’s first academic computer graphics department (Hirsch 6). Their goal was to attract only the most gifted students by creating a unique department that combined hard science with the creative arts. They knew they were starting a brand new industry and wanted people who would be able to lead that industry out of its infancy.

Out of this unique department, a basic understanding of computer graphics began to grow. Algorithms for the creation of solid objects, their modeling, lighting, and shading were developed. Everything from desktop publishing to virtual reality find their beginnings in the basic research that came out of the University of Utah in the 60’s and 70’s.

In 1968 Evans and Sutherland also launched the first computer graphics company, Evans & Sutherland (E&S). It rolled out its first computer graphics systems in 1969 (Sloss 2). Up until this time, the only computers available that could create pictures were custom-designed for the military and prohibitively expensive. E&S’s computer system could draw wireframe images extremely rapidly, making it the first commercial “workstation” created for computer-aided design (CAD). It found its earliest customers in both the automotive and aerospace industries (Sloss 3).

In its early years, the University of Utah’s Computer Science Department received a series of research grants from the Department of Defense. The 1970’s, with its anti-war and anti-military protests, brought increasing restriction on the flows of academic grants, which had a direct impact on the Utah department’s ability to carry out research (Baker 6). Fortunately, as the program wound down, Dr. Alexander Schure stepped forward with his dream of creating computer-animated feature films. (Hirsch 6)

Schure created New York Institute of Technology and hired Edwin Catmull, a University of Utah Ph.D., to head the NYIT computer graphics lab and then equipped the lab with the best computer graphics hardware available at that time. When completed, the lab boasted over $2 million worth of equipment. Many of the staff came from the University of Utah and were given free reign to develop both two- and three-dimensional computer graphics tools. Their goal was to produce a full-length computer animated feature film. The effort, which began in 1973, produced dozens of research papers and hundreds of new discoveries. In the end, it was far too early for such a complex undertaking. The computers of that time were simply too expensive and too underpowered, and the software not nearly developed enough. (In fact, the first full-length computer generated feature film was not to be completed until as recently as 1995.) By 1978, Schure could no longer justify funding such an expensive effort, and the lab’s funding was cut back. The ironic thing is that had the Institute decided to patent many more of its researcher’s discoveries than it did, it would control much of the technology in use today. Fortunately for the computer industry as a whole, however, this did not happen. Instead, research was made available to whoever could make good use of it, thus accelerating the technology s development.

As NYIT’s influence started to wane, the first wave of commercial computer graphics studios began to appear. Film visionary George Lucas (creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies) hired Catmull from NYIT in 1978 to start the Lucasfilm Computer Development Division, and a group of over half-dozen computer graphics studios around the country opened for business (Laski 19). While Lucas’s computer division began researching how to apply digital technology to film making, the other studios began creating flying logos and broadcast graphics for various corporations including TRW, Gillette, the National Football League, and television programs, such as “The NBC Nightly News” and “ABC World News Tonight.” Although it was a dream of these initial computer graphics companies to make movies with their computers, virtually all the early commercial computer graphics were created for television commercials. It still is easier and far more profitable to create graphics for television commercials than for film. Because typical frame of film requires many more computer calculations than a similar image created for television, while the per-second film budget is perhaps about one-third as much.

The Genesis Effect

The actual wake-up call to the entertainment industry would not come until in 1982, with the release of Star-Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. That movie contained a then monumental sixty seconds of the most exciting full-color computer graphics yet seen. Called the “Genesis Effect,” the sequence starts out with a view of a dead planet hanging lifeless in space. The camera follows a missiles trail into the planet that is hit with the Genesis Torpedo. Flames arc outwards and race across the surface of the planet. The camera zooms in and follows the planets transformation from molten lava to cool blues of oceans and mountains shooting out of the ground. The final scene spirals back out into space, revealing the cloud-covered newly born planet. These sixty seconds may sound uneventful in light of current digital effects, but this remarkable scene represented many firsts (Laski 20). It required the development of several radically new computer graphics algorithms, including one for creating convincing computer fire and another to produce realistic mountains and shorelines from fractal equations.

The team at Lucasfilm s Computer Division created all this. In addition, this sequence was the first time computer graphics were used as the center of attention, instead of being used merely as a prop to support other action. No one in the entertainment industry had seen anything like it, and it unleashed a flood of queries from Hollywood directors seeking to find out both how it was done and whether an entire film could be created in this fashion. Unfortunately, with the release of TRON later that year and The Last Starfighter in 1984, the answer was still a decided no (Laski 20). Both of these films were even more technically advanced. The films’ graphics were extremely well executed, the best seen up to that point, but they could not save the film s from weak scripts. Unfortunately, the technology was greatly oversold during the films promotion, and so in the end it was technology that was blamed for the films failures.

Personal Computers and Workstations

With the 1980 s came the age of personal computers and dedicated workstations. Workstations are inexpensive minicomputers. Smaller was better, faster, and much, much cheaper (Sloss 15). Advances in silicon chip technologies brought massive and rapid increases in power to smaller computers along with drastic price reductions. The costs of commercial graphics plunged to match, to the point where the major studios suddenly could no longer cover the mountains of debt coming due on their overpriced centralized mainframe hardware.

With their expenses mounting, and without the extra capital to upgrade to the newer cheaper computers, virtually every independent computer graphics studio went out of business by 1987. All of them, that is, except PDI, which went on to become the largest commercial computer graphics house in the business and to serve as a model for the next wave of studios (Laski 20). Frightened by the financial failure of virtually the entire industry, Hollywood steered clear of computer graphics for several years. Behind the scenes, however, it was building back and waiting for the next big break.


The break materialized in the form of a watery creation for the James Cameron 1989 film, The Abyss. For this film, the groups at George Lucas Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) created the first completely computer-generated entirely organic looking and thoroughly believable creature to be realistically integrated with live action footage and characters (Laski 20). A watery pseudopod snaked its way into the underwater research lab to get a closer look at its human inhabitants. In this stunning effect, ILM overcame two difficult problems: producing a soft-edged, bulgy, and irregular shaped object, and convincingly anchoring that object in a live-action sequence. Just as the 1982 Genesis sequence served as a wake-up call for early film computer graphics, this sequence for The Abyss was announced that computer graphics had come of age. A massive outpouring of computer-generated film graphics has ensued, with studios from across the entire spectrum participating in the action. From that point on, digital technology spread so rapidly that the movies using digital effects have become too numerous to list. However they include the likes of Total Recall, Toys, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Babe, In the Line of Fire, Death Becomes Her, and of course, Jurassic Park (Laski 20).

How the magic is made creating computer graphics is essentially about three things: modeling, animation, and rendering. Modeling is the process by which three-dimensional (3-D) objects are built inside the computer, animation is about making those objects come to life with movement, and rendering is about giving them their ultimate appearance and looks.

Hardware is the brains and power of computer graphics, and software allows the developer to build a computer graphic object, that helps the animator bring this object to life, and that, in the end, gives the image its final look. Sophisticated computer graphics software for commercial studios is purchased for $30,000 to $50,000 or developed in-house by computer programmers (Sloss 13). Most studios use a combination of both, including developing new software to meet new project needs.

Modeling is the first step in creating any 3-D computer graphic. Modeling in computer graphics resembles sculpting; or building models with wood, plastic and glue. With computer graphics, modeling, animation and rendering build entire worlds and entire realities. Each can have its own laws, its own looks, and its own scale of time and space.

Access to these 3-dimensional computer realities is almost always through the 2-dimensional window of a computer monitor. This can lead to the misunderstanding that 3-D modeling is merely the production perspective drawings. This is very far from the truth. All elements created during any modeling session possess three full dimensions and at any time can be rotated, turned upside down, and viewed from any angle or perspective. In addition, they may be re-scaled, reshaped, or resized whenever the developer chooses. Modeling is the first step in creating any 3-dimensional computer animation. It requires the artist’s ability to visualize mentally the objects being built, and the craftsperson’s painstaking attention to detail to bring it to completion. To create an object, a developer starts with a blank screen and sets the scale of the computer’s coordinate system for that element (Hirsch 8). The scale can be anything from microns to light years across in size. It is important that the scale stays consistent with all elements in a project. A chair built in inches will be lost in a living room built in miles. The model is then created by building up layers of lines and patches that define the shape of the object (Hirsch 8).

While it is within the developer that the power of creation lays, it is the animator who provides the illusion of life. The animator uses the tools at his disposal to make objects move. Every animation process begins essentially the same way, with a storyboard. A storyboard is a series of still images that shows how the elements will move and interact with one another (Hirsch 9). This process is essential so that the animator knows what movements need to be assigned to objects in the animation. Using the storyboard, the animator sets up key points of movements for each object in the scene. The computer then produces motion for each object on a frame-by-frame basis. The final result when assembled, gives the form of fluid movement.

The developer gives form, the animator provides motion, but still the animation process is not complete. The objects and elements are nothing but empty or hollow forms without any surface. They are merely outlines until the rendering process is applied. Rendering is the most computationally time-demanding aspect of the entire animation process. During the rendering process, the computer does virtually all the work using software that has been purchased or written in-house. It is here that the animation finally achieves its final look. Objects are given surfaces that make them look solid. Any type of look can be achieved by varying the surfaces. The objects finally look concrete. Next, the objects are lighted. The look of the lighting is affected by the surfaces of the objects, the types of lights, and the mathematical models used to calculate the behavior of light. Once the lighting is completed, it is now time to create what the camera will see. The computer calculates what the camera can see following the designs of the objects in the scene. Fog, smoke, and other effects all have to be calculated. To create the final 2-D image, the computer scans the resulting 3-D world and pulls out the pixels that the camera can see (Hirsch 10). The image is then sent to the monitor, to videotape, or to a film recorder for display. The multiple 2-D still frames, when all assembled, produce the final animation (Hirsch 10).


In conclusion much has happened in the commercial computer graphics industry since it s start in the early 1960 s and the decline of the first wave of studios and the rise of the second. Software and hardware costs have plummeted. The number of well-trained animators and programmers has increased dramatically. And at last, Hollywood and the advertising community have acknowledged that the digital age has finally arrived, this time not to disappear. All these factors have lead to an explosion in both the size of existing studios and the number of new enterprises opening their doors. The computer graphics industry has come along way from the days of the sketchpad and the use of huge akward machines. As the digital tide continues to rise, only one thing is certain. We have just begun to see how computer technology will change the visual arts.


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