Lecture 3

Computer Animation and Lessons From Traditional Animation

contains notes and images from




Computer Animation

University of Utah, Ohio State University, Cornell, North Carolina State pioneered the field in the 60s and early 70s.

Large numbers of people would begin to see computer animation in the mid to late 70s at the movies.

Star Wars - 1977 - vector graphics

Rebel Pilots trench briefing done with computer graphics created here at EVL (then called the Circle Graphics Habitat) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle by Larry Cuba.

and here we will see and talk a bit about Larry Cuba's videotape about making this computer animation

Tron - 1982 - coloured, shaded graphics

Star Trek II - 1983 - particle system for the Genesis Effect

1983 also saw the use of CG in a Japanese animated film - the opening credits and the almost-climactic cobra attack helicopter sequence in Golgo 13.

Abyss - 1989 - realistic natural object (water) moving in an unrealistic way - water tentacle)

Jurassic Park - 1993 - back to animating dinosaurs but now with CG

Toy Story - 1995 - first full length computer animation feature

Twister - 1996 - lots of particles

Titanic - 1997 - Computer generated people in the background

Star Wars I - the Phantom Menace - 1999 - computer generated jar jar and yoda and others. We should see more of this in the later Star Wars prequels,  and with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. Computer generated stunt people would be used for action scenes in films like Spiderman.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within - 2001 - fairly realistic looking human characters, and by 2005 with Final Fantasy: Advent Children even more realistic looking human characters, and by 2007 there was Beowulf with even more realistic looking characters.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring - 2001 - lots and lots and lots of CG people fighting, which would be further enhanced in the Two Towers and the Return of the King.

There is a much more detailed timeline at

As videogames have been getting more sophisticated, it is much more common to do plot-related non-interactive scenes with the game engine.

Players have taken advantage of these capabilties to make their own movies using the game engines. This is called Machinima and began in the mid 90s. Machinima tpically involves using the multi-player versions of the games, assigning one player as the cameraman to record the action, and having the other players act as characters in the scene - puppeteering their characters through the choreographed action.

Traditional cell animation Process

Preliminary Story - You start with the story you want to tell, written in words, giving the characters, and what they do

Detailed Story - You flesh out the story with all of the scenes and actions and dialogue

Storyboard - You break up the story into individual shots showing what the camera will see in each shot, how the camera or characters move, and the dialogue.

Character Design and Backgrounds - You work out what each of the characters, or important inanimate objects, will look like, and make several reference drawings of each. You start designing and painting the backgrounds

Record Dialogue - In most American productions this is where you would record the dialogue. This way you can animate the mouths to match the dialogue being spoken. In other countries (notably Japan) dialogue is typically recorded last since lip/mouth synchronization is not considered critical.

Keyframes - Senior animator draws the key frames in pencil - the important moments in the movements of the characters.

Test Shots - Some shots are taken all the way, or nearly all the way to completion, especially very important, innovative, or particularly difficult shots, to make sure that things will work as expected in the final product.

Inbetweening - You draw the frames inbetween then key frames in pencil

Pencil Test - You use the pencil drawings to make sure the animation flows smoothly and matches the necessary timing

Inking - You take the drawn key frames and inbetween frames and ink their outlines onto cells

Colouring - You paint the interiors of the cells

Filming - Cell by cell, you create the film

One of the best illustrations of this process is the 'work in progress' cut of Beauty and the Beast. Many times films with special optical effects and animated films are put together in a rough cut before all of the film is complete, with placeholders for the incomplete scenes. Very rarely do these rough cuts make it out of the studio, but this is one time where a rough cut got an official release on video (laserdisc originally and then on DVD.)

Another good one is this video clip showing the process:

For computer animation the general process is the same, but done in a different medium. Instead of doing character designs as 2D drawings, the characters are created as 3D models. Simple motions can be done using a key-frame/inbetweening method (as you will see in project 1), but more sophisticated movements (especially movements of people), or movements of a large numbe of characters/objects may require more sophisticated programming. Depending on what you want to render, new software may need to be written - hair was really hard to do until the mid 90s, and realistic cloth was hard until the late 90s.

Computer animation Process

If you want a really good book on storyboards, among other film directing skills, check out 'film directing shot by shot - visualizing from concept to screen' by Steven D. Katz. I got mine from Amazon.com.

According to the wikipedia the last major studio film to do its animation the traditional way was Princess Mononoke in 1997.

In all of this, what is important to remember is that the focus is on creating appropriate motion. Things can look realistic, and they can move realistically.

Here is an example from outside computer animation: when James Cameron was in pre-production for 'Aliens' he wanted his aliens to move well - he hired gymnasts, and acrobats, and he _removed detail_ from the monster suits so that the people in the suits had more freedom of motion. Knowing that he was going to use a lot of quick shots with fast motion in dark areas, he wanted to focus on the creatures movements, and he spent a lot of time getting the movements right.

Another thing to think about is ... why does computer animation exist? Why can't we do the same things with traditional animation (either cell based or stop motion) or even by filming real live people?

In some cases computer animation gives a certain look .... such as in Tron, but in most other cases it is because the thing being animated is beyond the capabilities of people to do the animation by hand, at least within a reasonable time frame, and usually that is because of the motion. In the 90s Disney tended to integrate computer animation with traditional animation when the camera was in motion - spinning around the ballroom in 'Beauty and the Beast' or following Tarzan through the trees. Other times its the elements of the scene that are in motion - the water in the Abyss, all of the particles kicked up by the tornadoes in Twister, or a field of Orcs fighting on a battlefield in the Lord of the Rings.

The computer software gives a way to take control of all of these elements in motion, and be able to reproduce the scene over and over again to composite in new elements, or if changes are needed to tweak small elements without reshooting the entire scene.

Coming Next Time

More lessons from traditional animation

Before next class you should read the following paper - Lasseter, John "Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation," Proceedings of SIGGRAPH '87, Anaheim CA, pp. 35-44

last revision 5/28/08