CGI naysayers: where are you now?

As Pixar's Up becomes the first fully CG-animated movie to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Mark wonders where the naysayers have gone...

When, in 1995, Pixar released Toy Story behind the overwhelming plaudits, a strong but vocal group of naysayers marked the arrival of the first entirely digital animated feature with a degree of distain. Their view was that people would soon tire of this particular technique and styling. And anyway, it wasn’t real animation, and probably a one-trick-pony. People can be schmucks, can’t they?

15 years later it’s perceived the hand-drawn animated feature is the geriatric that needs helping onto the bus, and digital film productions in general are thriving.

But then animation has been through this cycle of mistrusting the new on a number of occasions, going back to the many people who predicted that Walt Disney’s original Snow White feature would be a huge flop and bankrupt the man spectacularly.

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What wasn’t hot air was that producing feature length animation was labour intensive, time consuming and extraordinarily difficult. And the cost per frame of these productions really came to hit home by the 60s, when movie investors baulked at the four to five years required for each project and the hundreds of skilled people required to make them.

In an attempt to reduce the production cost, Disney used Cell Xeroxing on One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), transferring the line artwork to the acetate cells using a machine, not hand tracing. To many this was the first step on a very slippery slope, and one that led to the very limited animation techniques that pervaded TV productions of the era. These focused on segmenting characters to reuse head and limb movement, reducing the amount of actual animation to the very minimum. Having been the equals of Disney with their early MGM Tom & Jerry shorts, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera went down the route of progressively simple animation, as did Chuck Jones at Warners, and many weren’t thrilled with the highly stylised results.

With One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Disney wasn’t actually heading there, it just needed to make animated film more financially realistic or stop doing it altogether. But it had another crisis to contend with, that all the amazing animators it’d nurtured in the thirties and forties were now gone or going, and their replacements didn’t have the grounding that they once got.

The hand-drawn animation department of Disney took something of a decline through the 70s and 80s, and, ironically, only got its act together in the late 80s with the arrival of The Little Mermaid (1989). The year that Toy Story came out was proceeded by one that saw The Lion King appear, marking probably the zenith of the Disney hand animation revival. But already the storm clouds had appeared over this department, as the economics of less successful features put them in the crosshairs once more.

But let me go back to Toy Story, because many at the time entirely misunderstood what it represented technically, and the implications to the animation industry as a whole.

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Prior to Toy Story the application of computer animation in movies was sparse and specialised, and no one considered that it could carry a complete narrative. In the early days, it was so difficult that much of what appears to be CGI in the likes of TRON is, perversely, hand animation designed to look like it came from a computer.

At the time, very few people knew just how challenging creating computer based animation was, but I was one of them. In 1981, I’d chosen to do a degree in animated film, and for the first year I’d applied my reasonable drawing skills to filling huge piles of paper with small but horribly precise images that created some movement when shot sequentially. Being a studio doing this stuff was tough, for a single person it was a full-blown nightmare. Then a chance encounter with a very primitive personal computer changed everything for me, and I set about a mission to make animation by an entirely alternative route. It was still very painful, but in entirely different ways, and most animators are sadomasochists and we like a change of scenery. And just like those people who derided Pixar’s intentions, I had my own personal naysayers, the majority of whom were lecturing on the course I was attending.

Undeterred, I soldiered, on and even produced some commercial animation in 1982 for the BBC and TV adverts using nothing more than a couple of BBC Micro computers imaginatively wired together and some software I’d borrowed and rewritten myself. The fact it worked at all, and that I was able to produce anything was pretty amazing in retrospect. But one of the virtues of youth is the naivety to not consider the potential of failure.

In my final year I produced some interesting test material, but no actual finished film, which, despite all that I had done, wasn’t the brief. As such, my lecturers took the opportunity to critique my thinking outside the animation box by awarding me a 2.2, while everyone else on the course was awarded a 2.1. Not that this remotely bothers me now, but I obviously wasn’t playing to an audience that wanted to see innovation at their college.

When, 11 years later, Toy Story came out and was the massive success it was, I felt vindicated to a degree. I’d had the vision on the road to this creative destiny, even if I hadn’t ultimately taken the journey myself.

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I also appreciated that what Toy Story did was probably on the very edge of what was technically possible at the time, but given how far they’d managed to come from Tin Toy (1988) and Luxo Jr. (1986), things would only get better from here.

But where most people really didn’t get Toy Story was in the core values of animated film that it upheld. People who have never animated anything assume in CGI movies that the computer does everything for you. If only that was true. Like a brush or modelling clay, CGI is just another tool, or weapon in the animators’ arsenal. The computer doesn’t design the characters, create the scenes, present the story or control the action – which are often the really tough parts of the process. What they do enable is the animator to concentrate on those things and not get caught up with physically drawing each frame or maintaining the exact proportions of the body throughout the production.

I’d argue that Toy Story wasn’t the first of a new generation of animated movies, but another step towards a blended technique future where particular techniques are deployed by the production team like picking coloured pencils from a selection. Some techniques lend themselves to certain subjects, and others don’t.

But the greatest irony of those that have attempted to pigeon hole CGI throughout its development is that Pixar, its greatest ambassador has, prodigal son-like, now returned to be the Disney animation department, with the unequivocal mission to put hand-drawn animation at that studio back on the agenda. As such, Toy Story wasn’t actually the end of an era, but the catalyst for a brighter future for all animation, and not just that exclusively made with a computer.