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"Moving Innovation" is a ridiculously entertaining & informative look back at the history of computer animation

"Moving Innovation" is a ridiculously entertaining & informative look back at the history of computer animation

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"Discover a new world with Epic the Movie by Blue Sky Studios, a brand-new 3D animated film from the people who brought you Ice Age ."

That's the message that the folks who work in promotions at 20th Century Fox have been hammering home for the past few weeks. As they try & make sure that as many would-be moviegoers as possible know that this new Chris Wedge movie will soon be opening in theaters. On Friday, May 24th, to be precise.


Copyright FOX and its related entities. All rights reserved

But as Tom Sito points out in his terrific new book, "Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation " (The MIT Press, April 2013), it wasn't all that long ago -- just a mere 12 years -- that Fox had little or no faith in this computer animation operation, which ...

" ... had been formed in the late 1980s from the survivors of Magi / Synthavision after 'Tron .'

As Blue Sky was completing 'Ice Age,' Fox trimmed their staff down to a skeleton crew and let it be known they would sell (this animation studio) off to the first bidder. There was very little advertising for 'Ice Age,' and it was given a dead-zone release date, late March. There weren't many toy tie-ins because Fox didn't think it would do anything.


Copyright FOX and its related entities.
All rights reserved

'Ice Age' went on to become a smash hit, garnering $188 million in ticket sales in North America, more than that year's live action Best Picture Oscar Winner, A Beautiful Mind . When the results of Ice Age came in, Fox producer Bill Mechanic was reputed to have exclaimed, "Aw $#!+ ! Now we have to stay in animation !"

Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman once famously stated that " .. In Hollywood, no one knows anything." But that axiom doesn't really apply to Tom. You see, Mr. Sito was one of the key players in the revival of Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late 1980s / early 1990s. After having worked on "The Little Mermaid ," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Lion King ," Tom left Disney to go help set-up DreamWorks Animation. Where he then served as storyboard supervisor on that animation studio's first real CG hit, "Shrek ."

More to the point, given that he was president of The Animation Guild, I.A.T.S.E., Local 839, from 1992 to 2001, Sito can actually bring a dual perspective to the table when he's discussing the arrival of CG and how it forever changed the film industry. He can tell you stories straight from the trenches, sharing personal anecdotes about how the individual animation studios tried to get a handle on this often-balky new technology ...


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Walt Disney's classic 'Beauty and the Beast' began with an enormous camera pullout from the stained glass into a long shot of the Beast's castle. Dan St. Pierre, the layout artist who designed the shot, would pass my desk. 'Crashed the system again ...,' he would say with a wry smile of satisfaction."

But thanks to the 40,000-feet-up view that Tom got as president of America's largest animation union, he can also point out those not-so-little moments that wound up transforming the film industry. Take -- for example -- Steven Spielberg's decision to push back the start of production on "Jurassic Park " so that he could then concentrate all of his creative efforts on completing "Hook ."

If "Jurassic Park" had stuck to its original production schedule ... Well, that would have then meant that all of the dinosaur scenes for this Universal Pictures release were split between Stan Winston's FX team (which created all of the oversized animatronic dinos that were actually used on set) and Phil Tippet's group of stop-motion animators (who had originally be tasked with creating more than 50 Go-Motion shots for the big screen version of this Michael Crichton bestseller).

According to Sito, one of the main reasons that Spielberg put off the start of production was that he was unsatisfied with the early test dinosaur footage that Tippet and his team had provided. As Steven explained:

"I brought the tests home and kept watching them over and over. My kids loved the dinosaurs. But as refined and lyrical as the tests were, I still felt they looked too Go-Motionly."

While Spielberg pondered this problem, the CG team at ILM led by supervisor Stefan Fangmeier and Eric Armstrong began a test, animating some Gallimimus dinosaur skeletons galloping as a herd. ILM head Dennis Muren wanted to move cautiously: "No one wanted it more than me, but I had to be responsibly cautious." Animators Steve "Spaz" Williams and Mark Dippe, who had been pushing the envelope on character work since Casper , were feeling pretty confident that they could attempt shots of the dinosaurs that looked photoreal. They began to do "guerilla tests," extra work done after hours so as not to affect their deadlines on other projects. They got a break when Spielberg's production schedule was pushed back so he could complete his previous film, Hook (1991). The extra time allowed them to work out the bugs in the software.

Everyone at ILM watched the progress of both the stop-motion team and the CG artists. Any traditional effects artist or animator who understood trends in the business knew, since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan , that it was only a matter of time until CG came for their jobs. The off-stated mantra of CG hackers was, "computer animation is a year away!" Stop-motion chief Phil Tippet recalled, "Dennis [Muren] kept me informed on the tests' progress, and I thought, Holy $#!+ ! Here it comes."

By summer 1992, the animators had completed their CG tests. Dennis Muren brought them down to Spielberg's offices on the Universal Studios lot that, because of their southwestern architecture, were nicknamed the Taco Bell. First was of a flock of dinosaur Gallimimus skeletons that leap off their pedestals and run through a field, like a museum exhibit run amok. When Spielberg saw it, his jaw dropped. "I'd never seen movement this smooth, outside of looking at National Geographic documentaries ... I wasn't completely convinced until I saw another test of a fully fleshed-out dinosaur in the outside, in the harsh sunlight."

Williams and Dippe's test was of a Tyrannosaurus rex pursuing the now-fleshed-out herd of Gallimimus through a sunlit field. The dappled sunlit fell on the T-rex's leathery skin as he walked under a shade tree, past camera. "I watched this test with Phil (Tippet) and it blew my mind again," Spielberg said. When Spielberg asked Tippet for his reaction, Tippet exclaimed, "I've just become extinct!" Spielberg liked that line so much he wrote it into the movie.


Copyright 2013 The MIT Press. All rights reserved

That's the real joy of "Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation." Marrying his obvious skill as a storyteller to his encyclopedic knowledge of animation history, Sito has crafted this ridiculously readable book which is just loaded with entertaining insights. Sometimes surprising ...

Director Ted Berman and Richard Rich asked to get the multiplane camera out from storage to create some shots (for The Black Cauldron ). The multiplane was a device invented at Walt Disney in 1937 to simulate the illusion of depth using 2D flat art. This was done by mounting a camera vertically to shoot down through layers of background art painted on glass, all moving to precise calibrations. The multiplane was expensive to use, and Walt had it mothballed after Lady and the Tramp (1955). When (Berman and Rich) tried to get it running again for Cauldron, they discovered hardly anyone remembered how to use it and no one had left behind any written instructions.

Other times quite melancholy ...


Tom seated at his line tester while working on "Aladdin"
for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Starting in 2003 the Walt Disney Company had begun to eliminate most of the traditional animation crew trained by the golden age masters, as simply as one would dump an old typewriter in the attic ... When master animator Frank Thomas died in 2004, there was a memorial at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. Many of the former Disney animators there paused to wonder if they were there to mourn Thomas or their own careers ...

... "Moving Innovation" is a must-read. Not just if you're an animation fan or a film history buff. But also if you want an up-close look at some of the most powerful people working in Hollywood today.

Take -- for example -- this surprising admission from Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Walt Disney & Pixar Animation Studios. You'd think that -- on the heels of  Toy Story 's enormous box office (not to mention all the critical acclaim that Pixar's first full-length animated feature received when it was first released to theaters back in November of 1995) -- that Ed would have been elated. But that wasn't actually what happened.


(L to R) Ed Catmull, Thomas Schumacher, John Lasseter, Michael Eisner, Steve Jobs
and Peter Schneider in the mid-1990s, during the early days of the Disney / Pixar
relationship. Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"I felt a little lost after the success of Toy Story. I took a year to think about it." Oscar Wilde had said that when the Gods wish to punish us, they give us what we want. Now that (Pixar) had conquered the mountain and established CG animation as a viable platform for the creation of theatrical features, what was next? "Organizations are inherently unstable," Catmull thought. "Nothing stays the same. I realized the next goal was to create a culture that is sustainable. That can go on after John [Lasseter] and me."

Isn't that some great writing? That's why I can not recommend "Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation" strongly enough. Tom Sito has taken what could have been an overly dry academic study of CG and -- through well-thought-out, beautifully-written passages like this ...

The great Tyrannosaurus rex of Jurassic Park roaring in triumph as all came crashing down around him represented more than just the climax of one movie. It was a clarion blast to all Hollywood that their century-old way of doing production had changed forever.


Copyright 1993 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

... -- turned it into a real page-turner. So if you want to know how & when computer animation changed the film industry, go pick up a copy of "Moving Innovation" right now.

EDITOR'S NOTE: My apologies for JHM being so light on content this past week or so. But between some pressing family obligations (One of Nancy's nieces graduated from college this past weekend) and a cold that I caught while visiting Pixar last month that just wouldn't quit, I was kind of overtaken-by-events last week. But now that my dance card has cleared up some & the pollen count around here has dropped a bit, hopefully things will be back to normal around here and JHM can then resume its usual 5-new-stories-a-week schedule.

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