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Academy of Film

A Brief History of Computer Animation

Dr. Kelvin LEE
Senior Lecturer, Academy of Film, HKBU.

Dr. Kelvin LEE, Senior Lecturer, Academy of Film, HKBU

Computer animation has unquestionably been one of the most fashionable forms of popular culture since the first fully computer animated movie "Toy Story" (Fig. 1) produced by Pixar Animation Studio hit the cinema with historical box office success in 1995.

Despite the overwhelming public worldwide acceptance, only few computer animated movies were released once a year initially owing to the time consuming production process and limited number of computer animation studios in the industry. But thanks to the quantum leap of computing horsepower and the rapid development of animation software, computer animation has now grown up to a thousand millions US dollars international industry led by renowned studios such as Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky Studios and together with many others outstanding studios all over the world. Today, computer animation is a full-fledged industry and capable to produce over dozens of blockbuster animated movies annually for worldwide release.

Even though computer graphics technique has rendered contemporary animation movies with hyper-realistic image quality and lifelike fluid movement from which traditional hand drawn animation can hardly compete with, but they both share the same basic underline working principle – persistence of vision.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures Pixar Animation Studios

Figure 1 : Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures Pixar Animation Studios

Long before animation was developed in the form of celluloid, pre-cinema devices such as Zoetrope (Fig. 2) and Praxinoscope (Fig. 3) were made in the early 19th century to create the illusion of movement by leveraging the theory of persistence of vision of the human visual perception system. Animation was not taken seriously as a medium for storytelling other than just optical effects. It was not until the advent of film by the late 19th century that animation was gradually outreached from the realm of experimental art into the main stream entertainment arena.


Figure 2 : Zoetrope.
Courtesy of http://education.eastmanhouse.org


Figure 3 : Praxinoscope.
Courtesy of http://courses.ncssm.edu

The most notable hand drawn animation was the first full-length animated movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarf” (Fig. 4) produced by Walt Disney in 1937. Hand drawn 2D animation film was then enjoying its twenty years of golden epoch until the arrival of television.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Figure 4 : Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Television offered an affordable and convenient entertainment for general public. People can watch and enjoy their favorite programmes while seating on their own couch with their families. TV cartoons were then massively produced to address the child’s needs and consequently draw away significant numbers of audience from the movie theatres. “The Flintstones” (Fig. 5) was the first successful primetime animated series in the United States from 1960 to 1966. Initially, TV cartoons were perceived as merely child entertainment but a main drift was seen when “The Simpsons” series hit the market in the 90s and ushered primetime cartoon into an era of adult animation.

Courtesy of Hanna-Barbera Productions

Figure 5 : Courtesy of Hanna-Barbera Productions

In parallel with the blossoming of TV cartoons during the 60s, significant developments were also seen in computer graphics research. Researchers at different Universities and laboratories around the world began to investigate diversity of techniques that could harness the power of the computer, its display and interactive devices. These concerted efforts resulted with collection of pioneer and seminal works that defined the growth of today’s computer animation industry.

In the early stage of development, computer animation has very limited applications in the movie industry and was primarily served as the role of visual effects. “Tron” was the first movie to utilize computer animation in 1982. The full potential of computer animation was not realized until the visionaries, Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter (Fig. 6), who founded the renowned Pixar Animation Studios by transforming a small computer division in Lucasfilm which originally only specialized in special effects, explored computer animation as a unique storytelling medium.

(Left to Right) Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter

Figure 6 : (Left to Right) Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter. Courtesy of http://pixartimes.com

The success of Pixar is by no accident but through years of dedications and efforts. It took more than ten years starting with the first animated short “The Adventures of André and Wally B” (Fig. 7) in 1984 to the first computer animated movie “Toy Story” in 1995 to shape the computer animation from its rudimentary form into a sophisticated storytelling medium. Today, Pixar is the leading world class computer animation studio that could impress audience with the finest computer generated imagery and captivating stories.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures Pixar Animation Studios

Figure 7 : Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures Pixar Animation Studios

In the past ten years, the revolution of digital convergence has extended the applications of computer animation beyond entertainment. Interactions with digital screens through functional graphical interfaces and animated feedbacks are as natural as breathing to many people. Undoubtedly, we are totally immersed with computer animations through all kinds of daily activities and works. Visualization is one of the areas that have been benefited most from the advance of computer graphics and animation. Scientific visualization and medical visualization empower our sights beyond previously invisible and reveal the knowledge buried under massive and scattered data.

Although this article only briefly introduces the history of computer animation, it is not hard to imagine that computer animation will continue to evolve and prevail in all different facets of our life. In not too distant future, with the realistic computer generated imagery, responsive computer animation and high-resolution head mount displays, people will be able to experience a mind-blowing computer generated world that can only be depicted in today’s sci-fi movies. By then, the line between real and virtual can hardly be drawn.

(No Chinese translation is provided yet. 此文章暫沒有中文翻譯版本。)