Computer Animation

From 2D to 3D - Computer Animation Takes Over the Film Industry

With traditional 2-D animation becoming a lost art, computer animation software has become the method of choice for big-screen animation. With a computer, animators can makes quick changes and edits to films, correct problems more easily, and cut down on production time, as animators only need to design key frames and then cue the software to fill in the rest. Films like “Toy Story,” “A Shark’s Tale,” “Madagascar” and “Open Season” are now entirely created using computer animation, with Disney closing down their traditional, 2-D production studios in favor of computer modeling.

Computer animation also makes it possible for almost anyone to create their own animation affordably. Before computers, animation was an expensive process, requiring specialized equipment, a lot of time and plenty of money to produce even a short animated film. As computer animation software becomes more affordable even as it becomes more sophisticated, even non-professionals will soon be able to produce animated films on par with the big studios.

Computer animation’s roots go back to the early 1960's, when the first computer drawing system, Design Augmented by Computers (DAC), was created by General Motors and IBM. The program allowed the user to “build” a three-dimensional model of a car on a computer, and view it on all sides by changing the angles and rotation. At about the same time, a student at MIT named Ivan Sutherland created a new design software called Sketchpad, which allowed users to draw a figure directly on a computer screen with a light pen – it would take many years, but eventually this process would become commonplace among computer users.

Over the next decade, researchers at companies like IBM worked to develop high-end software applications that allowed for complex 3-D modeling on computers. Then, in 1970, the “hidden surface” algorithm was discovered, a way for a computer to intuit which surfaces on a 3-D object would be hidden from the viewer, thus creating a more realistic model. After that, computer graphics innovations quickly and steadily appeared, with researchers discovering how to render and developing the process of texture mapping. In 1975, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot published his findings on "fractal geometry,” the math that would determine how computers can render the infinitely chaotic images found in nature more realistically.

With the enormous success of his effects-heavy “Star Wars” films, director/producer George Lucas took control of the computer effects for his movies by recruiting top experts in Computer Graphics Interface (CGI) to create his own in-house computer animation company. That company, Industrial Light and Magic ILM), soon became the premiere computer effects house in the world, producing special effects for Lucas’ films and for movies by studios around the world. Their legacy lives on in computer animation concerns like Weta Workshop, the New Zealand-based effects house started by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson – animators from ILM generously trained Weta’s CGI team and gave them pointers when they were first started out.

1986, a handful of computer animators from ILM jumped ship and started their own company, called Pixar. After creating a number of award-winning short films, Pixar teamed with Disney to release some of the most successful computer animated films in history – “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” Aside from the success of Pixar's feature length and short animations, the company’s greatest contribution to CGI is a piece of software called Renderman. For current computer animation, Renderman is the software standard because of its versatility and ease of use, and its ability to render amazingly life-like images. With the leaps in computer animation technology in just the past 20 years, it will be interesting to see just what incredible innovations await the industry in the future.

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