The history of computer animation can be traced back many decades to such films as Peter Foldes’ 1971 film Metadata, or even a 1968 attempt by Soviets to animate a cat. It was in the 1980s, however, that the techniques became more widely used and the industry truly began to experience big changes in how things were done. The advent of this new technology meant that machines could do more of the work, much like with the use of robots in manufacturing. While this machinery is a godsend for productivity, it brings with it concern for peoples’ jobs and the survival of the traditional way of doing things. One animator by the name of Bill Kroyer brought these concerns to the forefront in 1988 with his own animated interpretation of the ongoing development of this “threat”. Bill Kroyer’s Technological Threat serves as an excellent metaphor for the advent of computer animation and how it affected the animation industry and validity of the fears it brought forth.
From its infancy up until recent decades, traditional animation techniques were the only methods of animation available before the advent of more powerful computers. Much of it requires each frame to be hand-drawn or, in the case of stop motion, each character or object has to be sculpted and moved little by little for each frame that is captured. It is tedious work. These traditional techniques take a lot of time and patience to do successfully. Throughout the decades there have been attempts to minimize the work involved with animation, such as the introduction of cel animation which put characters and objects on clear celluloid which would then be animated on top of a background image. This meant that a background would only have to be made once, whereas beforehand it had to be redrawn completely with each passing frame. Another time-saving innovation came in the form of Walt Disney’s multiplane camera system, which took cel animation even further by making the creation of depth much easier by separating and moving each individual part of the scenery independently and at varying distances from the camera. Even with these advancements, however, the same traditional techniques were required to actually animate anything. Computers brought forth a drastic change in the playing field, essentially turning the art into a science.
Soon one of the first instances of computer animation would come in 1960 when John Whitney developed his analog computer to make title sequences for movies and television, using surplus anti-air guidance hardware from World War II. While computers became widely used in animation during the 1980s, there were still quite a few instances of it in the preceding decades, starting with the aforementioned machine developed by Whitney. The computer technology of the time was rather limited and therefore usually only used for experiments. For instance, Peter Foldes used the first implementation of key frame software to create Metadata in 1971. While it entailed the use of a data tablet, which was surprisingly modern for the era, it was limited to two-dimensional animation and could only show simple line drawings of objects in a couple of colors. This film was merely experimental, however, and was followed 3 years later by Hunger in 1974, which was intentionally done in black and white line drawings. Computers would quickly become powerful enough to render much more realistic imagery, as was exemplified by Loren Carpenter’s Vol Libre which he presented at SIGGRAPH in 1980, a computer graphics conference held annually. It used fractals to generate breathtaking mountainous scenery and instantly landed him a job at Lucasfilm.
Of the animators that worked during the era that computer animation became more widespread, one particularly interesting perspective is that of Bill Kroyer. Bill got his start in animation in the mid-1970s, just before the computer revolution of the 1980s. He originally was denied a job at Disney, but would later be hired by them in 1977, during a time when Disney Animation, and the animation industry as a whole, was in the midst of a slump. He did not stay with Disney long, as he soon left to work with Steve Lisberger on Animalympics. The major milestone in Bill’s career, however, came in 1982 when they developed Tron which they teamed up with Disney to work on. As Kroyer himself put it, “Tron was the beginning. It was the moment when computer graphics made its first contact with the animation industry-like the sperm and the egg. It was neat, because nobody had ever done it before. There were no experts around” (Kroyer). It was the first time computer animation would be used so extensively on a feature film, and it became almost a prophecy of what would develop in the coming years. Jobs that used to take hundreds of people to do, such as painting backgrounds, can now be accomplished cheaply and quickly by using computers. While Kroyer enjoyed working with computers to animate, he longed for the illusion of hand-drawn cartoons and decided to start Kroyer Films with his wife in 1986 with the intention of combining traditional and computer animation. He became a pioneer in combining the two techniques.
While Kroyer was skilled at animating, he was also knowledgeable about writing computer programs, and developed one with his wife that could use a plotter to draw out the computer animations on paper. Such use of computers for animating made many animators begin to fear it taking over and forcing them out of their careers. In response to these fears, Kroyer made Technological Threat in 1988. In it, a group of hand-drawn cartoon dogs are employees at a company and are threatened by their seemingly inevitable replacement by highly efficient robots, which are computer animated. This paranoia culminates into a struggle for survival that ultimately ends in the last remaining dog employee taking down his now-robotic boss with the help of one of the robots, which he proceeds to double-cross to eliminate the threat altogether, leaving him the only remaining employee, the “top dog” as it were. The film was essentially about traditional animators ultimately working in harmony with this new technology and ultimately being highly successful in their careers, perhaps more so than they would have previously. The dog protagonist, symbolic of traditional animators fearing the loss of their job, defies the odds and in the end triumphs, rising in rank to become the new boss. The robots represent the computers used to do computer animation, appearing innocent and diligently going about their work, but ultimately are no less susceptible to losing their jobs than the dogs are. Kroyer’s approach to animating goes against traditional animators’ fears by combining both methods and using them to their fullest potential. According to the theories of Paul Wells, this film would be considered developmental animation, as it maintains many traditional aspects of orthodox animated films but mixes two different styles of animation in a more modern approach. According to him, “Developmental Animation operates as a mode of expression combining or selecting elements of both approaches, representing the aesthetic and philosophical tension between the two apparent extremes” (Wells, 35). There was no doubt a tension between the two approaches during the time this film came out. Kroyer goes on to explain that, despite this new and highly capable tool, the artistic vision of the animator is still crucial to a film’s success. Computers are merely another tool in the animator’s arsenal.
Throughout the 1980s, computers went into widespread use, from businesses to residential homes. These machines revolutionized everybody’s lives and had far reaching effects on many peoples’ jobs, not just those of animators. While computers have increased productivity almost everywhere, they have threatened to eliminate many jobs and force many to either learn to use the new technology or remain unemployed. It is truly a situation where we are made to keep up with changes in the workplace or else risk being left behind in a dust cloud of our own stubbornness. This was an especially trying time for many animators as computers had finally reached the point where they would be practical to use in animation. But unlike many jobs that were completely taken over by computers, animation allows for the coexistence of computers with traditional techniques.
Understandably, one would think traditional animation to be doomed through the development of this amazing new technology. This could not be farther from the truth, however, as traditional animation remained strong through the 1980s and continues to grow. In fact, it has seen a sort of revival in recent years. In 2009, Disney released The Princess and the Frog, their first traditionally animated feature since they made Home on the Range in 2004. During the 1990s, the Disney Renaissance brought us multiple wildly successful films using traditional techniques, including such films as The Lion King and Mulan. Even with the massive success of Toy Story in 1995, Disney continued to make traditionally animated films on a yearly basis even after the end of the renaissance in 1999. While the renaissance did die out and Disney seemingly put traditional animation on the backburner after Home on the Range, they have shown us that it really is not dead after all with Princess and the Frog and has promised to release a traditionally animated film every 2 years from now on. Similarly, Hayao Miyazaki, a highly acclaimed animator from Japan, has built his career off of creating fantastical feature films primarily using traditional animation, and has won various prestigious awards for his creations. Since creating Princess Mononoke, he has begun to implement computer animation in some sequences of his films. Despite this, he retains traditional 2D cel animation as his primary medium of choice.
Through all of this it is also important to note that traditional animation still continues to garner critical acclaim insofar as receiving awards and nominations for awards. The medium, while requiring a greater amount of labor and time, still produces many high quality films worthy of critical praise. For instance, Disney’s recently released Princess and the Frog was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Miyazaki has been nominated for or won awards for a lot of his films. Bill Kroyer was also nominated for an Acedemy Award for Technological Threat. This just goes to show that the look of traditional animation is not seen as obsolete and can be beautifully done, as has been shown for countless decades.
Another important aspect of these two techniques to consider is the overall cost of production for films that use either technique. There has been a growing misconception that computer animation is far more cost-effective overall than traditional animation. While this is true in some instances, in actuality it is subjective to the films being compared. One good comparison to make that disproves this fallacy is between two feature films released by Disney: Bolt and Mulan. Bolt was Disney’s CGI major feature released a couple of years ago in 2008, while Mulan was their traditionally animated feature of 1998, which happened to come out towards the end of the Disney Renaissance. Both films have about an hour and a half of runtime. There is a staggering difference in production budgets, however. While Mulan carried a production budget of 90 million dollars, Bolt had an astonishingly large budget of 150 million, 60 million more than Mulan! This clearly shows that the cost of production is subjective to the film being worked on and can change in favor of either computers or traditional techniques. Despite the hype for computer animated features following the massive success of Toy Story in 1995, there have been CGI films that have been less than successful, such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001. This film, despite having ultra-realistic CGI and a budget of 137 million dollars, was a total flop, with revenues not even covering the production costs for the film. A film’s financial viability can depend on many factors, like the quality of what is being animated, and of course how it is marketed, but that is another issue entirely. In short, CGI-animated films can be cheaper than those made with traditional animation in some cases, but often can cost just as much if not more. The costs of each are comparable to each other, the only major difference is traditional techniques tend to take longer.
Much like in any other industry, computers drastically changed the way animation can be done and people feared losing their jobs because of the changes brought forth by them. But, as is exemplified by Kroyer’s film Technological Threat, there is little need to fear the future. Today, traditional animation and computer animation coexist and are often even used in combination on some films. Traditional animation remains a prominent form of animation to this day, and continues to grow with new animators joining the ranks. Computer graphics is not meant as a replacement for the old fashioned hand-drawn and stop motion styles, but rather another tool in their box of tricks. Just because one owns a drill does not make a screwdriver obsolete. They each have important purposes as well as advantages and disadvantages. After all, a tool is only as good as the person trained to use it