Have you ever found yourself sitting in the theater, watching a Pixar film, and contemplating what it is about CGI animation that makes for some of the best children’s movies?
The evolution of this field of graphic design didn’t happen over a very long, extended period – but instead over a couple of decades. In fact, the rapid advancement of computer processing power is primarily what served as a catalyst for the explosion of CGI animation. But what is CGI animation, exactly?
If you’re a computer graphic design artist, this post may not be for you. However, for those of you out there who are curious about this fascinating form of animation – read on for a brief history of the world of animation, and how computers completely transformed the art form.
What Ever Happened to Plain Old Cartoons?
Most of you can likely name at least one or two of your favorite childhood cartoons. Maybe it was Scooby Doo, the Flintstones or even the Jetsons. Maybe you’re a bit younger (or not) and you still enjoy your Saturday morning cartoons.
However, most of the older folks out there probably started noticing that more and more cartoons look just a little bit different – just a little bit more real. What is it about CGI animation that gives the characters and the overall imagery more realism? The answer to that requires some history.
The history of animation is both nostalgic and sad. Many decades ago, animators were traditional artists who drew pictures by hand. Traditional animation consisted of a whole team of animators who would draw and color images on “cels” – transparent sheets that were placed on top of a background image to create a multi-layered frame.
In this way, segments of an image could change from frame to frame without the entire picture being redrawn. You can see an example of layers in the image to the left. The blue arrow points to the background, the green arrow to the layer with two characters, and a red arrow pointing to the third layer with an image of a flying paper airplane. By manipulating the drawings in each layer from frame to frame, animators would create what many adults today remember as the traditional cartoon.
Many movie fans may remember the hype surrounding the digital remastering of old films such as Star Wars, where computer animation was used to digitally enhance the film. The first stages of CGI animation included 2D animation. This simply involved computers doing what animators had been doing for decades – creating multiple frames of images each second in order to generate the visual effect of animation.
The difference in this case was that as the field of computer graphic design advanced, the images gradually became much more advanced than most cartoon animators could manage by hand. The simplest form of this type of animation can be seen in the animated GIF files that became wildly popular on the Internet throughout the late 1990’s.
These images were created by packaging together a series of static images switched from frame to frame by a time delay defined by a control script within the GIF file itself. The time delay on most animated GIFS are pretty long, so it doesn’t provide for very fluid motion, but the concept of “animation” is still there.
The picture below is an example of one such completed animated GIF.
Now, all of this is grade school level compared to the impressive level that 3D CGI animation technology is at today. How did we get from 1990’s computer animation to the sort of iMax 3D cartoons you love to watch? The simple answer is processing power. With today’s amazing CPU processing capabilities, computer animators are now able to create a 3 dimensional “model” to start with.
This model is only somewhat like it’s 2D counterpart, except now computers have the ability to not only modify large parts of a 2 dimensional image as “layers” – they can calculate and modify very small sections of an object within a 3D world. Because of the level of programming and processor power required, this sort of animation was available only to the largest movie production companies who could afford the computer systems.
However, today your own desktop computer can handle it – and there’s even free software like Blender, which Aibek covered in his article on 4 apps for a graphic designer on a budget, and Simon described one of the video games called Yo Frankie! which was created with the Blender engine. I installed the software on my own desktop and within 30 minutes the tutorial taught me how to create the start of a snowman character within a virtual 3D world.
The concept of today’s level of 3D CGI animation is an evolution from basic cartoon animation into a simulated world that seeks to represent realism as accurately as possible. It does this by slicing up the world into the smallest segments possible, and then controlling how those tiny parts of real world objects move, react and change based on the other objects and conditions within that 3D world.
I remember watching The Polar Express when it was first released and thinking to myself how dead the characters looked. When they spoke, their tongues lay still like dead fish and their eyes were often expressionless. I actually thought, at the time, that computers would never be able to realistically simulate the real world, or at least a real person. But, you know what, while researching this article I came across this video of “Emily,” a digitally recreated face of a real actress. I have to say, I was very impressed and I think you will be as well.
What is your take on the current state of the art for CGI animation? Do you think that it will eventually completely replace traditional animation? Share your opinion in the comments section below.