Andrew Glassner's Course is Art for Computer Graphicists.















































This is the topic of the panel, Dis-Illusion of Life: Becoming a Digital Character Animator.



Check out Ken Perlin's Home Page.



Pam Turner's paper is part of the Educator's Program, Teaching Fine Arts and Animation.




"Family," by Andy Marchal and Aaron Skillman is part of the Animation Theater.


O'Rourke's course is 3D Computer Animation Workshop.


Check out Michael O'Rourke's Home Page.





















Contents © 1998 ACM SIGGRAPH All Rights Reserved Send your comments to SIGGRAPH 98 Online.



Artistry vs. Tools


"When the tools of any medium begin to mature, the novelty factor of simply using a tool wears off and it become important to use the tool well," says Andrew Glassner of Microsoft Research.

Thus the need, according to Glassner, to sensitize scientists and engineers, including those who create graphics and animation tools for artists, to the aesthetic choices that make for good art. Glassner, whose own interests include Northwest Native American graphic art, thinks scientists could be more savvy about their own visual communication. "They should be able to create something as visually sophisticated as the underlying data they are presenting," he says.

"Eagle," copyright Andrew Glassner.

Ultimately, art is "the process of understanding and communicating for a reason. The motives tend to disappear when technologists talk about art," Glassner says. "The [creative] process can seem mysterious, but there's always a purpose."

And although the latest high-tech tricks and performance enhancements always get a lot of attention at SIGGRAPH, Glassner is by no means alone in his assessment. Both Hollywood and academia seem to agree that, as Ken Perlin, the inventor of procedural texture rendering, says, "There's no magic, only tools. The magic is in people."

To put it another way, CG animation is a lot like chainsaw art -- in the hands of a skilled operator, a chainsaw can turn a tree trunk into a lifelike grizzly bear. Unlike the obviously ill-suited chainsaw, with CG it's tempting to imagine a perfect tool that will take all the work out of creating art. "Packages like Alias and SoftImage are so sophisticated that they give you the illusion that the output is good," Perlin says. "It's just like driving a sporty car makes you think you're a race car driver."

Nowhere does the artist reign over technology more firmly than in the Magic Kingdom. At Disney, it's the computer programmer's job to help an animated film's director and art director realize "their wildest dreams," says Eric Guaglione, the Artistic Supervisor of Computer Animation for Disney's animated story of ancient China, "Mulan." That's not to say that Guaglione and his computer animators and programmers are mere drones in mouse ears. "I've never had more of an influence on a film than I've had on "Mulan,"" Eric says, who previously created the opening sequence for "Star Trek: Voyager."

At Disney, CG expands the capabilities of traditional animation rather than replacing it entirely. For "Mulan," Guaglione's team developed a proprietary software tool with an intuitive point and paint interface for blocking and animating casts of thousands, including the 30,000-character closing crowd scene. Along with adding to the spectacle, Eric says CG helped with "subtle things texturally that were important for the look of the film. For example, air movement in China -- a blowing flag or a gentle breeze blowing through bamboo. You can put it in a higher number of scenes since it's so difficult to draw traditionally."

Out in Hollywood, the boom in computer effects has meant a shortage of artistically-trained animators. "Tons and tons of people are coming out and claiming that they animators. They think that if you can use a software package, you're an animator. It's patently untrue," says Endla Burrows, who heads Industrial Light and Magic's in-house training program. Burrows' ideal well-rounded computer animator should have course work in physics, anatomy, math, physiology, computer science, art, and film. Studying film is crucial, she insists. "Go see "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane" again and again. If you don't like it, figure out why you don't like it. And while you're figuring out why, you'll see you were wrong."

But book learning is only part of it, according to Burrows. "Even if you have studied all of these things, it still requires talent. This is art. You have people studying sculpture forever, but how many Rodins do you have?"

Burrows worries that not enough academic programs are offering this integrated approach, at least not fast enough to fill ILM's demanding staff requirements.

Ken Perlin, who heads the Media Technology program at NYU, agrees that vocational-type training programs do overemphasize cookbook learning with their students. "These people are being done a disservice to be told to send ILM their resumes," Perlin states. The button-pushing approach is exactly what NYU avoids. This year, computer science students collaborated with students in the animation program to produce the interactive animation, "Sid and the Penguins." Under these circumstances, Perlin says, "The CS students see that learning a package isn't an education in animation."

Pam Turner has seen the difference an emphasis on film and animation theory and practice makes. Students in her advanced computer graphics and animation course at Virginia Commonwealth University started out "very technology-oriented," she says. So she began by telling them, "Be aware that there's a language developed that the viewer is used to, and that you only want to break intelligently."

At the beginning, students didn't like making storyboards -- they just wanted to plunge into the animation. But they typically bogged down in a single sequence. So Turner showed them films ranging from Kurosawa's "Dreams" to Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law" to illustrate cutting and camera movement. After that exposure, "they were hungry for the tools then because they had a purpose," Turner recounts. With this approach, "several students who might have otherwise done mediocre work surprised me."

Turner's attention to fundamentals and encouragement inspired two of her students, Andy Marshal and Aaron Skillman to complete their film, "Family," a project they began in stop-motion with SoftImage. In spite of the power of 3-D, Andy hasn't been completely seduced yet. He'd like to combine stop-motion with digital again because all-digital "wouldn't have the same nuance of an actual sculptured armature," he says.

Turner's approach is by no means isolated. Michael O'Rourke, who founded the Pratt Institute's computer animation MFA program, stresses that good animation is ultimately platform independent. "I'm asking the students, 'What effect would this work have 200 years from now when the current technology seems quite quaint? How does the imagery hold up?'"

This question returns to Ken Knowlton's reluctance to make public the details of how any art is made. Ultimately the technology will change. If a 10,000-year-old cave painting made with charcoal and colored clay can still command our attention and imagination, we can ask the same of our greatest computer-generated art. "It's not a good characterization of some subset of graphics or art to call it 'computer art.' It makes as much sense to call it "toner art" or "glowing phosphor art," Knowlton says sarcastically. Instead, the issues Knowlton explores in his work -- why we see what we see -- are more about human cognition and intelligence than what the computer can do. At the rate we're going, our brains will be the same as they are now for a lot longer than the little Windows flag will fly on our desktops.

O'Rourke looks back at the classics that have been presented at SIGGRAPH over the years and argues that clarity of vision is more important than budget. "Technically [a piece] was very sophisticated at the time, and although any high school kid could technically do it at home [today] it remains a great piece of animation. Now, in the Electronic Theater, in spite of multi-million-dollar projects, a small student piece may have more of an enduring quality."

Ken Perlin thinks that the current shortage of properly-trained animators will shake itself out. If the entertainment industry really wants to get academia's attention, he says, a few scholarships and partnerships wouldn't hurt, just as many high-tech companies do with engineering schools.


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