'Treasure Planet' fuses computer, hand-drawn animation

Friday, November 29, 2002


  • one hand, you've got traditional ink-and-paint animation, and on the other, there's 3-D computer animation.

    In the case of John Silver, a cyborg character in Disney's sci-fi adventure cartoon "Treasure Planet," there's both: His human half was hand-drawn, while his robotic side was created and manipulated digitally.

    "The computer is great for symmetry and mechanical perfection -- a machine drawing a machine," said animator Glen Keane, who drew and supervised the character's organic side. "Humans are better at imperfection ... which works best for the expressive and emotional parts."

    The hybrid animation in the film, a futuristic reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate novel "Treasure Island," is part of an ever-changing fusion of art and technology that's designed to add new levels of dimension and detail to cartoon worlds.

    Silver's steely hand had so many tiny gears and hydraulic pistons that swivel, twist and clench that Keane estimated it would have taken three decades to hand-animate it.

    The computerized arm also served the story thematically, said "Treasure Planet" co-director John Musker.

    "All the characters have a missing piece," he said, and Silver's robotic side represents the humanity he sacrificed during his life of buccaneering.

    Once the dimensions of the robotic limb were programmed, digital animator Eric Daniels pushed, pulled and turned its components on the screen instead of repeatedly redrawing them.

    "There is an element of puppetry there in terms of how you have to maneuver the arm," said "Treasure Planet" producer Roy Conli. "You can't think of a computer as just a very expensive pencil."

    Keane started the process by sketching the stubbly, bulbous body of the pirate with only a crude outline of the mechanized side. Daniels then laid the gesticulating intricacies of the computerized parts atop Keane's drawings.

    Once both elements were in place, they were colored and shaded to create the illusion that the entire character was illustrated by hand.

    Digital technology also allowed the filmmakers to replace static, painted backgrounds with "virtual sets" -- computerized 3-D models that can bustle with activity and be photographed, lit and reused like live-action locations.

    The designs were an extension of Disney Animation's "deep canvas" work in 1999's "Tarzan," in which the 2-D ape-man hero animated by Keane swung and slid through a three-dimensional jungle created by Daniels.

    While the computer jungle in "Tarzan" was designed from only one angle, "Treasure Planet" features a galactic sailing ship, a moon-shaped spaceport and a fiery planet core that could be photographed from any side.

    That made it easier for Musker and co-director Ron Clements to devise scenes with camera moves and alternating points of view. Previously, artists created new paintings for each new shot, which limited directors to only a handful of backgrounds for any given scene.

    The same technique has been used in live-action, with films such as "Gladiator," "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" featuring virtual backgrounds.

    Hybrid animation has been present since 1986's "The Great Mouse Detective," when computers were used to create massive clock gears for the film's climax. Computer graphics also rendered the revolving background for the ballroom waltz in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast," and the flying carpet and Cave of Wonders from 1992's "Aladdin."

    Early computer imagery had a shimmering, glazed quality that distinguished it from the ink-and-paint art. As digital images became more realistic, it also became easier to disguise them as traditional 2-D artistry.

    Warner Bros. animators digitized the massive robot in 1999's "The Iron Giant" to emphasize the mechanical smoothness of its movements, then colored the character to resemble the ink-and-paint humans and backgrounds.

    The Fox cartoon sitcom "Futurama" uses the technique to create camera moves for flying cars, spaceships and other geometric shapes that would cost too much and take too long to hand-animate, executive producer David X. Cohen said.

    Cohen said the computer graphics are "dumbed down" to resemble the "charming crudeness" of show creator Matt Groening's drawings.

    One result of the efficiency of such technology is that some hand-animation jobs have become obsolete, especially those of clean-up artists, who color and polish the sketch work of the motion animators.

    "Crews on an animated feature before would be several hundred -- now they're about 120 or so. The work is less labor intensive but not less expensive because they're developing new technologies," said Steve Hulett, business representative of Animation Guild Local 839 in North Hollywood.

    Disney's animation department has laid off hundreds of employees in cost-cutting measures since competition in the late 1990s caused animator salaries to skyrocket.

    Until he was laid off four weeks ago, Stephan Zupkas, who worked for nearly 19 years at Disney, was responsible for "smoothing the transition" from an animator's drawing board to the polished image that moviegoers saw onscreen.

    "I would take rough animation, redraw it, put it on-model and correct the anatomy," said Zupkas, whose credits include "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas."

    The automatic precision of computer animation eliminates much of that work, he said.

    But Tim Johnson, a cartoon director at DreamWorks who worked on the computer-animated "Antz" and the upcoming hybrid feature "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," said hand-animation may be reduced by technology, but never eliminated.

    In "Sinbad," for instance, the face of the goddess Eris is being drawn by hand, he said, while computer engineers are creating a body of swirling, ethereal mist and light.

    "In 10 years, computers have made the animation toolbox explode," Johnson added. "We have gone from a screwdriver and a hammer to a 500-piece garage mechanic's set. There is nothing we can imagine that is out of reach now."

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