Screen Grab

Published in CGI magazine, Vol.2, issue 9, 1997

Abstract This article discusses some aspects of the computer animation training scene.

900 words

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Interviewer: so why have you applied to this course?
Applicant: I want to do computer animation.
Interviewer: which computer animators do you like?
Applicant: I don't know any by name ...
Interviewer: can you describe some computer animation that appeals to you?
Applicant: er, .. some of the stuff on TV ... Wallace and Grommet?
Interviewer: Okay --- How about the industry? Have you an idea of what sector of the industry you would like to work in?
Applicant: er, I don't have much idea of industry.

This is typical of a conversation that I have about fifty times a year. Most applicants have no idea of the technology, the market, the key figures in commercial or experimental computer animation, or of the main players amongst the top computer animation facilities in the worlds Media Capital: London. None of them have even read CGI. But I am being unfair; I started out in just the same way, having seen a short documentary in the early '80s which featured a classical piece of computer animation, Ed Emschwiller's Sunstone. I was hooked, but, at that time, I couldn't even tell you the name of the piece or its creator.

Sometimes nervous applicants mumble on the phone that they are interested in our course in computer imaging and imagination, mixing up the second word with the correct part of the course title: animation. I like this because it sums up the appeal of computer animation: the possibility to realise anything one can imagine.

So how do you get into computer animation? People live on their wits in any area of the media, and you can't teach that in a University. What about specialist training on the hugely expensive systems that industry uses? This is a big gamble: you can train for Softimage Level 1 or 2 at Metro New Media for example, and this gamble can pay off, giving you an accredited set of skills with the software. Most companies interview on a showreel however, and to put this together you need access to a system for a period long beyond a training course.

Many hopefuls invest in a fast PC or Mac and software like 3D Studio v4, 3D Studio Max, or Lightwave. Once you start to produce a short animation you soon realise that its a mixed media task; no single tool alone can be relied on to produce an animation. At the very least you need an imaging package like Photoshop, plus a scanner. Very quickly you realise that any accurate design work requires Illustrator or equivalent to import into Photoshop to import into 3D. Then you need some 2D animation --- perhaps Macromedia Director, or Animator Studio. Then you need digital video editing, so perhaps Premiere. Then you need to record your animation, at which point you find that it might cost 50p a frame, and the costs spiral.

And it makes no difference if you want to produce a slick commercial showreel, or you are a budding digital Schvankmayer. You can produce anything you can imagine, but what you didn't imagine to start with was the cost or technical complexity of loading your poor PC or Mac with the most processor-intensive range of software in the world. Lets face it: PCs and Macs are built to only just work, and that's with word-processing. So why do it? Because it is just glorious when the animation is complete. Like when Nigel Maudsley took his film 'Chance Encounter' to be converted to NTSC for screening at ISEA in Chicago (the International Symposium on Electronic Art). 'How on earth did you make that?', the facilities people asked. 'On my PC at home.' Incredulous looks. Or when Dominic Wright had his first piece 'Admiral Flipside' screened by Channel Four before he had even finished his course (and I got paid, he mused). Or when Richard Wright (no relative) had his first screening of 'Heliocentrum' at a West End previewing, and which was introduced as the longest piece ever produced on PCs (this was before the Pentium came out!).

But does the software and hardware industry really understand what can be done on the home computer? Only a patchy grasp I think, as software with extraordinary anomalies is pushed out by the corporate managers, leaving those on the ground to work around. Like: 3DS Max doesn't really like Windows '95 (the AVI bug has been fixed, but not the Deformations re-draw problem), Adobe After Effects has no JPEG facility (needed for 3DS v4), Macromedia Freehand says on the box it is more compatible with Photshop than Illustrator, but it isn't under Windows, and my biggest gripe of all: no decent 2D animation software. All we want is a time-based version of Illustrator, Freehand, or CorelDraw, but it simply doesn't exist (if you discount Animo which is not an option for a home computer). Fractal Design's Expression has proved that you can have richness and transparency in a vector programme, and even has limited animation, so it can be done.

As I look at software, hardware, and training courses in animation, I am coming to the conclusions that we need more Ronseal. Ronseal? my colleagues ask. Yup. It should do what it says on the tin.