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
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
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.