Hollywood’s Love Affair with 3D Animation

Since the time when computers were the size of a large roomresearchers had been interested in how they could make pictures and animation, inspired by the pursuit of technology, business, entertainment and art. 

In 1973, in the movie Westworld, the first 3D animation in a feature film appeared. It was of a hand, playing on a monitor. That 3D animation was that from a couple students from The University of Utah, 1972. Westworld, being a science fiction film based on a computer simulation theme, the film’s producer had wanted computer effects but in 1972 two minutes of footage would cost $200,000 and take 9 months to produce, over a fifth of the film’s already low budget. The already complete and impressive student film was enlisted as a mise-en-scene of sorts. That polygonal 3d animated digitized hand was that of Ed Catmull, who would go on to found Pixar and is the current president of Walt Disney Pixar Studio. As they say, “...And that’s the rest of the story.”.

9 years later, Disney’s Tron made its visually dazzling debut but very few could see 3d Animation’s potential beyond vehicular models and effects. Not many could see its potential for character animation except for a handful of visionaries. For those who could see potential, 3d character animation was still very costly and more time-consuming than the traditional animation process. Former Pixar president, a young John Lassiter, was let-go in 1984 from Disney after his R & D into combining traditional and 3D animation proved economically infeasible for the studio. 

"Disney’s Tron made its visually
dazzling debut"

Many traditional animators were not sold. It seemed the technology was the showcase. Generally, many were not impressed because of the mechanical examples. Those examples, after all, were animated largely by researchers, not animators. The traditional animator’s concept of 3D animation was that of evenly timed ray traced chrome balls and reflected checkerboard patterns. “The only computer I need is an ATM.”, I once heard a 2d animator say. 

While Hollywood’s use of 3D animation grew on the visual effects side in such movies as The Last Starfighter (ship) and Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan (Genesis scene), companies such as an early Pixar, and Pacific Data Imaging, were being established out of combined talents and interest in the technology with goals to create the first 3D animated film. They pursued character animation experimentation while providing 3D animation and effects to movies.

Unlike previous research labs, these contemporaries enlisted animators for their goal. Their 3D character animation would serve the traditional principles from animation to story, harkening back to principles 50 years previous. 
Toy Story premiered in 1995 amidst an animation renaissance of drawn 2D animated successive hit films. All elements used to create its visuals served the story.  Characters, while 3D animated, posed and moved with the 2d clarity of a traditional cartoon. For one, its use of materials that made the toys look realistic justified (if it needed justification) why this film could not be hand drawn. Cameras did not move with gratuitous fly-throughs, as is the temptation in 3D animation, but with the sophistication and maturity of live action cameras. As Snow White 55 years earlier was a make-or-break moment as to whether traditional animation could sustain a feature film, likewise was Toy Story for 3D animation. 

The 1990s studio executive who once believed an animation hit relied on musicals with wise-cracking animal sidekicks, now believed all they had to for hit was for it to be computer animated.The last 25 years have seen a string of 3D animation box office successes with virtually no slowing down in popularity at box office and home theatre. 

"Half of the top 100 3D animated films are Bonafide B.O.hits"

Based on Box Office Mojo’s numbers over half of the top 100 3D animated films this last quarter century are Bonafide B.O. hits, ranging from number 53, Hotel Transylvania 3, to number 1. The Incredibles 2 at $607,498,593. (7 of the top 10 are Pixar or Disney). 

Today, 3D animation is democratized, accessible to the average person to create. Students of 3D Animation no longer must wait 9 months for 2 seconds of animation (They certainly don’t need $200,000).  Computers are a fraction of the size and expense they were 40 years ago, with exponential power; “The magic box”, as director Ralph Bakshi told a crowd back in 2008. While the art of animation has not gotten easier to master, its realization has. Instant feedback to test work has accelerated learning of the art form. The technology and art are one. 3D animation is now as feasible economically as 2D, both now created in the computer by the artist. 

That very same computer has linked the world, opening opportunities to learn from anywhere. For the self-motivated ambitious student, FAME  is there to help enable their dreams.

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