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%% Amiga Animation at Disney by Douglas J. Nakakihara %%
%% email@example.com %%
NOTICE: This is the originally submitted text for an article that
appeared in the December 7, 1992 issue (#103) of MICROTIMES magazine.
(There are some slight edited differences between the published
version and this one.)
This article is freely-distributable as long as it remains unchanged
and this notice and the copyright remain included.
This article may not be re-published in any magazine, newsletter,
or similar media, including those electronically distributed,
without obtaining prior approval from the author. This provision
does *not* apply to USENET or BBSs.
Specific permission has been granted to Amiga Report.
Copyright(C)1992 Douglas J. Nakakihara.
The author can be reached thru Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amiga Animation at Disney
By Douglas J. Nakakihara
Disney has always been known for top quality animation. Nearly
everyone has been touched in one way or another by a Disney creation and
we are all familiar with their cast of classic characters. To some of
us, they are almost friends. It only seems fitting that the Amiga, a
powerful animation tool, would find a niche at Disney, specifically at
the Television Animation arm of Walt Disney Pictures and Television.
In an environment where artists have painstakingly created
animation masterpieces by hand, the Amiga is revolutionizing the
process. The man behind this revolution is Kelly Day. He has managed
to convinced the powers that be that the Amiga is a viable and usable
tool for doing what has traditionally been--and still pretty much is--a
totally manual process.
Kelly has been with Disney for about four years. Although, his
name may not be familiar to you, his work might. His credits include
such movies as the Rescuers and Duck Tales, as well as the made-for-TV
cartoons Talespin, Dark Wing Duck, and Goof Troop. He is currently
working on a new animated cartoon series called Bonkers.
Kelly's computer set-up consists of an Amiga 3000 with a 1950
multiscan monitor and an Amiga 2500 with a 1084 monitor. Both computers
are equipped with Syquest removable media disk drives, IVS's Trumpcard
SCSI controller cards, and Ethernet cards. The Amigas are connected to
a Novell local area network using the netware product from OXXI, Inc.
Additionally, the two Amigas are networked directly together via the
SCSI controllers using the SCSI-SHARE product from IVS. This allows
direct file sharing between the two computers. Talk about connectivity!
To really appreciate the benefits the Amiga provides, it is
important to understand how animations are created traditionally.
Before an animation can be made, a storyboard must be created. A
storyboard is a series of black-and-white hand-drawn pictures, called
"panels," depicting important moments (also known as key frames) in the
animation. The full dialog and other direction notes are written under
Animations are created assembly-line style and there are basically
three types of people who work on the project at this point: character,
prop, and background designers. The character designers are in charge
of anything that is living, and the prop designers cover non-living
objects that move. The background designers draw the static elements in
a scene. For example, say the animation was to be about a man picking
up a stick in a room. The background designer would draw the room, the
character designer would draw the man, and the prop designer would draw
the stick. Get the picture? Of course, some lines may be crossed if
you have a talking broom or chair!
The Disney designers study the storyboard and then draw black and
white line art pictures called "models." For instance, if one of the
main features of the animation was a car character, a designer would
draw the car from various perspectives. This gives the actual animators
a three-dimensional idea of what the car looks like. There is one other
designer called the color designer, who creates colored models of the
characters, props, and backgrounds.
What is interesting is that the Disney designers don't draw the
final animation, they only provide the "look" of the cartoon. That's
right, the work the public actually sees is not technically the actual
work of Disney designers. Because a 20-minute cartoon requires nearly
29,000 frames to be drawn and painted, this work is usually farmed out
to animation studios located in other countries where labor is cheaper.
Normally, an army of animators is used to make the final product. These
studios are sometimes independent and not related to Disney.
When the animation is actually being created, the animators base
it on the key frames in the storyboard. In other words, they are only
given specific information as to what certain frames should look like.
However, they must also create the frames that are needed in between the
key frames. This is sometimes called "tweening." The designers' models
that are provided with the storyboard are used as reference information
to help these animators tween.
THE AMIGA'S ROLE
So how does the Amiga fit into all of this? Well, Day basically
uses a 3-D rendering program to create characters, backgrounds, or
props. Once all of the objects are created and properly oriented, he
can position the camera and print the model on a laser printer. He can
literally print the scene from any perspective by simply changing the
camera view! For one project, Kelly had to create Goofy's living room.
Once the room was created in the 3-D program, he printed multi-
perspective background pictures of the room without ever having to draw
it. This saves tremendous amounts of time. The traditional method
would require each model to be drawn by hand.
Though Kelly has used various 3-D rendering programs in the past,
he now relies on Playmation from Hash Enterprises. Playmation's spline-
based objects are ideal for the output needed. All scenes are rendered
to high resolution IFF files. If you watch cartoons you will notice
that things are usually a single color outlined in black. As a result,
in contrast to the normal 3-D rendering objective of photo-realism,
objects cannot have any shading--they must be a flat single color. To
achieve this, all of the objects are set to reflect 100 percent of the
ambient light. Color selection is also very important as objects that
overlap or are connected must be different colors. Each side of a cube,
for example, would have to be a different solid color.
The rendered picture is then run through a program called Trace.
Trace is a utility program that comes with Gold Disk's Professional
Draw, a structured drawing program. Structured drawing programs are
used to create high quality output, usually using a Postscript output
device. Output quality of structured drawings is determined solely by
the capabilities of the output device. Output quality is significanlty
superior to that of bit-mapped graphics whose resolution is normally
tied to the display resolution and usually contains a lot of jaggies
Trace turns the picture into a ProDraw clip that is an outline of
the original picture. Trace only draws lines where a color changes from
one to another. This is one of the reasons it is important not to have
any shading. So if you had a red teapot with a blue handle, Trace would
separately outline the teapot and handle. If the handle and teapot were
the same color, both objects would be outlined, but there would be no
separation between the pot and handle.
Once Trace is finished, the clip is loaded into ProDraw for
printing on a Postscript printer. This may all seem rather complicated
but since ProDraw finally supports ARexx, Kelly has written an ARexx
script to handle nearly everything. Once all of the frames are
rendered, Kelly can trace and print each frame automatically with no
human intervention. The final printed product is virtually
indistinguishable from it's hand-drawn counterpart.
Kelly is also very proud of the fact that he is one of the only
designers that sometimes includes fully-animated frames for tricky
sequences. As discussed above, this work is normally done by the
animation studio, but any help that he can provide will obviously make
for a better final product. Since the scene is already defined in three
dimensions, all he has to worry about is the path of the camera and the
timing. Playmation has a very unique and powerful way of accomplishing
this using a time-line metaphor.
When previewing an animation on screen without background, he
often draws various references directly on the display screen using a
wipe-off marker. He indicated that this was much faster than trying to
genlock the animation over a background . In other words, it's a quick-
and-dirty way to get the job done. I've always said that laziness is
the mother of invention!
Normally, computer-generated animations are not directly used in
cartoon animations. However, a cartoon episode he worked on involved
the characters playing a video game. In this case, the lower resolution
computer output was required. As a result, an actual Amiga generated
animation was mixed into the cartoon.
The above process is not the end of the Amiga's abilities. Kelly
also uses the Amiga to create "animatic storyboards." Normally there
are three acts to a 20-minute cartoon and the traditional storyboard for
each act is several inches thick. Although, great effort is made to
include as much information as possible in the storyboards, much
interpretation is left up to the animation studio as to what the final
cartoon should look like. Since each panel in the storyboard represents
various amounts of time, it is non-linear and the "feel" of the cartoon
is absent. The animators are missing the timing of the events and this
can affect the cartoon's humor.
An animatic storyboard is a video of the storyboard synced with
the cartoon's soundtrack. This gives the animation studio much more
information about what is desired and how events should be timed. The
result is remotely similar to the old slideshow with sound presentations
they used to show us in grade school.
To digitize the soundtrack, Sunrize Industries' AD1012 12-bit
sound board and their Studio 16 software is used. The storyboard
pictures are brought into the Amiga using Progressive Peripheral's
Framegrabber. Once the sound and pictures have been digitized, the two
elements must be synced together.
Gold Disk's Showmaker is used to control when pictures are
displayed. However, because he was working with so many frames, Day
found that Showmaker's input method was very tedious and time consuming.
As a result, he wrote his own customized input program that saves data
files in Showmaker format. Kelly's program not only shows the SMPTE
time code, but also the film length in feet, a reference methodology
used by many animators.
By multitasking Studio 16 with his own program, Kelly can view the
graphical representation of the soundtrack's soundwave and sync up the
frames accordingly. If he needs to know what is happening at a
particular point in the soundtrack, he can just highlight the portion of
the soundwave he wants to hear using the mouse and play it.
When the storyboard is ready to be recorded, the Amiga 2500 runs
Showmaker to display the frames, and Studio 16 on the Amiga 3000 plays
the animation soundtrack. The two computers are kept in sync using an
independent SMPTE timecode source. The SMPTE signal is fed
symultaneously into both Amigas. The AD1012 in the Amiga 3000 has a
built-in SMPTE connector; however, on the Amiga 2500, the timing signal
must be fed into a MIDI interface, so an external SMPTE-to-MIDI
converter box is used. The show is recorded onto videotape in real
It is important to note that although Day is using two Amigas,
Showmaker and Studio 16 could be multitasked on the the same computer,
accomplishing the job using a single Amiga! Moreover, except for the
lower sound quality, the Amiga's internal 8-bit sound could also be used
in lieu of the 12-bit sound board.
Though the animatic storyboard is not animated per se, it does
provide timing and give the sense of movement that the traditional
storyboard lacks. This makes the communication between the Disney
designers and the animation studio more effective. Costly mistakes that
could require things to be redone might be avoided. As most computer
users will attest to, it is infinitely easier to have someone show you
how to do it, rather than having to read the manual.
What is really impressive about what Kelly is doing is that all of
the hardware and software is off-the-shelf stuff. Moreover, he believes
that the day for full production of cartoons using only computers may
not be too far off. After seeing what he has been able to accomplish, I
don't doubt it for a second. Kelly has discovered a more effective way
to tackle the huge task of animation. When animation companies start
realizing the profit potential with using Amigas, look out--the flood
gates will be opened.