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Sees Limits To Computer Graphics : Animator Returns To Drawing Board

August 28, 1987|CHARLES SOLOMON

Chris Bailey isn't impressed by the periodic announcements that computers are about to take over the animation industry.

The 25-year-old artist has done both drawn animation (Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective") and state-of-the-art computer graphics (Mick Jagger's "Hard Woman" video). Frustrated by the limits of computer graphics systems, Bailey is back at the drawing board, working on "Oliver and the Dodger," Disney's next cartoon feature. He discussed his experiences with the two media in a recent interview at the Disney studio annex in Glendale.

"Whenever you hear people talk about the computer, they always say it will be a labor-saving device, because it does all the in-between drawings," he says. "But that isn't what I found. The computer takes what is hardest in drawing and makes it the easiest--and vice versa.

"If you try to animate a flight through a city block by hand, the buildings wobble, because they don't stay in perfect perspective--the computer's great for things like that. But for character animation, the only easy thing to do with a computer is turn the character into a block of cement and fly it around the room. Everything else is much harder."

After studying at CalArts, Bailey worked at various studios, including Don Bluth, where he did animation for the "Space Ace" video game. His first experience with computer animation was designing paths of action for spaceships in the 3-D Korean feature, "Starchaser: The Legend of Orrin." When he began working on "Hard Woman," he discovered that the computer wouldn't do things he took for granted in drawn animation--like keep a character's feet touching the floor.

"Initially, computer animation was like drawing," Bailey explains. "I'd do thumbnail sketches and work out the timing of the movements. To put the poses of the character into the computer, I'd adjust the position of each joint by turning a dial. But I found out it wasn't enough to make the character look good in silhouette, the way you would in a drawing. You had to be aware of what all the numbers were doing at the same time, or the machine would do something like spin an arm all over the place when it worked out the positions between the poses."

Animators use the strong poses Bailey describes to caricature motions. No real human could twist his or her limbs into the exaggerated positions in a series of animation drawings, but the results look convincing on the screen. Bailey attempted to apply the same principles to computer graphics for two other projects: a realistic human head for a TRW commercial and Spider Man doing a flip onto the Marvel Productions logo. In addition to the technical difficulties, he had to overcome the resistance of computer professionals, who wanted a literal depiction of reality.

"I don't know why these people want to limit themselves to reality," he says with an impatient gesture. "It's great if you want to duplicate reality for some kind of exercise, but I think that in their search for realism they're going to sacrifice believability. If we had caricatured that head, we could have made it look like a computer-generated thing we had somehow brought to life; instead, it looks like we're mimicking live action--unsuccessfully."

Bailey plans to spend the next few years drawing (he occasionally paused during the interview to add a few lines to a sketch of one of the characters from "Oliver"). Despite his frustrating experiences, he's interested in exploring computer graphics further--as a complement to drawn animation:

"When you work on the computer, you're more or less applying what you already know. You have to animate everything in your head, make little thumbnail sketches and transfer these into the computer. If you're lucky, you'll get exactly that when you play it back. In hand animation, you make so many discoveries along the way: You keep changing it to get what you want. I felt that to get better at animation, I had to come back and do more of it by hand.

"I think that where computers hold the key for hand-drawn animation is adding the live-action three-dimensionality that you miss with just flat artwork--like the sequence inside Big Ben at the end of 'Great Mouse Detective,' " he concludes. "There's no reason to do with a computer what we can do by hand, and I really don't see why anyone would want to. Computer animation should concentrate on what it does best: There should be two completely different fields."

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