Walt Disney once said, “Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive.” For Disney, this was animation’s magic — its power to bring imagination to life.Disney died in 1966, 11 years before computer animation’s heralded debut in Star Wars, and he likely never imagined how life-like animation would become, or how pervasively it would be used in Hollywood. As viewers, we now hardly blink when we see a fully rendered alien planet or a teddy bear working the grocery store check-out counter.
Animation has largely stripped its reputation as a medium for children; it’s been used far too successfully in major films to remain confined to kids. After all, who hasn’t had the experience of going to an animated film and finding the theatre packed with adults? Who doesn’t secretly remember the moment they were a little turned on during Avatar?
Toy Story and Shrek Era
Six months after Casper, the first feature-length CGI film was released: Toy Story. It was an incredible four-year undertaking by Pixar’s John Lasseter and his team; the film was 81 times longer than Lasseter’s first computer animated film a decade before. They faced two fatal challenges: a relatively tiny $30 million budget, and a small, inexperienced team. Of the 27 animators, half were rumored to have been borderline computer illiterate when production began.
“If we’d known how small our budget and our crew was,” remembered writer Peter Docter, “we probably would have been scared out of our gourds. But we didn’t, so it just felt like we were having a good time.”The animators began by creating clay or computer-drawn models of the characters; once they had the models, they coded articulation and motion controls so that the characters could do things like run, jump and laugh. This was all done with the help of Menv, a modeling environment tool Pixar had been building for nine years. Menv’s models proved incredibly complex — the protagonist, Woody, required 723 motion controls. It was a strain on man and machine alike; it took 800,000 machine hours to complete the film, and it took each animator a week to successfully sync an 8-second shot.Computer animation’s next breakthrough came in 2001 with Shrek. Shrek delved into true world building; it included 36 separate in-film locations, more than any CGI feature before it. DreamWorks also made a huge advancement by taking the facial muscle rendering software it used in Antz and applying it to the whole body of Shrek’s characters.
“if you pay attention to Shrek when he talks, you see that when he opens his jaw, he forms a double chin,” supervising animator Raman Hui explained, “because we have the fat and the muscles underneath. That kind of detail took us a long time to get right.”
Shrek brought a new age of realism. Hair, skin and clothes flowed naturally in the elements; the challenge of making Donkey’s fur flow smoothly helped animators render the realistic motion of grass, moss and beards (and other things hipsters like). Shrek grossed nearly a half billion dollars, won the first-ever Academy Award For Best Animated Feature, and established DreamWorks as an animation powerhouse, alongside Disney-Pixar.