Tuesday, July 09, 2013

A History of Computer Animation

Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation by Tom Sito is a sprawling chronicle of the development of cgi.  That sprawl is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that Sito makes it clear how many people, institutions and companies each contributed to the development of computer animation over decades.  He has interviewed many of the pioneers and looked at many of the individuals, institutions and companies that doggedly pursued the dream of images and animation created on computers.

The curse is that this wide-ranging approach has made the book's organization clumsy.  Rather than work chronologically, Sito devotes chapters to contributions by government, academia, business, gaming and individual artists, so the book keeps doubling back on itself.  Certain films, people and events pop up repeatedly, muddying the historical sequence.  A timeline in the appendices would help clarify the history.

Hearing the pioneers speak about their own ambitions and accomplishments provides an intimate look at an art and technology as it was struggling to be born.   The path was not a smooth one; the failures were as common as the breakthroughs.  There's a cgi graveyard filled with people and companies who chased their dreams before the hardware, software and economics were in place to make those dreams come true. 

While certain well-known figures, such as George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, are present, so are many who are unknown to the general public in spite of their importance: Alvy Ray Smith, Jim Blinn, Charles Csuri, Alexander Schure, John Pennie, Robert Abel, Bill Reeves, David Evans, Ivan Sutherland, Seymour Cray, and James Clark.  Each of these people and the others chronicled in the book made contributions that changed the course of the field.  Each worked to create better looking images or to make computer animation flexible enough to communicate ideas and entertain audiences.

While Tom Sito is a traditional animator who has also done storyboards and directed, he has no hands-on experience with cgi.  That lack of familiarity shows in various ways throughout the book.  The development of hardware, particularly the rise of Silicon Graphics followed by the development of video cards for consumer PCs, had huge a impact on the proliferation of cgi and its ability to produce more complex images.  Similarly, viable off-the-shelf graphics software put cgi into the hands of artists who didn't know how to write software.  Sito doesn't fully recognize the impact that each of these things had on the growth and success of the industry.

He also doesn't fully grasp cgi concepts.  His description in the glossary of forward and inverse kinematics is "formulas used in 3D animation," which says nothing about their most common use in moving characters' arms and legs, let alone defining the difference between them.

Historical errors also creep in.  The TV series ReBoot ran on the ABC network, not the Disney Channel.  The animation for the TV series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was not produced by Omnibus.  The studio did a sample to try to land the project, but lost it to Arcca Animation.

There will undoubtedly be more histories of computer animation written in the future, some that will go into greater depth on certain topics.  However, in Moving Innovation, Tom Sito has begun to map the territory, making it easier for those future authors to understand how the pieces fit together and who the important players were.  While not perfect, Moving Innovation is a good introduction to how computer graphics grew and have spread throughout almost all areas of computing and our daily lives.


Unknown said...

Fascinating. I might have to check this book out despite the flaws at my local library if it's available.

Anonymous said...

It's a good book, which shares the same exact lack of strong organization and editing Sito's first book had. Great, unimpeachable evidence, entertainingly told. But frustrating to get a sense of historical context while in the midst of reading it. Both of these books deserve to be picked up, well edited, and republished by a major publisher some day soon.

Until then, I'd have to hold onto "Droidmaker" by Michael Rubin, as not only the single best history of Pixar, but the single best history of Computer Animation, in general.

Anonymous said...

You've confirmed my fears that it suffers from the same sloppiness that made Sito's earlier book DRAWING THE LINE unusable as a historical text. The factual errors in that first book are numerous and significant. Just to give one example, Sito wrote that Walt Kelly went out on the Disney strike. In fact, Kelly had quit the studio the day before the strike started. In the following sentence, Sito wrote that Kelly and Ward Kimball "were never close again" after Kelly picketed. Aside from the fact that Kelly didn't picket, that's a complete mischaractisation of their relationship because Kelly and Kimball exchanged letters frequently, and maintained a warm relationship until Kelly's death.

Anonymous said...

Well, Tom Sito is not known for being a historian. And apparently, not a very good reporter, either.