Friday, February 2, 2007


Drawing for Fantasia by James Algal, director of sequencing (1940)

Last week I had a good chat with Dave Bossert who is Disney's Creative Director of Animation for Special Projects. In addition to creating art with computers, Bossert works with pencil and brush. At home he is a sculptor. He talks with great fondness about other animators at Disney who work in their spare time with traditional media (including one who has an easel in his office for oil painting during his lunch break).

Bossert played a major role in animated films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Lion King and Fantasia 2000. But he is also a restoration animator who digitally restores, frame by frame, classic old Disney animated films such as Bambi.

So I thought Bossert was a good person to ask how computers had made things better and how they had made things worse. He turned out to be a cheerleader for computers:

I look at the computer as just another tool, like a neat new pencil or a really cool brush.

Things are terrific today. Animators have enormous new tools at their disposal. Digital technology helps us to make films without the inherent flaws of hand painting, such as dust, scratches and cell shadows. The clarity and consistency are much closer to the original intent of the artist.

But the art has to lead the technology. The technology shouldn't lead the art.
The thing that impressed me most about Bossert's position was that computers achieve a result closer to the original intent of the animator. As he lovingly restored Bambi, he came across numerous instances where paint had "crept" or colors had varied from what the original animators wanted, just because of the limits of the medium in an era before digital paint.

I love the personal touch in the drawing from Fantasia above, but you can tell from the reference numbers that it is being adapted for a purpose unnatural to traditional drawing. Disney used to make epic animation masterpieces using the same labor contract that the pharoahs used when building the pyramids, but even under those conditions there were limits to what the human hand could achieve.

Computers in other art forms often take us further away from the intimacy and immediacy of the individual artist. But in animation, computers seem to bring us closer to an individual artistic vision.

Animation drawn by hand is inevitably a corporate product-- requiring the infrastructure of large numbers of artists and support staff, large amounts of equipment and large amounts of capital to pay for it all. However, computers today reduce the number of steps between the individual artist and the fully realized artistic vision. New software enables individual artists to achieve results that the largest studio could not achieve animating with more traditional media.

Bossert recognizes that the potential for computers in animation is not fully realized. A self-confessed "sponge" for new information, Bossert is constantly exploring Youtube and other internet phenomena, trying out technologies such as blu-ray, and reading all he can. But animation is already one of the best possible applications for computers in art.