Advancements in computer animation and consumers’ insatiable appetite for stylized robots, animals and monsters have propelled the industry. The momentum isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon, according to South African industry experts.
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Since the turn of the century, the animation industry has been propelled forward thanks to computer graphic advancements and affordable, relatively easy to use and professional desktop tools. The web, predominantly through the rise of social media, has also become a distribution channel to pretty much everyone.
“If you look worldwide, there are 45 or 50 fully 3D feature-length, computer-animated films in production today, ready for release over the next couple of years,” says Yanik Fairbank, an industry veteran who is currently CEO of Turbulent Pictures, South Africa’s leading animation and special effects firm. “In the past 10 years there has been a rise in animations coming out of South Africa who are bringing with them a fresh view on what makes a great animated movie thanks to these technological advancements.”
Adults are flocking to theaters as well, as storylines have become more mature. “The creative ambition is now matched by technical capabilities; the sophistication of the imagery now matches sophisticated stories,” says Ann Daly, chief operating officer at DreamWorks, the studio behind Shrek and Madagascar.
Some of the innovation strides in the past decade include:
Early 3D animation in the cinema
The first use of 3D wireframe imagery in mainstream cinema was in the sequel to Westworld, Futureworld (1976), directed by Richard T. Heffron. This featured a computer-generated hand and face created by then University of Utah graduate students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke which had initially appeared in their 1971 experimental short A Computer Animated Hand.
The third movie to use this technology was Star Wars (1977), written and directed by George Lucas, with wireframe imagery in the scenes with the Death Star plans, the targeting computers in the X-wing fighters, and the Millennium Falcon spacecraft.
First solid 3D CGI in the movies
The first cinema feature movie to make extensive use of solid 3D CGI was Walt Disney’s Tron, directed by Steven Lisberger, in 1982. The film is celebrated as a milestone in the industry, though less than twenty minutes of this animation were actually used—mainly the scenes that show digital “terrain”, or include vehicles such as Light Cycles, tanks and ships. To create the CGI scenes, Disney turned to the four leading computer graphics firms of the day: Information International Inc, Robert Abel and Associates (both in California), MAGI, and Digital Effects (both in New York).
The early 2000s saw the advent of fully virtual cinematography with its audience debut considered to be in the 2003 movies Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions with its digital look-alikes so convincing that it is often impossible to know if some image is a human imaged with a camera or a digital look-alike shot with a simulation of a camera.
The scenes built and imaged within virtual cinematography are the “Burly brawl” and the end showdown between Neo and Agent Smith. With conventional cinematographic methods the burly brawl would have been prohibitively time consuming to make with years of compositing required for a scene of few minutes. Also a human actor could not have been used for the end showdown in Matrix Revolutions: Agent Smith’s cheekbone gets punched in by Neo leaving the digital look-alike naturally unhurt.
“The industry is in an exciting phase at the moment with several smaller visual effects companies coming into the fray with highly innovative advancements,” says Fairbank. “ International filmmakers are already looking overseas to add greater value to their films, to give them that competitive edge.”
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Here’s how Turbulent Pictures is revolutionising the animation industry: