A computer program for budding Walt Disneys

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Budding Walt Disneys, take note. Recently a unique new software program was released which allows you to produce short, animated movies on your home computer.

The name of this program is the Movie Maker Toolkit. Marketed by Reston Publishing, the program sells for $60 and runs on Atari computers equipped with a floppy disk drive and joystick. In the future, versions for other computers - Apple, IBM, and Commodore - will also be available.

Movie Maker is one of a new and still rare breed of home computer programs which successfully add an element of creativity to the intrinsic dynamism of this novel medium. Programs such as this and the recently released Music Construction Set from Electronic Arts allow aspiring high-tech Mozarts to compose and play electronic music on a computer. The shoot-em-up arcade-type games pale by comparison.

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The new program's author is Guy Nouri, an ex-painter from New York City who is now head of Interactive Picture Systems (IPS). This is his second programming effort. His first software package, Paint, turns the Atari computer into an electronic palette, paintbrush, and canvas. His brother, Michael, was the male lead in the popular movie ''Flashdance,'' making the Nouris an animated family.

As the preface to the Movie Maker manual puts it (with a little excusable hyperbole), ''This system is a totally new tool for artistic expression. Because it can do things that have not been possible before, it entices you to think in new ways.''

The program is definitely not a game, insists Nouri. He envisions it as a new form of entertainment for today's computer buyers who have grown tired of Space Invaders and Centipede.

The concept underlying Movie Maker is an animation studio. To make a commercial cartoon, artists paint figures in various poses on transparent plastic sheets. These sheets are laid on a painted background and photographed in thousands of carefully arranged sequences so that, when run on a movie projector, the cartoon figures seem to move and talk.

Within the limits of the computer graphics, Nouri appears to have successfully captured the essence of this process. But making even the simplest cartoon is a complex endeavor. So, of necessity, Movie Maker is a fairly complicated program to learn. It employs over 30 different commands which must be memorized. And the chore is further complicated by the fact that some commands have slightly different meanings in different parts of the program.

''It will probably take most people at least a solid day to produce their first simple animation,'' acknowledges Jerry Brecher of Reston, who was demonstrating the program at a recent computer show.

Still, there are tangible rewards for those willing to make the Effort. In the hands of a professional, the results are surprisingly close to the output of commercial cartoonmakers like Hannah Barbera. Unfortunately, microcomputer graphics are still too crude to obtain anything analogous to the animation in the old Disney cartoon classics. But, at the rate the technology is improving, it shouldn't be too long a wait. In fact, IPS has developed a more powerful version of Movie Maker and has leased it for commercial TV development.

Such a totally picture-oriented computer program is hard to describe in words. But the process, and the program are divided into four steps:

* Compose. You draw the basic figures which will make up your picture. Say you want to depict a jogger running through the countryside. You first draw a series of pictures of the runner with arms and legs in several positions. If done correctly, these figures, when viewed in sequence, will give the illusion that the figure is running. You can make as many poses of a given shape as will fit on the screen at one time.

Next, you create a background or series of backgrounds for your figure.

Drawing is done with the computer's arrow keys and joystick. These serve as an electronic paintbrush. Each shape can be made up of as many as four colors. A zoom capability allows you to make very detailed drawings.

Your runner is called an actor; an actor is anything that moves. After completing your actors, you put them together in what is called an animation sequence. Movie Maker limits you to six actors. An actor can be a series of different shapes, like the runner. Or it can be a single shape which moves, like a telephone pole which crosses the screen as the runner passes it.

Actors are added one at a time, from background to foreground. Each time you run a sequence you can move the actor you are adding around the screen with the joystick. You can also change the colors, and control the speed or frame rate and the number of frames during which the figure will hold each pose.

* Record. This is analogous to capturing your cartoon sequence on movie film, after you have created all the figures and background. You cannot alter the figures you have drawn, but you can edit the sequences by moving the figures around, changing the frame rate, and so on. You can step through the sequence frame by frame. Or you can record it on the fly.

This is the stage where sound effects are added. The Atari has four sound tracks and can create a range of sounds to supplement the animation. The program also allows you to alter the ''camera angle,'' so to speak, by zooming in on certain portions of the picture or panning.

* Smooth. Once you're satisfied with a movie you have recorded, you run it through the smooth function to remove a distracting flicker in the picture which is evident in unprocessed sequences.

* Play. In this mode you play your finished movies. A movie is limited to 300 frames. Depending on the frame rate and how the sequences are structured, this can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. An average time would appear to be about 35 seconds. You can chain a number of movies together, but there is a 30- to 60-second pause in between.

According to Reston's Brecher, a videotape machine can be used to record Movie Maker movies. In this way, it should be possible to put together a full, feature-length cartoon, if you so desire.

In summary, Movie Maker appears to be a challenging and exciting new application for the home computer. It is one of those rare products in which the limitation is the user's imagination and creativity rather than the software itself.

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