Computers to the rescue?

PAPA SMURF is turning blue. On a computer screen upstairs at Hanna-Barbera Productions here, the people who gave you Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, and Yogi Bear are adding the tints and hues to the hundreds of cartoon characters, from the Smurfs to the Jetsons and Scooby Doo. All on a video display terminal. They move hand-held computer pens until the screen's cursor rests on a black-and-white outline. With the push of a button the defined area turns cobalt blue. Next: trousers, red; shirt, green.

A couple of miles away, at Walt Disney Studios, technicians are considering ways to use computers to help animate a 1987 release entitled ``Oliver.'' Already, they have used a computer to produce a scene inside a clock for Disney's recent animated film ``The Great Mouse Detective.''

Both studios -- one a leader in animation on Saturday morning TV, the other in ``full animation'' feature films -- are searching for the next step in animation that will keep them ahead of the competition. Animation won't change soon

One answer is the computer -- though officials at both studios say such machines won't change the face of most animation for years to come. (George Lucas's ``Star Wars'' trilogy used state-of-the-art, digitized, high-resolution graphic animation for space scenes, but not in creating characters. Disney studios experimented in computer-generated, three-dimensional imagery in its feature film ``Tron.'')

Roy E. Disney, vice-chairman of Walt Disney Company, says computers are mostly an aid to the ``incredibly laborious'' task of filling in backgrounds, ``like the scene with a thousand bubbles from Snow White, each of which had to be hand drawn hundreds of times.'' Computers will never eliminate the need for a true artist to create and animate a character, he says. Experiments, like cable TV character ``Max Headroom,'' show the problems in achieving realism, Mr. Disney says. ``We've got about four years of software experiments before we can ask the computer to do the kinds of [high] quality things we're after,'' he says.

Hanna-Barbera has the only colorizing computers in the business, developed three years ago in an exclusive contract with Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Christopher Odgers, director of Computer Animation Systems at Hanna-Barbera, says, ``Eventually you will ... see the computer used in creating complex backgrounds not usually attempted in conventional animation because of the amount of time it would take to redraw them.'' Computers, he says, can save time, trouble, and money in achieving a three-dimensional effect known as ``multiplaning,'' usually created with two separate panes of glass and a third channel for characters to move in.

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