SOPHISTICATED computer technology is bringing an exciting new dimension to cartoon animation, improving and speeding up that complicated process.
But ingenious as computer chips may be, there are no indications that they will ever completely replace the artist's skilled hand.
Animation these days is enjoying a renaissance all over the world, partly because of its greatly improved quality and partly because of the insatiable programming demands from the world's television stations.
The power of computers has been harnessed primarily to speed up the tedious, time-consuming job of generating quality animation that moves smoothly and provides previously unmatched visual and color effects.
What's more, computers are now guiding animation camera movements, and they are providing enormously efficient and highly inventive new methods of translating the animators' ideas and concepts to film, tape, and even to optical disk. They create a striking three-dimensional look, they edit, and they manage and help organize the immensely involved animating process.
They are, to an increasingly significant degree, time- and money-savers since they can do in minutes what it takes an army of painters literally days to do.
Animation consists primarily of basic drawings, later color hand-painted on thousands upon thousands of acetate sheets called "cels" that are then overlaid, photographed, and reduced to individual frames. The more cels per scene, the more seamless, refined, and detailed the final progression of the images.
On 35mm animation film, designed for use on television, some 15,000 new drawings are required for a 22-minute subject. In terms of painted cels, of which there are usually many piled onto a single frame, the number doubles, which means that for a quality TV image, the number of cels rises to around 30,000 for 22 minutes of film.
More demanding theatrical animation can go as high as 60,000 cels per half hour.
Cels these days are painted and inked mostly in the Far East (South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, among other countries), and, to a lesser degree, in Eastern Europe, where costs are much lower than in the United States. Some companies even have cels painted in China.
But while the computer performance in animation has been dazzling, and new computer animation techniques are being rapidly developed both in the US and in Europe, the top animators are convinced that the computer chip will never replace the artist or his creative genius.
"Animation can only be as good as the story and the characters it offers," says Peter Keefe, director of production and creative development for Zodiac Entertainment, which produces the highly-popular "Mr. Bogus" and "Widget" series.
"I think of animation as a puppeteer working his puppets. They can only be as good as his hands. That is what creates the magic. In animation you need characters that have video velcro, and then you must have the minds of top animators to translate all that to the screen.
"Computer animation can eliminate a lot of waste and damage. It can create fantastic special effects. It can save time and [a lot of manual labor]. But it can't do the whole animation job. And it never will."
Bill Kroyer, who animated the recent "Ferngully - The Last Rainforest" feature, looks at the computer as the future, but warns: "People get mesmerized by the computer, and they start using them in areas where they are not really necessary or even appropriate."
Tom Burton, president of Calico Entertainment, one of the top animation companies in Hollywood, Calif., says "computers will play an increasingly important part in animation. There has been an almost incredible acceleration already.
"So far, you hardly see computers actually painting cels, though computers are used to `color' black-and-white movies. The majority of cartoon production is still being done the way the animation gods first did it - by hand. But computers are doing backgrounds and shading. The door has cracked open."
The frame-by-frame animation process has a certain inevitable logic to it and, while the computer can speed it up and improve its detail, it hasn't essentially changed since the early days.
First, there is the script, which tells the story and serves as the base for the voice recordings.
This is followed by a storyboard, which breaks down the action sentence by sentence and maps every movement.
While this is going on, individual design is developed. How are the characters to be dressed? How do they look from every angle? What is the color of their hair? Their eyes? What is their size in relation to one another? If there is a bunny rabbit, how tall should he be in comparison with a human figure? What does the little boy look like when he laughs, or cries? How does his mouth move? What's his shape seen from the back?
Illustrators work closely with the producer, the director, and the writers to establish all this, and what comes out at the end is what they call their "Bible," really a complete description of every set, character, and situation in the film.
Simultaneously, backgrounds are developed and detailed. At that point, using the "Bible" as their departure point, the process of animation really starts, with illustrators drawing and refining the basic characters and their assistants working on props and backgrounds.
A good animation half-hour today costs anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000, the budget determined by the number of drawings and cels, the volume of special effects, etc., with Disney, Warners, Zodiac, and others setting the highest standard.
Once the drawings have been completed - and all that work has so far been done in the United States - they are usually shipped abroad for the voluminous and painstaking ink and paint work. That not only reduces costs, but also gets around the quite serious shortage of animation artists in the industry today.
Language problems often create misunderstandings, which means that when that mountain of painted cels has been completed by the foreign "teams" it must be copied and shipped back to the US for approval and correction.
Next, dialogue, music, and noise tracks are mixed, titles have to be designed and shot and, finally, a negative is struck off. From story origination to final print, two to three years have probably elapsed when it comes to animated features. For series, it usually takes about six months to complete one episode.
Computers can certainly speed that process. Animators take their drawings, feed them into a computer, and the machine will position and even rotate them on a 360-degree axis, allowing the camera to shoot from every angle. The technique provides great visual depth and also executes vital shadows that significantly enhance the three-dimensional effect.
Yet Mr. Keefe sees a danger in the over-use of computers to improve animation efficiency. "We obviously welcome technological advances," he says, "but ultimately we are in the business of creating entertainment characters which we hope will last. When we use computers for our `Mr. Bogus' series we, first of all, determine to create a first-class, carefully designed product that is timeless. Then we use the computer to improve it further. We involve computer functions only when they save us time and money
without diminishing essential quality."