Animal magic

Technology - Hugh Aldersey-Williams on the ever quicker march of animation

I suppose I contributed my share of anorakish Monty Python recitations 20 years ago along with the rest of the nudgers and winkers. Sadly, in my case, the tendency to emulation went further. I wanted to make cartoons like Terry Gilliam. I bought his book and a pair of scissors and took his advice to heart. Cut-out animation was his preferred technique, he explained, because it was "no work". Besides, it was really the only option if you couldn't draw. It took me 18 months of weekly evening classes to create a film lasting 70 seconds. No work, huh.

What was folly then is simply inconceivable now. Computers have short-circuited the journey from mind's eye to camera's lens. In the desperate effort to assimilate this technology and know its possibilities before the next great leap forward, animators have left behind them a trail of new cliches, each of which can be dated and often traced to the capabilities of a particular piece of hardware. The most extravagant recent effect in this technological fossil record is morphing, which was big circa 1997, but is now so passe that it has become the answer to a question on University Challenge, while its appearance in Ally McBeal and The Fast Show titles merely underlines those series' antiquity.

It's pure mannerism. As Gombrich describes it, artists of the 16th century such as Bronzino, the author of the Python foot, essentially felt that Raphael, Titian and the previous generation had achieved perfection and that there was nothing left for them if realism was their aim. Some chose to accentuate these qualities of perfection in their work. Others copied these masters regardless of the context of their own paintings - so their biblical scenes, for example, would be suddenly crowded out with male nudes, for no other reason than that they admired Michelangelo's male nudes so much.

The same happens today. Designers play with the new graphics technology, fall in love with what they see and put it in their work regardless of whether it really belongs there or not. The manipulation of apparently three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional screen has passed through several evolutionary stages. At first, it was possible only to draw simple geometric shapes in outline; then came shading; then came trickier optical phenomena, reflection, both specular and diffuse, transparency and refraction. These stages were marked by the purposeless abundance first of tumbling shapes, then of chromium surfaces, then glass, then water as the technology grew more agile.

New generations of cliches are constantly hatching. Walking with Dinosaurs is of its time as surely as the original Channel 4 logo. Its cleverness is to blend technological mannerism with more traditional conceits. It is not just the genre clothing of the natural history programme that the series has stolen. There are crafty, economising Gilliam-style pauses in the animation when nothing actually moves, although we have yet to see the dinosaur that glides along behind a screen of tall grass to save leg work. There are some wicked in-jokes, as when the animator's "camera" shifts its "focus" from a foreground reptile to one further away, pulling us deeper into believing that what we are watching is a wildlife documentary. The textures, colours and nuances of motion of these prehistoric creatures are necessarily based on no more than educated guesswork. So the animation technologists have deviously attained their Holy Grail of utter realism in a field where nobody knows what real actually looked like. There is a cheeky nod, too, in the sub-"Rite of Spring" music that accompanies some of the more lumbering dinosaurs to the most famous animated film of all, Disney's 1940 Fantasia. The remake that opens on 1 January, Fantasia/ 2000, has the impossible task of impressing us all over again with the potential of animation now that anybody with a desktop computer can do it.

Where next? The frontier in three-dimensional realism is modelling organic form. We've seen pigs and dinosaurs. Furrier and more familiar creatures are a greater technological challenge. The ultimate is to be able to reproduce the human figure and face complete not only in its physical detail but also in perfectly observed movement and expression. They have a name ready for these virtual actors: "synthespians". But they are not yet convincing. In an arch commentary on this trend and as a snub to his American censors, Stanley Kubrick inserted some wilfully bad virtual orgiasts in Eyes Wide Shut in order to shield some of the more salacious goings-on.

The ability of computers to process digital scenes ever faster allows us to make some more predictions. Textures will become more intricate, surfaces more detailed. Forget lingering shots of single creatures. Make way for herds, schools, murders and exaltations. Synthespians won't be the heroes; they'll be the crowd scenes. When they are seen in groups, the BBC's dinosaurs seem to be clones of one another, which in a sense they are, more or less cut and pasted from their computer template. In future, they could be endowed with greater individuality.

These will be the effects the technicians will wish to flaunt. What narrative possibilities do they open up? For the BBC, it is obvious that the sequel to Walking with Dinosaurs should now be a series on early hominids complete with expressive facial movements that would allow us to identify with our ancestors. The young nerds who dominate computer effects could create a new screen goddess, one more realistic than Lara Croft, even perhaps more realistic than Pamela Anderson. We have already seen Legoish computer reconstructions of classical buildings for archaeology programmes. How about filling the streets with synthespian Romans and countrymen? Like the mannerists, the computer experts would find there was much satisfaction to be gained from getting the folds right in their cloaks and togas.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people