Week 6: Rethinking Technology: An Animator’s Perspective

Technology Hand

From a creative standpoint, technology will “not live up to its potential until we start to think of it less like televisions and more like paintbrushes” (Saxena, 2013). To expand, this notion can be explored through the ability to perceive computer screens not simply as information gateways, but also a new medium for design and expression. In relation to the creative industries, it’s also possible to consider disciplines as mediated by the capabilities of the technology used as well as the production methods available (McMahon, 2014). For example, the existence of photography is the result of combining several key technologies, involving the use of chemicals, light-sensitive material, and electrical charge. Like any discipline, perhaps the more we learn, explore, and manipulate the abilities of its technology, the more creative we become? In contrast, philosophical debates have arisen over the present and future use of technology in creativity, sparking digital criticism as well as disagreements over whether technology improves the creative condition or worsens it (Schatzberg, 2006). To enhance our understanding of this statement, we can explore the capabilities and restrictions inherent in the technological media and production methods of our own creative disciplines.

In relation to animation, technology plays a vital role in the conception, production, and distribution of its creative work. From a contemporary standpoint, this increasing industry has come a long way since the early days of hand-drawn cartoons, boasting an impressive US$68.4 billion dollar market value (Board of Investments, 2009). To expand, the techniques used by animators to bring characters to life have improved dramatically over the years, and unlike traditional animation, which made its debut in 1906 and created the illusion of movement through frame-by-frame manipulation of illustrations, most animators today use computers to generate three-dimensional images (Curtis, 2014). From a technological standpoint, this arrival of computer animation was a turning point in terms of the type of technology animation studios needed to use. For example, software such as Adobe Flash, Poser Pro, and Autodesk Maya, have provided platforms to create relatively quick and easy animations using a variety of digital drawing tools. In turn, digital technology has provided animation studios an effective means to experiment, develop, and produce films at a faster and more cost-effective rate compared to traditional methods (see videos below).

Fig 6.1: The explosive growth of Flash animation, brought about a major revival of the animated television genre

Fig 6.1: The explosive growth of Flash animation, brought about a major revival of the animated television genre

Fig. 6.2: The Polar Express (2008) used motion capture technology to derive the movement of characters exclusively from actor Tom Hank's physical movements

Fig. 6.2: The Polar Express (2008) used motion capture technology to derive the movement of characters exclusively from actor Tom Hank’s physical actions

To enhance our understanding of the relationship between technology and animation, we can explore the capabilities and restrictions inherent in it’s modern media and production methods. With the popularity and financial success of contemporary films such as Transformers (2007), Toy Story 3 (2010), and Despicable Me (2010), the immense capabilities of computer-based animation have been brought sharply into focus. As explained by Jesse Cordtz, animator and operations manager of Blue Sky Studios, “two of the greatest advantages of using computer animation on a project are the realism and speed that digital software can bring to the filmmaking process” (Naillon, 2014). To expand, new techniques derived from computer graphics, have provided pioneer opportunities: low-cost Flash animation has made TV-animation production more economical (see Fig. 6.1), while upscale motion capture technology has allowed actors to emote realistically (see Fig. 6.2). In particular, digital software has also provided a heightened opportunity for experimentation, enabling animators to simply undo, redo or delete commands. From a creative standpoint, perhaps it’s possible to argue that digital media has provided animators with an increased playing field to embrace creativity?

In contrast to capabilities, it’s also possible to examine the restrictions inherent in the digital media and production methods of modern animation. To expand, any computer animation is often restricted by the software’s limitations. For example, the earliest incarnations of Pixar animation such as The Adventures of André and Wally B. (1984, see video below) appear incredibly different than the later, more sophisticated films of Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and Toy Story 3 (2010). These changes are largely responsible to the advances in technology, which have a direct effect on the restrictions of any animation-based software (Naillon, 2014). From a critical standpoint, we can also explore the capabilities of digital software as perhaps an overlooked restriction in the field of creativity. For example, leading programs such as Autodesk Maya have increasingly provided animators with a series of in-built templates, skins, and action sequences. In turn, this simplified software may affect the long-term creativity of animation, perhaps jeopardising the skill level of many aspiring animators? From a personal perspective, the widespread adoption of these animation-based programs can often be as melancholic as inspiring. If digital technology can lead many animation students to neglect their drawing skills, can prompt-filled software stand to affect the imagination and creative process of future animators?


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