Computer Animation: From Fantasmagorie to Monsters University

Fantasmagorie_(Cohl)_1908AnimationToday in 1908, the first animated cartoon, Fantasmagorie, was released. The film (watch it on YouTube) was created by Émile Cohl by drawing each frame on paper and then shooting each frame onto negative film, which gave the picture a blackboard look.

The film features a stick figure moving about and encountering all manner of morphing objects, such as a wine bottle that transforms into a flower. There are also sections of live action where the animator’s hands enter the scene. The title is a reference to the “fantasmograph,” a mid-Nineteenth Century variant of the magic lantern that projected ghostly images that floated across the walls.

Also today, in 1986, Pixar Animation Studios premiered Luxo Jr. at SIGGRAPH, its first film following its establishment as an independent film studio. It is a computer-animated short film (two and a half minutes, including credits). The title character, a small desk lamp, will become a part of the company’s logo. It was the first Computer-generated Imagery (CGI) film nominated for an Academy Award.  Luxo_Jr._poster

Luxo Jr. sent shock waves through the entire industry – to all corners of computer and traditional animation. At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer. They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist’s kit but instead perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs. Luckily, this attitude changed dramatically in the early ’80s with the use of personal computers in the home. The release of our Luxo Jr. … reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community.” –Edwin Catmull, quoted in Rita Street, Computer Animation: A Whole New World, 1998.

There were pioneering efforts in computer animation before Pixar. This 1963 clip may have been the world’s first computer animation.

If you would like to study computer animation, try the free tutorial at the Kahn Academy, or read Rick Parent’s Computer Animation, Third Edition: Algorithms and Techniques.

Pixar still represents the state-of-the-art of computer animation today,  releasing a new feature each year.  Brave, its 13th feature released last year, was “infused with the spirit of Steve Jobs” (see here for Catmull paying tribute to Jobs) and new animation software “which makes flowing hair, fur, clothing and water look more realistic,” according to The Telegraph.

Monsters University was released in June 2013, grossed more than $600 million worldwide by August and received positive but not overly excited reviews from the critics. Jake Coyle of the Associated Press gave the film three out of four stars, saying “Pixar’s Monsters University might not be as gifted as some of its other movies, but sometimes it’s alright to be OK.”

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