WHEN I STARTED in the animation industry 25 years ago it was all pencil, paper and cel paint. A lot has changed since then in the animation world, but the end goal is still the same; to create and tell engaging animated stories to entertain both young and old.
I joined Brown Bag Films 16 years ago, just as the computer age was taking hold. The company had just invested in the latest digital ink and paint system for hand drawn animation – the very first in the country and a highly specialised tool. Now Brown Bag Films has grown into a world leader in 3D animation for the preschool audience, with a current staff of over 150 highly technical and creative artists.
We live in an advanced and constantly evolving technical world where everything has a microchip and lives in the virtual world and the cloud. Our children learn to swipe and browse before they can read or write. Adapting to utilise all the technology that surrounds us is essential.
So how have technological advances changed the world of animation over the years?
Developments in the ’90s
Firstly in the mid ’90s the painting and shooting of traditional hand drawn animation was brought into the digital world. Drawings were scanned into a computer, coloured and then composited into a scene and rendered out to a digital movie file. This process revolutionised the animation industry in a very short time. The old ways of painting on cels and shooting onto film under a rostrum camera were replaced overnight. These changes gave the film makers huge freedom and made the process very accessible to smaller studios.
Next up in the late ’90s was the advent of Flash and similar software that let the artist animate directly on the computer. By this stage computers and software were much cheaper, which allowed many small garage studios to enter the market. Again this gave huge freedom and opportunity to the creative artists as they had no barriers to accessing the animated world.
Finally in the late ’90s, we also had the 3D CG revolution pioneered by the likes of Pixar and Disney. This was a game changing technology that created a brand new animated style that has since become familiar to all of us. But remember that the first fully CG animated feature film (Toy Story) is not even 20 years old.
Digital has taken over
All of these technologies have matured and evolved over the years, and of course lots of other different areas of film-making use advanced technology. Digital has taken over in all areas of film-making including live action shooting, the post production process and distribution. The common link in all these areas is that technology has made them far more accessible to the individual and to smaller studios.
We now have a generation that don’t remember the old ways, and laugh when we tell them how we use to produce animation with cel and film. This is a positive thing as long as we continue to ensure that animation is creatively led and that the old traditional rules are still the basis of learning. We cannot let technology dictate the creative process.
So what of the future – what’s on the horizon and what are the game changers? A lot of work has been done with animation software to make it more intuitive to the artists so that you don’t need a degree in computer science to work with it. Also the machinery to power these programmes is becoming cheaper and cheaper. As with any new technology the expectations of what it can do continue to grow. So as creatives in animation we are constantly pushed to set the bar higher. In TV production we are pressured to match the quality of features, but on a fraction of the budget.
Harnessing technology to help the creative process
The main aim of the technology department in any animation studio is to create an environment that is user friendly to the artists, keeping the focus on the creative and not on the technology. For example in Brown Bag Films we remind ourselves that we are not a technology company; we are an animation company that has harnessed technology to help the creative process, and to continue to produce new and inventive animation shows.
Digital Biscuit is a great example of how we all still need to get together and share experiences and knowledge so that we can continue to push our creativity while harnessing all this great technology around us. The rate of change is hard to keep up with sometimes, so these kind of events really give us a chance to look at what others are doing in the industry and take a fresh look at how we might tackle the next challenge. It also gives us a chance to highlight all the great and pioneering work that is being produced in Ireland. In many areas, not least the animation sector, we are leading the way.
Brian Gilmore is Head of Technology at Brown Bag Flims. He will be speaking at Digital Biscuit, a three-day event of combined talks, screenings and technology expositions at the Science Gallery from 22-24 January 2014. Tickets and further info at www.digitalbiscuit.ie