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Viva Paci

Images from the Future: Lost and Found in the Images du Futur collection

Sunless Images: 3D Animation (part II)

Centro Espanol de la Comunicacion e Imagen, Demostracion GIPO, 1986 (video)
Centro Espanol de la Comunicacion e Imagen, Demostracion GIPO, 1986 (video)
Melvin Prueitt, Crystal Dove, 1985 (video)
Melvin Prueitt, Crystal Dove, 1985 (video)
Daniel Borenstein, Paul Coudsi, Stylo, 1988 (video)
Daniel Borenstein, Paul Coudsi, Stylo, 1988 (video)
Laura Di Biagio, Race Timed Out, 1990 (video)
Laura Di Biagio, Race Timed Out, 1990 (video)
Doug Aberle, Fluffy, 1996 (video)
Yoshiko Nakagawa, Maze, 1985 (video)
Michel Bret, Ploum Ploum Tralala, 1993 (video)
Steve DiPaola, Music Don't Stop, 1986 (video)
Jean François Emery, Paillafrisson, 1989 (video)
Robert Lurye, Dirty Power, 1989 (video)
Jerzy Kular, Isabelle Foucher, Jumpin' Jacques Splash,  1988 (video)
Michelle Robinson, When I Was six, 1993 (video)
3D "genres"

It is my view that synthesized images are, first and foremost, creative tools and not means of expression. Thus they can lend themselves to different uses, with widely varying results. But it is still the case that 3D, especially in its early days, made use of certain recurrent figures, and I would like to outline some of their features.

Doug Aberle, Fluffy, 1996 (video) Yoshiko Nakagawa, Maze, 1985 (video) Michel Bret, Ploum Ploum Tralala, 1993 (video) Steve DiPaola, Music Don't Stop, 1986 (video) Jean François Emery, Paillafrisson, 1989 (video) Robert Lurye, Dirty Power, 1989 (video) Jerzy Kular, Isabelle Foucher, Jumpin' Jacques Splash,  1988 (video) Michelle Robinson, When I Was six, 1993 (video)

Demo(nstrations) of structure

Synthesized images have no hard and fast boundaries: not only can they show us the surface of something, but they can just as readily take us inside it, into its very matter — which they also in some sense are. Thus they can expose the imaginary structures underlying objets. This type of imaginary dimension has been widely used (as in Demostración GIPO) to produce objects with structures in the form of neon tubes (the kind of aesthetic found in Steven Lisberger’s Tron, from 1982). These structures rotate before our eyes, enabling us to look at their forms from multiple viewpoints, as if a camera lens were moving freely inside the objects with the purpose of showing how they were shaped. Emphasis is sometimes placed on the fact that it was possible to create atmospheric luminosities and densities in a given space. From 1985 to 1986, neon-tube dimensioning, which traced the steps involved in designing the third dimension of images, was so prevalent that it was the only use of this element to make it onto my list.

Demo(nstrations) of texture

The textures of materials, and these images’ ability to simulate their characteristics, exerted the same kind of fascination. Unlike exposed structures, this type of imaginary dimension did not disappear with the early years, but went on to become one of the greatest challenges facing the creators of synthesized images. In The Adventure of Chromie, the reflecting properties of material were foregrounded, while in Crystal Dove the honour fell to crystalline transparencies. Faux pas, for its part, played partially with the textures of marble and the ways light played across its surface.

Demo(nstrations) of movement

The recording of movement was, of course, one of the challenges facing photography and the cinematographer at the turn of the 20th century. Synthesized images have inherited this infatuation with motion, and the interest of numerous animations resides precisely in the variety of ways they demonstrate the kinetic qualities of the objects modeled.

Fluidity of movement is one of the main qualities of good animations. Obviously, the complexity of the movements that can be accomplished through modeling will depend on the period in which the animation (and the numerous softwares employed) was made — Stylo and Faux Pas could supply us with examples here

The physiological accuracy of movement is a core concern when making images that show a living creature in motion: we will see, for example, Race Timed Out, Crystal Dove  (1) and Fluffy (while the dog is obviously made up of unnatural-looking geometric forms, its movements do convey those of a real dog with great accuracy).

Rhythmical continuity between the movements of images and those of the soundtrack is also a constant in 3D creations. For example, the 3D world of Maze is, to tell the truth, hardly very three dimensional: as the modelled objects appear somewhat flat, there can be very little interest in seeing them from all sides. Our interest resides, rather, in the objects’ ability to develop freely in a space that we explore to the rhythm of the soundtrack. In the relatively abstract universe of Ploum, Ploum, Tralala, continually metamorphosing yet recognizable forms follow a heavily accentuated rhythm in sync to that of the soundtrack.

From faces to masks and back again

One of the major problems with synthesized images stems from the difficulty involved in creating natural-looking appearances. And the ante is upped, moreover, when it comes to creating human faces, complex physiognomies with movements supple enough to convey emotionally charged expressions. The 3D animated film Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi, Moto Sakakibara, 2001), inspired by the video game of the same name, was unanimously commended for its success in this area. But, for over 20 years, 3D images have continually tried to compensate for this drawback. For example, Tony de Peltrie was hailed upon its release as the animation that best managed to rise to the challenge. In an article with the revealing title, "Tony de Peltrie: Symbol of A New Era of Computer Animation," we read: "The computer graphic is now entering the second stage of its development as a tool of visual expression." (2)

Representing faces in motion has always been one of digital animation’s biggest challenges. Music Don’t Stop combines a modelled face with a fairly successful attempt at lipsyncing. Indeed it stops not far short of mastering the resemblance between lines of pixels and human features. By exposing the lines used in constructing a close-up of a human head, it gives us the impression that we are dealing with a rough sketch, a try. Again, in regard to this same obsession with creating a digital face, one that has continued up to our own time, we may consider The Mask (Chuck Russel, 1994) and its son (The Son of the Mask, Lawrence Guterman, 2005). Morphing images of actual faces through strange transformations may be considered the successor of the obsession with synthesizing a face — as in David Byrne’s video She’s Mad, (3) presented at Image du Futur in 1992.

Animated drawings – animated objects

If animating faces involves difficulties that have not yet been entirely overcome, the feat of making objects seem very much alive has always been one of the specialties of animation (even of classical animation, cello et cie). The word "animation" does not spring out of nowhere. "Animated objects" constitute, in effect, a veritable subset of 3D animated drawings. Just as the earliest film genres arose out of certain constraints on production, the genre of 3D animation was born from constraints of its own. In the early years of cinema, one could easily shoot films with a camera attached to a moving vehicle (train, boat, etc.), or by placing the camera in the middle of a studio. Films made using these procedures were either travelogues or tableaux vivants. In the same way, technological advances have enabled 3D to quite successfully model inanimate objects, and by animating a few sporadic traits one can generate anthropomorphic effects.

We are familiar with the particularly successful 3D short feature films that John Lasseter did with Pixar Studios, and that include Tin Toy (1988), Knickknack (1989) and the brief Luxo Jr. series (1986), followed by Surprise and Light and Heavy (1992). But the genre is, of course, much vaster than this. Animal locomotion has often served as inspiration in efforts to make the movements of modeled objects more "human." For example, in the short feature Locomotion (PDI, 1989), a little train, intent on arriving at its destination on time, decides to leap over the gap in a collapsed bridge, even though it is terrified to see the remainder of the structure hanging down into a ravine. Here, anthropomorphized movement transforms the train into a frightened animal and harks back to ways that animals are made to move in cartoons (whose movements are, in turn, significant amplifications of animal motor behaviour).

Opposite one can see selected excerpts from animations which explore the narrative possibilities that this genre of animation allows: Jumping Jacques Splash, Stylo, Faux pas, Paillafrisson, Dirty Power, When I Was six.

Animated drawings – animated forms

Another specific genre of 3D animation is one I would describe as "kaleidoscopic."

This genre’s figures are far from being realistic; they seek, rather, to produce fluid motion and variegated mixes of material textures and densities. For example, William Latham, an IBM research associate, has operated at the frontiers of mathematical models and artistic creation. His animations The Conquest of Form (1988) and The Evolution of Form (1989) visualize, inside 3D space, virtual creatures that are mineral in texture and organic in form. They shed light on his statement to the effect that "computer space is a world free from physical constraints such as gravity, material resistance and time. The computer sculptures I create could not exist in the ‘real’ world, for many of my sculptures float in space and are so intricate that they would be impossible to make." (4) Yoichiro Kawaguchi (Float, Flora, Eggy) is another master at animating abstract organic forms. His images evoke living bodies, organic surfaces and fluid matter. In 1977, with Crown, he began creating sumptuous abstract forms with colours and textures that are continually moving and undergoing metamorphosis. Where his creations have evolved, it has been in the direction of greater formal complexity and a larger quantity of objects that move independently of one another within the same environment (see Eggy). In Flora, the kaleidoscopic effect is created mainly by watery forms. Other aqueous special effects, including those done by ILM (which created, among other things, the monster in James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss, also an entry in the International Computer Animation Competition of Images du Futur) also date from the same year. The forms in Kawaguchi’s animations run against the grain of Alberti-style perspectives and the clear outlines on which synthesized images sometimes draw for their appeal.

Viva Paci © 2005 FDL

(1) It is impossible at this point not to be reminded of Edward Muybridge’s animations. To see some examples of the photographic plates that seem to have inspired our animations, you can visit the Web site of the UCR/California Museum of Photography, which houses a collection of plates published in Animal Locomotion (1887). Cf. particularly "Plate 626 Annie G galloping" and "Plate 758 Cockatoo flying.":

(2) In Toshifumi Kawahara, “Tony de Peltrie: Symbol of A New Era of Computer Animation,” IDEA, vol. 34, no. 198 (Sept. 1986): 50-65.

(3) This video, the special effects for which were done by PDI, may be seen on David Byrne’s Web site. The song is taken from the album Uh-Oh:

(4) Images du Futur, 1991 (Montreal: Cité des Arts and of the new technologies de Montréal, 1991).