Eric Darnell & Michael Collery
Making the technical and artistic work together
Pacific Data Images (PDI) have been around long enough that they not only understand the computer animation industry, the practically helped to define it. Entertainment Tonight's flying chrome logo, Black or White's morphing cast, Batman Forever's virtual Batman: all at the hands of PDI.

But in the midst of all the big-name clients, PDI has also had time to have a little fun. Gas Planet appeared in various film festivals between 1992 and 1994, and made an appearance on MTV/(Colossal) Pictures' Liquid Television series. Directed by Eric Darnell and with art direction by Michael Collery, Gas Planet featured bizarre alien creatures consuming bizarre alien food, and reacting with bizarre alien flatulence. The short features comical character animation and a radically different style--one which resembles Bill Plympton's vibrant coloured pencils more than the sterile perfection most commonly associated with computer animation.

This interview was conducted with the outrageously busy Darnell and Collery via Internet e-mail between August 1994 and April 1995; we talked about the aesthetics and techniques of computer animation, and how to get captivating material out of a box that processes ones and zeroes.

Emru Townsend: Eric, you handled more of the artistic end of things, Michael the computer end. I was wondering if either of you found you had to make concessions to the other in terms of your craft. How does one animate in order to make it easier to digitally manipulate? How does one program for animation?

Eric Darnell: Actually, both Michael and I played a role in the artistic end of things and the computer end of things. However, Michael has much more experience at funnelling artistic notions and creative decisions through the often dry, cumbersome tools of computer graphics. I went to him initially with a character design and a story, but from there we worked together on the design and look of the overall film. We were never making concessions to one another, instead we jointly decided where we had to make concessions, or to put it better, define for ourselves certain limitations, based upon the peculiarities of working with the computer. Michael did take on the bulk of the technical tasks, but he also was Art Director for the piece. Without his artistic vision Gas Planet would most certainly not have the visual impact that it does. My responsibilities rested more with the story, the initial design of the characters, and then the acting (animation) of those characters.

Your second question, "How does one animate in order to make it easier to digitally manipulate?", is harder to answer. In fact, when you animate a character on the computer it is a process of digital manipulation. You move the head this way, raise an arm, rotate the torso, and these things are happening "digitally", I suppose, since it's all taking place on a computer. The animation does not come first and "digital manipulation" second, except in the broadest sense. Before I begin to animate I draw. I draw characters in different poses. I'll draw up a storyboard. I'll redraw the storyboard, etc., until I'm ready to begin actual animation on the computer. But it is the digital environment of the computer, and how well we humans can harness it, that defines how the animation process proceeds. There is a method to computer animation that you won't find in any other format. On one hand you are usually working in a three-dimensional environment. The models that you make are not flat like a drawing, they have volume. And though they end up on a two-dimensional screen, the way that they look and move is defined very much by the volume that is inherent in their construction.

Stop-motion animation has this quality, too, because the characters and sets are usually 3D models. Things like volume and depth you get for "free" (though they create other challenges, in areas like staging and lighting). However, the processes of animating in stop motion and with the computer are very different. With stop motion, you must get your frame perfect before you shoot it onto film; the lighting must be exactly how you want it, the pose must be final and the expression on the character's face, right down to the mouth shape, must be exact. This is, of course, because once you shoot that frame onto film you're done with it. There is no turning back. You move onto the next frame, and the next, and on and on to the end of the shot. If the animator bumps a light or knocks down a prop on frame 450 of a 500 frame shot, the consistency in the shot is destroyed and the animator must start over at frame 1.

The process on the computer is very different. It is easy to first go in and roughly position the character for the duration of the shot, then go back and tweak things a bit more and a bit more. Each pass defines and refines the motion for the entire shot until the final motion for the shot is done. Even then, if the animator decides that a particular gesture is not broad enough or a particular pose could be better, it is a relatively easy thing to go to that frame or frames and make the necessary tweaks until the animator has something he or she is happy with. At this stage, the lighting design may not have even begun, or perhaps the lighting is close to being finished before the animator even begins. So you can see that in this regard, an animator using the computer as his animation tool has a great degree of flexibility to modify the motion as the work progresses. In this way it makes the animator's approach perhaps much closer to that of the pencil and paper method, where it is easier to modify and change bits and pieces of the motion as the animator sees how the pieces fit into the whole shot or scene. And with hand-drawn animation, the "lighting" or coloring often comes later, as well.

Of course, there are many other limitations imposed by the computer that make many wise animators prefer the stop motion method, pencil and paper, or whatever.

Michael Collery: I have been making images with computers for nearly fifteen years, going back to the days of punch cards. For me the artistic end of things and the computer end of things are very much intertwined. As you may note from the Gas Planet credits I was both the art director and the technical director. Computer images are a by-product of a creative/technical process. They are by their very nature light and ethereal. Change a number, get a different picture, change another number, get a different picture. Forget the first number and the original picture will never exist again. For me the excitement is in the chase, coming up with the process, that will create the must interesting image.

What was unique about Gas Planet was that we where quick in the decision-making process. Normally you belabor each decision, trying to convince yourself that this is the best possible solution, homing in on the smallest possible detail. Gas Planet was very spontaneous (relatively speaking). Marcel Duchamp once said something like "you can't ruin a good idea", and with Gas Planet Eric really had one. Therefore the process need not overshadow the product, all we had to do is get the piece out and make it look good. After that the piece took on a life of its own.

As a technical director I create systems that enable animators to sit down and go to work. I try to give them what they want and make their lives as painless as possible. The fun for me is coming up with solutions to interesting problems. The fun for the animators is bringing characters to life.

As an art director what interests me is creating new looks for computer pictures or simply creating images that I can stand to look at. Since I have been in this field for so long I have seen way too many computer images that look like computer images. I enjoy these images if they are historic in nature for their sense of nostalgia, however the overall aesthetic quality of most computer animation is sadly lacking. I want to create computer images that have a broad appeal beyond the limited aesthetics of computer animation.

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