Animation is usually associated with life; hardly surprising, since the word originates from the Latin animare, meaning "to give life to."
Computers, on the other hand, are generally thought of as cold, lifeless, or inhuman.
As a consequence, when the twain met, many thought that the result would be animation, but cold and lifeless. And, for the most part, the skeptics were right. Early experiments with computer animation were, for the most part, aesthetically pleasing, sometimes even stunning; and while they provided the most dynamic and precise tilts, pans, and zooms, they lacked the life of even the simplest of characters animated by hand in the earliest part of the century. The epitome of this style was the flying logo: in the mid-1980s, it was hard to flip channels without coming across at least one of these shiny, chrome corporate IDs that were striking the first time, pleasing the second, and downright boring the third.
And then along came Pixar Animation Studios
--sort of. The computer animation division of Lucasfilm which eventually became Pixar was headed up by ex-Disney animator John Lasseter. His mandate was to apply tradition animation techniques--squash, stretch, anticipation--to computer animation production. This manifested itself in 1984's Andre and Wally B
, a wholly computer-animated short that featured two characters who looked, moved, and acted as though they were in a traditional cartoon. Later came Luxo Jr.
and Red's Dream
, both of which featured ordinarily inanimate objects--two Luxo lamps, a red unicycle--convincingly portraying hope, joy, pride, and despair.
Flip Phillips and Tony Apodaca were both part of Pixar since its early days, and both have worked on reconciling the malleable world of the artist with the more rigidly defined world of the computer. We spoke via Internet e-mail (unsurprisingly) between June 1994 and January 1995. Here's what they had to say on art, computers, and what the kids look like after they're married.
Emru Townsend: Tell me a little about yourselves and how you came to be here.
Once upon a time, in a little town called... oops, wrong story.
My name is Tony Apodaca, and I work at Pixar. My official title is Director of Engineering, which means that I'm a middle manager whose job functions include "keeping projects ahead of schedule and under budget", and the ever popular "hiring and firing." All of Pixar's end-user applications fall under my auspices, including the low-end PC and Mac applications like Typestry and Showplace, as well as the high-end products such as RenderMan.
My unofficial title is Chief Architect of RenderMan, which means that secretly I'm a Real Engineer. I personally worked on the RenderMan project in its various forms and incarnations for over six years (well, still working on it, I guess), and as Lead Engineer for four. Since 1989 I have been personally in charge of the sanctity of the RenderMan Interface Specification, but as it has not changed a lot in that time, I guess that's not much of a claim to fame.
In 1993, seven of us won an Academy Award for "the development of RenderMan software, which produces images used in motion pictures from 3D computer descriptions of shape and appearance." Mine sits on the bookshelf in my office, a knickknack that not many engineers will ever have.
Over the years, I've also done quite a bit of work on "the other side of the fence" in Pixar's animation department. I worked on Red's Dream
, Tin Toy
, and on a few commercials here and there. My involvement in animation has always been purely technical (renderer support, building models, writing shaders, debugging shell scripts, etc.). Damn it Jim, I'm an engineer, not an animator!
What else do you want to know? My masters degree is in Computer Engineering from Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). I've been in computer graphics since 1983. I've met both Steve Jobs and George Lucas, though neither one would remember me. Oh, I'm one of the few surviving members of the elite group of people who actually programmed a Pixar Image Computer. Sometimes, just for fun, I lurk on the Internet, laughing mightily at the people who claim that Jurassic Park
was done on an Amiga, or that the Listerine commercials were done by a little old lady in Texas on a PC (using 3D Studio no less!).
And last, but not at all least, I'm good friends with the single most influential person to ever work in computer animation--Flip Phillips...
You've been talking to my dad again, haven't you Tony? For years he had that copy of Animation Magazine
we were on the cover of in the back seat of his car. I think he was stopping random people on the street and showing it to them... Perhaps in Portsmouth, Ohio I am the single most influential person to ever work in computer animation, thanks to him... sadly, he hasn't had a chance to visit the remainder of the Earth to convince the rest of the world...
I got my start at the Computer Graphics Research Group here at The Ohio State University (they like for us to point out the 'The' in the university's name, as if there is another 'Ohio State University.' If there were, I guess we'd be 'An Ohio State University' instead). Anyway, we had a pretty unique group back then (this is around 1983) since we were able to successfully combine scientists and artists, yielding more scientific artists and more artistic scientists. (Kinda sounds like it could be a slogan or something.) Chuck Csuri, one of the real forefathers of the computer art thing, was my mentor. I guess I came out a 'scientific artist'... not really a pure animator or artist, but also not an engineer either. I think it is a good mix.
After I got my BFA and taught for a year at CGRG, I left Columbus for Pixar back in '87 when it was just getting started. After about 6 months of working on the user interface for a medical imaging project I joined the Pixar animation group full time, where I was bestowed with the title 'Animation Scientist.' I think I was somewhere around the seventh member of the group. Now there are 7 million or 70 or something like that, working in animation there.
I worked on the first commercial Pixar did, which was a little spot for Toppan Printing in Japan. I did technical direction and animation on about a dozen of the early commercials and on the film Knickknack
My wife and I are characters under the couch in Tin Toy
, that was pretty fun. It was a little dirty under there, balls of cat hair and such. We ended up using the characters on our wedding invitations, done on a letterpress from the 1800's. We did a lot of fun experimentation back then, 3D, lenticular images, etc. You couldn't ask for a more fun place to work, both people and task-wise.
I left the group in 1992 to get my Ph.D. here at OSU where I'm in the psychology department studying vision and aesthetics. We use a lot of computer graphics here for visual simulations and experiments so now I get to use it as a tool rather than as a job.
More recently, I've done a little work on the side for a company called Ion, we just finished the David Bowie Jump
CD-ROM. We've got a few more in the works now, I think it is a rather cool new medium.