Computer Animation Marvels

Computer Animation Marvels (1999)
Image Entertainment

Ever since the late eighties when computer generated images first surfaced, I was always glued to my TV screen when they broadcast all the entries from the "Ars Electronica" a huge dedicated computer film festival in Europe, sponsored by the Austrian TV station ORF. It actually started some twenty years ago with all sorts of artsy cyber short films, but over the past decade it has been entirely dominated by computer generated films. It has become the showcase for the best there is in the field and has gradually expanded into other fields as well. The event has nourished my interest in computer graphics and has substantially influenced my work in the computer games industry later. Even today, I take every chance I get to watch demo reel of artists working in the field to get a feel for the trends and the possibilities this genre has to offer.

Image Entertainment has now prepared a DVD called "Computer Animation Marvels", a disc that contains 18 computer generated short films from around the world, including the multiple award-winning film "Bingo". The disc has been created by Odyssey Productions, the creators of the acclaimed "Mind’s Eye" series of computer animation videos, and once again, this release offers a wide variety of films, and we have been able to give this release an early check-up.

Watching computer animated shorts like these – or any Siggraph demo reel for that matter – is a blade that cuts both ways, and I think it is important to understand that none of these films has been done for commercial reasons. Most of the time, these short films are created by artists who simply wish to express themselves through the medium, or who feel they have something to contribute to the creative community in general. As such we are talking about Art, and Art as we all know is highly subjective. To some people Picasso was a bungler, while to others, myself included, he has been a creative genius who managed remarkably well to combine Art with social statements in his pictures.

With all that in mind I have taken a look at Image’s compilation of shorts on this DVD. As harsh as it may sound, the content ranges from rather poor to outstanding with everything in between on the technical side. But let me point out that in these films, being the very personal pieces of work of the according artists that they are, the underlying idea is just as important as the execution, which then makes some of the technically weaker entries quite exciting again. All in all it is a very interesting mix of technique, styles and execution with some very clear highlights. "The Persecution" is one of them, a heroic fantasy short film with heroes and monsters, or "Ticked Off". A well done sarcastic marriage-observation, this film is shows some technical excellence combined with witty humor. "The Hungry One" is also a very good and whimsical film about a group of penguins doing ski-jumps. Also one of the more charming entries on the disc is "Bowtie Blues", a story about snowmen that is as funny as it is excellent.

On the other end of the spectrum there are films like "The Sitter", a rather artsy film with a very dark and gritty look, or "Last Call" a great short film that explores the life of bar glasses once the guests have left and call it a night. "The Physics Of Cartoons" is also a great entry, exemplarily showcasing some of the most commonly used tricks and exaggerations in cartoon movies. "Characters can remain suspended in the air until they look down…" that kind of thing and much more. Some of the shorts are not nearly as good however showing technical problems and a serious lack of skills in a variety of forms. In some segments the animation is inadequate while in others yet the texture mapping is done without displacement maps or bump maps, leaving the entire geometry flat and unattractive. Add to that inadequately placed lighting and all the film can count upon is its ingenuity and the story.

Apart from all these short films there are two films on this disc however, that are just amazing and truly stand out, making this disc worth its money all by themselves. The first one is "Jataka", a 5-minute short film with a strong Asian flair. It shows us a man approaching a cave in a small boat. He enters the mysterious cave that is trapped with all sorts of magical traps. He avoids the traps but is eventually stalked by a ferocious looking creature. The rest, you have to see for yourself. What is really great about this film is the atmospheric use of light and architecture. It looks very much like a computer rendered Hong Kong fantasy movie, with volumetric fog and lighting effects and plenty of colored light sources that are effectively placed. If you would see a snippet of this film completely isolated without knowing what it is, I am sure you would either think it is either taken from an upcoming "Final Fantasy" computer game, or from Hong Kong’s first attempt to create a fully computer animated film. Sadly some of the technical aspects of the film don’t live up to its cinematic qualities. Models are very rough. Some of the animations are rather crude with ‘swimming’ models and a notable number of geometry collision problems. With some additional work and a skilled animator this segment could be a truly amazing film.

The clear highlight of the disc is hidden all the way in the back of the list. It is the last film, called "Bingo". This multiple-award winning short film that is a showreel for Alias/Wavefront, developer of one of the leading edge computer graphic software packages. The film is technically perfect and very slick in its visual presentation. Masterfully playing with the possibilities computer generated graphics tools put into artist’s hands, this film is an example of what modern software can do for the right people. The models are highly detailed and very articulate. The film goes for an exaggerated, but still photo-realistic, look, and succeeds quite well. The circus environment used for the film is perfect to show off the vibrant colors and explain the use off sharply defined spotlights that cast hard shadows on the characters, which ultimately enhance the overall look of the scenes. The animation in the film is great and the content itself just outright funny. This film is a great addition to the disc and in its technical perfection almost rivals films like Pixar’s award-winning film "Geri’s Game".

Because the films on this disc stem from a number of sources and mostly from privately funded hobbyists, the quality of the visual presentation of these films varies dramatically on this disc. Films like "Bingo" are great looking, probably stemming from some high end video source, while others look as if they were transferred from low resolution sources, and various artifacts are evident in some of the films. Given the subject matter and origins of these films, this is absolutely excusable in my opinion, and if you see a lot of banding on the disc, it is not because of a bad DVD encoding, but a result of the same technical limitations of the source material. Most of these films have been created on low, privately funded budgets with limited equipment that allow only for a certain presentation quality.

As I mentioned in the opening, I greatly enjoy computer created short films and this disc from Image was a welcome change from the standard DVD Video releases I am watching. If you, too, enjoy these kinds of almost experimental films, check out this disc when it will be released on October 19. It is an hour of fun, visionary art and cool technology, combined with the occasional "What was that?" Don’t worry if you don’t fully understand each one of those short films, neither do I. Just enjoy them for what they are, artistic expressions of some very talented and creative minds.