Disney and Pixar’s Most Innovative Animation Technologies Explained
Before the Disney name was tied to the monolithic global empire it is today, it was solely the name of a burgeoning studio determined to advance the medium of animation at every opportunity. In 1928, the debut of Mickey Mouse Steamer Willie was the first cartoon short to feature a synchronized soundtrack. Shortly after, Flowers and trees brought a forest of color to life in the first colorized cartoon. These and other breakthroughs culminated in the world’s first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For nearly a century, technological innovations have been the backbone of many Disney businesses, but long before their advances in live entertainment and theme park attractions, some of animation’s greatest technical milestones came as Disney, pioneering the industry as a whole along the way.
Here’s a look at five of the company’s most innovative animation technologies and where they’ve been used best.
The multiplane camera
Developed exclusively for use on the studio’s animated features, Disney’s Multiplane Camera brought new depth to the traditional cel animation process. In a typical studio cartoon, character action was photographed one frame at a time against a still paint background. With this towering top-down camera, individually painted background elements were superimposed on multiple sheets of glass and moved independently frame by frame in tandem with the painted cels of the figures. By detailing the placement of separate background pieces, the illusion of spatial depth was given at the start of the studio’s golden age of feature films.
The multi-plane camera was first tested in the Oscar-winning short, The Old Mill, which demonstrated the camera’s ability to explore space and create atmosphere through camera movements. After that, the multi-plane camera became a standard for scanning shots and environmental effects in movies like White as snow, Pinocchio, baby, and until its final use in 1989 The little Mermaid.
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. By the 1960s, when Walt Disney’s attention was split between television, theme parks, and live-action films, the studio’s animated films were no longer given the budget or schedule they were given. were accustomed to as the company’s top priority. Needing to cut costs and speed up production, the studio implemented the use of xerography in the animation pipeline.
Abandoning the need to individually ink animation cels by hand, the xerox process photocopied the animators’ exact drawings directly onto the cel itself, resulting in rougher, darker outlines than had happened. previously. While the sharply colored outlines of the early studio films were lost with this advent, the use of the xerox machine gave Disney films of the 60s and 70s a distinctly sketchy aesthetic that translated the drawing of the animators and their work in pencil directly on the screen. Movies such as 101 Dalmatians, The jungle Book, and Robin Hood gained a reputation for also using xerography to recycle animation in a sparing way to balance production costs and save time.
After more than half a century of traditional cel animation, Disney Animation Studios experienced a digital revolution with CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). At the dawn of the studio’s animation renaissance in the 1990s, technicians from Disney and the new Pixar Computer Division developed a post-production program that digitally colored and stitched scanned artwork into the realm of animation. ‘computer.
Tested for the first time in one of the fence plans of The little Mermaid, CAPS has not only streamlined Disney’s production cycle, allowing more films to be produced and released each year, but it has also revolutionized the way films look and feel cleaner and smoother than ever before. The entire new wave of hand-drawn classics from Disney, from The Rescuers Below at House on the beach, used CAPS to deliver a new standard of animation clarity and more easily integrate CGI effects and environments, such as The beauty and the Beastthe ballroom scene or The Lion Kingthe dramatic stampede of the wildebeest.
At the turn of the new millennium, major animation studios began experimenting with a full blend of CGI effects and characters with traditional hand-drawn animation. At Disney, this manifested in the Deep Canvas software. Created during the production of the 1999 feature film Tarzan, this software worked alongside the CAPS system as a technique for creating fully three-dimensional environments for hand-drawn characters. Rudimentary geometric models created in 3D space were digitally colored with a stylus and painter’s tablet to give the computerized assets a brushed look that blended with traditionally rendered characters. This was used to build the tree canopies of Tarzan’s Jungle House, the steam-punk-inspired vehicles of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and almost all of the environments and effects in treasure planet.
Although its use at Disney was short-lived, spanning only three animated feature films, the Deep Canvas program was a precursor to the mix of digital graphics and hand-drawn designs later seen in Sony Pictures. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells versus the Machines.
As pioneers of computer animation since its genesis, the advancements made by Pixar Animation are the advancements of the entire computer graphics industry. Long before the first toy story landed in theaters, Pixar had spent years developing in-house rendering software designed to bring all of their computerized elements together into a cohesive, believable image.
RenderMan gathers all the digital assets of a scene or effect into a single engine and compiles them into an individual image. Every effect, simulation, model, environment, and animation element is married to the screen through software that has become an industry favorite. During the rise of CGI effects in Hollywood, RenderMan mostly helped bring to life the liquid metal menace of Terminator 2‘s T-1000 and the reanimated dinosaurs of jurassic park.
Demonstrated as recently as 2021 Lucas, RenderMan has skyrocketed the increased credibility of computer graphics to achieve artistry and realism unmatched in modern computer animation. The engine is the not-so-secret ingredient in Pixar’s engineering magic as RenderMan has been made commercially available to individuals and third-party companies, including Lucasfilm’s ILM and NASA.
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