From Tron to Avatar: The Future of Digital Animation

The future of technology can be a frightening prospect, or an entertaining endeavor—depending on what it’s used for. As computer technology continues to charge forward, the possibilities in film,information, and entertainment expand with it.

The concept of an “intelligent computer” is becoming more real—the development of computer systems with “cognitive” abilities is even included on the U.S. Department of Defense 2011 budget. The Internet and other informationsystems are also becoming more advanced with each passing day.

“If Hollywood is right we’ll either all becomes slaves to it, or they’ll use us as a power source, or they’ll just decide to destroy us all like in ‘Terminator,’” said Duncan Brinsmead, jokingly.

“But I don’t quite see it that way,” he added.

As the principal scientist of entertainment and design software corporation Autodesk, Brinsmead is at the forefront of a different field of technology, and has first-hand experience with what’s in store for the entertainment industry.

“Things are changing as we speak,” said Brinsmead.

Although he couldn’t reveal anything specific, Brinsmead said he sees the next jump in digital entertainment happening in the home theater. In particular, he sees the budding video goggles industry as a major potential.

“The way I see that evolving is something that gives you iMax resolution,” he said.

With the help of built-in gyroscopes, the goggles could allow viewers to look around inside the film. Similar technology can already be found in video games, where a character can turn and see a full world in all directions. Such technology is already being looked at for use in the movie industry, according to Brinsmead.

He added that in addition to the viewer-experience, the real innovation tends to take place behind the scenes. The software that enables special effects, giant blue aliens, and flying houses on balloons directly determines what is possible in film.

Brinsmead said that a lot of people and small development shops want to create films like Pixar, but often don’t realize how many resources it takes to create a digital movie.

Film studios such as Pixar often have full-scale warehouses filled with computers and cooling towers that work as “render farms” to process the huge amount of data needed to create digitally-animated films. Some even have robots that are used to fetch data.

“All that work gets condensed to something that can fit on a data key in your pocket,” said Brinsmead.

“Some people think that making a movie with computer graphics is easier than making a normal movie,” he said. “Computer graphics may be the hardest way of making a movie.”

Overcoming Boundaries

Directors often struggle with technical limitations. James Cameron wrote “Avatar” in 1995, but had to hold off for technology to reach a stage where the film’s creation would be possible.

According to Richard Taylor, visual director of the 1982 film “Tron,” art changes along with the available technology, but sometimes artists need to create something new in order to make their visions a reality.

Taylor was one of the pioneers of digital animation. In addition to his work on Tron, he also contributed to the special effects for the 1979 “Star Trek” film and designed the Starship Enterprise among other models.

His major breakthroughs in technology began in the 1960s, however, when Taylor was part of a band called “Rainbow Jam.” They would use a type of projection art that overlapped photos and used the additive light to affect the after-image left in the eye to create a moving image.

“The trick with Rainbow Jam was that we learned to play light in really beautiful ways,” he said during a talk in 2007. “We did things that were a lot more subtle than you could ever see in a motion picture.”

When Taylor began his work on “Tron,” he saw what could be done with computer graphics (CG) when the technology was still in its budding phase. As he explains it, “In the state of computer graphics, this was as early as you can get.”

Taylor took the technology a few steps further. Using the lighting tricks from Rainbow Jam, he created a new technique that he dubbed “Candy Apple Backward Neon.” The effect became the signature, glowing look in the film.

Once the film was released, Taylor said he received mixed comments. “Nobody understood how a computer simulation was done because the movie was done so far ahead of its time technically,” he said.

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