Category Archives: Character Animation

Circle of Life

The Art of Animation

When creating and testing new graphics rendering engines or learning to create three dimensional models one of the first things usually produced is what is called a Utah teapot invented at the University of Utah. Several Alumni of the University of Utah include Ed Catmull who is widely cited as having created the first computer animation while a student. Ed Catmull cofounded Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter.

Computer graphics and computer generated imagery are two fields that have been deeply intertwined with the history and development of modern computers. Computer graphics have played an important role in technology and turned human achievements such as the Apollo Moon landings that would otherwise not be possible into a reality. The graphical user interface turned ordinary people’s perception of computers and what they were capable of on its head. CGI completely revolutionized the film industry with hit movies by Pixar like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life changing the entire way Walt Disney did animation. When we turn on our computers or cellphones or tablets we expect to watch multimedia and play games with a rich and high performance end user experience. But the technology that makes this possible did not just happen over night and is the product of years of research.

The crux of animation and the highest grossing animated film of all time, Walt Disney’s The Lion King has many important lessons for our journey on the endless round. One of the most important you will ever learn is that every person you will ever meet is no more than your 15th cousin. Known as the pedigree collapse the origin of life lies in the number 2 to the power of 32. Each and every one of us has 4,294,967,296 ancestors which is larger than the world population 32 generations ago, and so we are all connected in the great circle of life (Dawkins, 1995).

Jobs computer software company NeXT developed the NeXT Workstation used by Tim Berners-Lee to write the HTML programming language which later formed the backbone of the internet.

The development of computer graphics and computer generated imagery is intricately linked to the history of traditional animation. We begin with the development of The Lion King adapted video game for computers and Windows 3.1 in time for Christmas of 1994 (Disney Lion King Disaster, 2013). In those days Windows was a largely underdeveloped operating system with very poor driver level abstraction. Game development for the platform was abysmal as a result of inefficient and buggy graphics drivers. The result was Microsoft’s backing of the DirectX API which would turn into an industry standard for Windows OS based game development and graphics being the inspiration of the name for the Xbox console and surpassing the market share of OpenGL for years to come.

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple with colleague Steve Wozniak in 1976 in Cupertino California at the advent of the personal computer revolution. It is lesser known that shortly before founding Apple Computer, Jobs was an employee at Atari designing video games. Jobs often found it difficult to work with other people and conflicts often arose leading his boss to set up a night shift for him to work. While at Atari Jobs and colleague Steve Wozniak designed the game Breakout (Hanson, 2013). Though it is believed that Jobs purposefully mislead Wozniak about the payment received for completing the project in order to buy into a farm in Oregon. Jobs was later ousted from Apple Computer in 1985 after disagreements with CEO John Sculley who would himself later be ousted from Apple. During that time he founded a computer software company, NeXT Software Inc, who worked to pioneer networking, inter-connectivity, and whose computers were used by Tim Berners-Lee to create the HTML programming language later forming the backbone of the internet (A Short History of NeXT, 2015). The NEXTcube workstation was also used by John Carmack when designing and coding the classic Doom and Wolfenstein 3D computer games (Antoniades, 2009). That same year Jobs left Apple the animator behind The Brave Little Toaster, John Lasseter, left Disney for Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic. Lucasfilm was created by George Lucas to render special effects in Star Wars. Later that year Lucasfilm sold Graphics Group to Steve Jobs who would later rename the company Pixar Animation Studios giving Lasseter the freedom to direct and produce content specifically for television commercials (John Lasseter Biograpy, The New York Times).

Steve jobs purchased Graphics Group in 1986 for $5 million and incorporated Pixar Animation Studios.

Walt Disney Storyboard

A few other innovations made computer animated films cheaper to produce including Walt Disney’s pioneering use of the storyboard in the earlier days of animation.

Pixar and the growing field of computer generated imagery initially faced many difficulties and technical limitations. Traditional animators were largely afraid of computer animation fearing it would replace them entirely. Those at Disney feared that animation was soon to be a thing of the past and that animation was a dying art form. Computer animation was also extremely expensive requiring very advanced computers for the time, but eventually Moore’s Law, which states the exponential growth of transistor density on integrated circuits, made it cheap enough for Jobs and Pixar to finally pull off a feature length computer animated film. However a couple of other prior innovations including Walt Disney’s pioneering of the storyboard made it cheaper to produce computer animated films. In contrast live action movies are filmed first and later correlated into movies. Animation was extremely expensive for even short clips because of the time and prowess needed to render and produce the scenes. Storyboarding helped eliminate this inefficiency by only rendering the scenes that will make it into the final movie.

This November will mark 10 years since Steve Jobs debuted Toy Story at SIGGRAPH in 1995 which would go on to become a box office success. With it’s plastic doll-like anthropomorphic rendering Toy Story brought the first computer animated characters to life on the big screen and set a new precedent for animation. Pixar’s internal RenderMan engine, used to render the actual scenes, has a number of similarities with OpenGL and the two API’s can be used interchangeably as both take the form of a stack-based state machine.

Pixar’s success coalesced with the decade from 1989 to 1999 known as the Disney Renaissance when Walt Disney Animation experienced a creative resurgence including the release of films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Hercules (1997), and Tarzan (1999).

Despite the ambivalent feelings at the time Pixar would not become a one hit success and would go on to work on their next hit A Bug’s Life which would also be the highest grossing animated film for its year of release, 1998, raking in an initial $33 million dollars on its opening weekend. The movie broke new technical barriers including the number of animated characters possible on screen at any given time. Pixar would go on to release hit after hit including Monsters Inc, Cars, Up, and Brave.

Steve Jobs Pixar Tribute

Steve Jobs helped turn Pixar into a billion dollar success and was later diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he passed away in 2011. At the time of his death Jobs was the largest shareholder in Disney.

Pixar has been such an immaculate success spawning a following of millions of movie goers worldwide. One product of this success places Pixar at the center of a prominent conspiracy known as The Pixar Theory which postulates all Pixar movies are related and can be used as the basis to predict future events in the Pixar timeline. John Lasseter is currently on board to direct Toy Story 4 and a century of animation and film will likely not be coming to a halt any time soon.

The End!

Antoniades, Alexander. “The Game Developer Archives: ‘Monsters From the Id: The Making of Doom'” Gamasutra. UBM Tech, 15 Jan. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2015. <>.

“A Short History of NeXT.” A Short History of NeXT. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <>.

Dawkins, Richard. “All Africa and Her Progenies.” River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York, NY: Basic, 1995. Print.

“Disney Lion King Disaster.” The Saint. 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <>.

Hanson, Ben. “How Steve Wozniak’s Breakout Defined Apple’s Future.” 27 June 2013. Web. 7 June 2015. <>.

“John Lasseter Biography.” Movies & TV. The New York Times. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <>.