Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ancient Computer Animation Artifacts and Homer Simpson

In this post we discuss a very early use of computer animation in the mainstream, before the tsunami of computer animation we are all suffering from today, back when it was a novel and expensive choice. And we discuss how to appreciate the ancient motifs of those early days of animation.  In other words, the particular piece we describe is filled with computer animation in jokes, as you will see.

It is part of the ancient history of computer animation, back when it was an experimental and impractical medium for entertainment and art, that the best way to see computer animation was to attend the annual ACM SIGGRAPH conference and see the Electronic Theatre, which was originally shown on a few nights of the conference only. Not only was this the best way, it was usually the only way, as this is in the days before Youtube when computer animation was an acquired taste of eclectic researchers and artists only.

Since the audience on those two or three nights of SIGGRAPH was essentially the entire audience for computer animation in the world and everyone who attended, or almost everyone, was very knowledgeable about computer animation, there had developed a series of motifs that were either funny, or silly, or just mistakes, that we all knew. For example, an early computer animation model was a teapot that someone at the Univ of Utah cobbled together out of patches to make a surface with a certain complexity. He modelled the teapot by hand by typing in numbers into a text file, and that teapot, that very same teapot, was used in a lot of papers and films.

So then, when some outsider from the motion picture industry would slum with us and attend the Electronic Theatre, to find a way to exploit the medium for their corrupt ends, they would walk away puzzled. Why, they would ask, would a glass teapot dropping on a table and shattering in slow motion be the cause of a standing ovation?   "Why can't they do more films like the one with the lamp, you know, a funny film that doesn't have any ideas?"

But we were living in a fool's paradise. Computer animation became more practical and more accepted, and that led inevitably to the corruption and decay that you see today.

The transition period between R&D and mainstream production when 3D became both more practical and controllable, as well as accepted by the motion picture and television industries, and by the audience, was, arguably between 1991 and 1995. Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993) established computer animation's respectability in visual effects and Toy Story (1995) in animated features.

The piece we are going to discuss premiered roughly three weeks before Toy Story, and thus was produced before computer animation was considered to be real and respectable in animation.

It was called "Homer 3", where 3 is a superscript, which means Homer to the 3rd power. It was for the seventh season of The Simpsons and their sixth episode of the "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special. In this episode, Homer tries to escape from being subjected to his wife's relatives and escapes behind a bookcase into a mysterious dimension, the 3rd dimension. After being lost, and causing the destruction of that universe, he is saved by Bart at the last minute and returned safely to the 2nd dimension.

Homer notices his new 3D physique

Boy, this place looks expensive.

The computer animation was done at Pacific Data Images (PDI) before they were acquired by Dreamworks Feature Animation.

You can see a very bad dub of this piece here:

Of the many homages to the SIGGRAPH Electronics Theatre in this piece, here are the ones that stand out to me:

1. The crazy, artificial, and unrealistic camera move that goes nowhere.

2. The signpost that has an X, Y and Z direction.

3. The use of the cone (and other primitive objects, e.g. sphere and cube), a simple geometric object used a lot in the early days of computer animation for all sorts of things. The III logo (1) was a sphere, a cone, and a cube.

4. The emphasis on simple water and fluid, fluid being a hard problem in computer animation and a lot of various tests made it into the film show.

5. The implausible architecture and Tron-like environment.

Professor Frink explains "The Third Dimension" and also demonstrates why translating 2D characters to 3D is a very tough problem.  Imagine translating the Professor to 3D naively from this image, it would be grotesque.

6. Homer Simpson says "Boy, this place looks expensive. I feel like I am spending a lot of money just standing here". Which he was, computer animation used to charge by the second (sometimes it still does), and it was both difficult and expensive to just have a character on screen scratching his butt.

7. There are also some shading artifacts on Homer's face that probably came from the simple shading model. This may or may not have been intentional, and the artifacts may or may not have been because Homer was modelled from polygons (I am pretty sure he wasn't, but I am not positive). But it looked like the artifacts we used to see all the time in the early days. If it was intentional, it was a homage. But it was probably just happenstance.

8. Homer asks if anyone back in the 2nd dimension saw the movie Tron.  All but one say no, and he changes his story so as not to admit of seeing Tron.

I think PDI did an excellent job on something that was at the time a very prestigious piece indeed.

But the best thing that this piece has going for it was not standard at the Electronic Theatre but is very common for the The Simpsons: it is very well written.

Treehouse of Horror VI on Wikipedia:


1. III is Information International, Inc.   This large company which is still in business and thriving, had an early computer animation group that used their film recorder technology, and worked on Tron.  Many famous and important people either founded or worked at III.  We will discuss III's adventure in "digital scene simulation" in another post.

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