“A Computer Animated Hand” Added to National Film Registry

40 Year Old 3D Computer Graphics (1972) from Robby Ingebretsen on Vimeo.

Recently, Ed Catmull and Fred Parke’s computer animated version of Catmull’s left hand done at the University of Utah was added to the National Film Registry. (For some reason, Parke is not given any credit in the Registry’s announcement.) (The film embedded above, I should note, also includes footage of an artificial heart valve and an unidentified computer animated face.) Needless to say, the film proved to be a landmark in the development of computer animation and was later incorporated in Richard T. Heffron’s Futureworld (1976).

Ed Catmull's hand in Futureworld

Interestingly, another computer animated left hand showed up a few years later in Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981), when the Susan Dey character’s naked body is scanned into a computer; there’s no particular reason to include the hand, since one would think the viewer’s prurient interest would lie elsewhere .


Rebecca Allen, who worked at the New York Institute of Technology after Catmull left there for Lucasfilm in 1979, mentioned to me that Catmull left behind a digital version of his wife’s body, which Allen used for her own projects at NYIT. Thus, my question is was the hand in Looker a reworked version of Catmull’s or someone  else’s? Ah, such are the mysteries of film history.



Despite the unexpected critical admiration Byron Howard and Nathan Greno’s Tangled seems to have gained, I was somewhat neutral in approaching the film. In the end, though, I found much to admire in it, especially its use of lighting.

The film, which is inspired by the Brothers Grimm version of Rapunzel, is not without its problems. The story does not really gain traction until towards the end and its efforts to harken back to earlier Disney films  is a bit too self conscious. (For example, the scene in the boat pictured above seems to rather deliberately evoke a scene from The Little Mermaid.) Similarly, one could sometimes hear quotes from Beauty and the Beast’s music in Alan Menken’s score.

But the boat scene, however corny it may seem, does reflect the filmmakers’ use of lighting to invigorate a sometimes weak story. In the film, Rapunzel is kidnapped by Gothel, an elderly woman who covets the child’s magical hair, which can keep her eternally young (the hair glows when it performs its magic). Each year on Rapunzel’s birthday, the king and queen (and their subjects) send lighted lanterns floating into the sky looking for the lost princess.

In addition to light being central to the film’s narrative, the filmmakers have also used it to strengthen its dramatic and comedic impact; unfortunately, the stills available barely hint at what art director David Goetz and look and lighting director Mohit Kallianpur were trying to do.


The use of a spotlight is an old trick that dates back to the early silent films of Cecil B. DeMille and is associated with his use of Lasky/Rembrandt lighting in movies such as The Cheat (1915) and Carmen (1915).  In the shot above,  the “spotlight” highlight’s our hero, Flynn Rider’s comic predicament. Below, similar spots are used to highlight Flynn’s more serious predicament after being arrested.


Perhaps more interesting is the scene where Rapunzel discovers Flynn after he has climbed into her tower. Sunlight creates another spotlight which shines on him, but initially she’s in the dark; she then slowly walks into the light, as if to mirror her sense of discovery. Again, this sort of staging and lighting is old hat in live-action films, but I don’t recall other animated film doing anything quite like it.

What is so exciting about Tangled’s use of lighting is the sense of discovery in being able to use digital technology to expand the animation filmmaker’s palette. As such, it is a reminder of the fact that the possibilities of computer animation have barely been touched. Credit must be given David Goetz and especially to Mohit Kallianpur, whose job as and lighting director seems somewhat akin to that of a cinematographer.

Credit, of course, should also go to the film’s directors. It’s interesting to note that in commenting on Bryon Howard’s previous effort, Bolt, which he co-directed with Chris Williams, I praised the film for  its use of 3D stereo “technology to evoke some very credible environments ,” especially its impressive “recreation of the streets of New York and Los Angeles.” The use of stereo in Tangled is also helpful in similar ways, and shows that the folks at Disney seem to understand how to utilize stereo more effectively than their cousins at Pixar.

Oh Motion Capture, What Art Thou?


These are wonderful times for animation bloggers, what with all the controversy raging about whether or not motion capture/performance capture is or is not animation. I have long said that it is, but would like to amplify my feelings a bit on the matter. The cause for this is a recent posting from the ever thoughtful Mark Mayerson, who criticizes Cartoon Brew’s Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi’s acceptance of the technique as animation; Mayerson argues that it is a postproduction technique, and thus should not and cannot be considered animation (which, he says, is a production technique).  He concludes by saying:

I’ve written extensively on how fragmented the process of making an animated film is and how so many of the acting decisions are made before the animator starts work. The character designs, the storyboard and the voice performance all make acting decisions that constrain the animator’s interpretation. There is no question that motion capture is yet another constraint, probably larger than all the others. To insist that Avatar is an animated film is to marginalize animators even more than they are in what are generally considered animated films. Is this the direction we want things to go? Better to agree with James Cameron [that it’s not animation] and focus our attention on films where animators create, not enhance, performances.

His argument is not a new one and I’m sure that any number of animators feel that motion capture work demeans them because it reduces the animation to a postproduction process. And similar arguments have long been lodged against rotoscoping. But if we take an historical approach, which I think can be useful, then the evidence is strongly in favor of both rotoscoping and motion capture being animation.

Remember, Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope in 1915 as a way to create more fluid animation; and though I have not done much research in this area, I would be surprised if anyone could find comments by any other animation pioneer that derided the process as being something other than animation. It is said that early animators struggled to have their characters move in a realistic manner, which arguably created an opening for Fleischer’s invention.

One of the earliest examples of motion capture used in lieu of animation in a mainstream production was the Brilliance commercial Robert Abel and Associates did in 1984 for the Canned Food Information Council. In the film describing its production posted above, it is clearly labeled as an animation process. And it should be noted that the company used the technique at a time when computer animation seemed incapable of easily producing realistic human movement.

Bill Kroyer, recalled in an interview with me that,

When we did Tron, all you could do is move one object, like a light cycle, and it had one thing on top, like a moving turret as in a tank. Having multiple movements was a big deal, because nobody had really written software which structures movement in a hierarchy; so when you move the shoulder, it moves the elbow, the wrist and the fingers; then you can move the elbow and it moves the wrist.

At Digital Productions, [in 1984] they wrote a program that created a hierarchy. They set up this hierarchy of a human body, but the objects were mere blocks — the head was a square and the torso was a kind of a little pyramid — but at least it had all the joints; it had a neck, back, hip, knee and everything. Then they gave me this block woman as we called her and said, “Just see if you can make it move.” And I just started creating key frames and animating; I started with the center of gravity and the hips, then I kept adding on and adding on and created this dance scene.

In other words, Robert Abel, one of the pioneers of computer animation, not having the technology available to Digital Productions (or perhaps feeling it was inadequate) turned to motion capture in much the same way that Max Fleischer turned to rotoscoping.

Thanks to Amanda Kieffer.