Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 143 / AUGUST 1992 / PAGE 78

Disney Animation Studio. (Evaluation)
by Steven Anzovin

"An unending voyage of discovery in the realms of color, sound, and motion." That's what Walt Disney called the art of animation. This vision of animation as an adventure led Disney to make some of the greatest animated classics of all time.

Now you can use your PC to learn the master's techniques--without the tedium. Disney Animation Studio, from Walt Disney Computer Software, uses a tightly knit group of four modules--Pencil Test, Exposure Sheet, Ink & Paint, and a supervisor program called DAS--to re-create the traditional process of cel animation used in all Disney cartoons.

The Pencil Test module includes drawing tools for creating black-and-white outline drawings of your characters. But instead of drawing on pieces of paper, you work on a succession of screens, called cels (after the pieces of clear celluloid that animators paint on in traditional animation). A click of the mouse button allows you to move back and forth between cels and play your pencil test at any time.

One of the best parts of Pencil Test is the Onionskinning feature. With Onionskinning turned on, you can see the faint outlines of previous cels behind the current cel as though you were looking through tracing paper at other drawings beneath. This is incredibly helpful in aligning your drawings from cel to cel so your characters move smoothly and believably.

Another useful Pencil Test feature is Cleanup. At Disney's Mouse Factory, this task was assigned to apprentice animators, who tediously cleaned up pencil tests by tracing over them to eliminate unnecessary lines. In Disney Animation Studio, however, removing extra pixels can be achieved with a single mouse click.

Disney Animation Studio's Exposure Sheet, accessible from the Pencil Test, works rather like an animation spreadsheet. Each cel in the animation is given a line in the Exposure Sheet, showing the cel number, assigned sounds, timing, and other information. You can rearrange cels of an animation in the Exposure Sheet by cutting, pasting, or deleting their lines, which is much easier than cutting and pasting cels in Pencil Test.

The Exposure Sheet is also where you can add sound to your cartoon. Disney Animation Studio supports Sound Blaster, Sound Source, and Tandy sound. With one of these, you can attach digitized or synthesized sounds to any cel or block of cels using the Exposure Sheet to synchronize sound and motion.

Syncing simple sound effects isn't too difficult, but drawing a character so that it actually appears to be speaking takes a lot of practice. The excellent manuals give some helpful hints for drawing mouth movements and matching them to the phonetic elements of your character's speech. However, because you can hear sound only when playing back your animation in the included Flick player utility program, not in Disney Animation Studio, adjusting sounds requires jumping back and forth between the two programs.

Disney Animation Studio's Ink & Paint module is where you add color to your pencil test and put it over a background. The program's extensive palette and area fill tools make it easy to define new colors and apply them, without having to worry about accurate mixing or painting over the outlines. Every cel can have its own palette of colors, though in most cases you'll use one palette throughout. Backgrounds can be created right in Ink & Paint, or they can be imported from other paint programs and inserted behind your characters by using the Frisket feature. This masks the colors in your characters so they won't be affected by the background or any thing done to it. If the colors in an imported background don't match the ones in your animation, the colors can be quickly remapped.

Once you've assembled all the elements, you're ready to play your cartoon. Animations run entirely from memory, so they play fast--up to 30 frames per second. Playback is smooth, without the flicker in large moving objects seen in some other animation programs. However, the length of an animation is determined by the amount of expanded memory in your system. Even with 640K standard RAM and 1MB expanded memory in my 386, there still wasn't enough memory to play the color Donald Duck sample cartoon that comes with the program. You'll want at least 3MB of expanded memory to do substantial color animations.

Disney Animation Studio is well thought out and a pleasure to use. But that doesn't mean it's the perfect animation environment for everybody. Because it adheres so closely to the traditional process of film animation, it doesn't take advantage of all the possibilities of computer animation. Even though it manages cels, mixes colors, and allows easy cutting and pasting of images, you still have to do a lot of repetitive manual labor, just as Disney's animators did (and do). In Ink & Paint, for example, you have to color every part of every character in every frame by hand--a real chore for long, complex animations.

Experienced computer animators will chafe at the program's other limitations, too. I know I was disappointed when I discovered that there's no way to move characters automatically along paths or turn them smoothly into other shapes. I also wish that the program provided a storyboarding feature or a more powerful scripting utility for playing completed animations in sequence, complete with wipes, dissolves, and other transitions. These capabilities, which can be found in other animation and presentation programs, make it easier to create more professional-looking 'toons.

Even if you accept that the traditional film-animation process makes sense for computer animation, Disney Animation Studio doesn't give you everything you need to make your own Bambi. There's no way to do camera moves--the zooms, pans, trucks, and scrolling backgrounds that give film animations the feeling of taking place in a real three-dimensional world. Nor can you achieve multiplane effects in which layers of animation appear to be taking place at various distances from the audience. Part of the problem, of course, is that few home PCs have the power and speed to perform such calculation-intensive effects at typical animation speeds.

But a lot of these criticisms are beside the point for this program's main audience, beginning animators. With that in mind, I asked my ten-year-old son, Raf, an animation enthusiast, to evaluate the program. He quickly taught himself to use the software and informed me that Disney Animation Studio passed muster. He especially liked the Onion-skinning effect and the fact that he could work in VGA resolution (640 x 480), which some other animation programs don't support. The other day he spent three happy hours in front of the screen, animating his own creations and planning future cartoon epics.

Disney Animation Studio may not make everyone an ace cartoonist; you still have to know how to draw and be willing to work hard. But it's definitely the best way to learn at home the techniques of character animation that have brought the world so much enjoyment since Steamboat Willie first whistled a tune.