Ironically, the simulated computer animation of "Max Headroom" has attracted more attention than the genuine article. Once ballyhooed as the savior of the animation industry, computer graphics have had only a minimal impact in the field of entertainment.
Usually, mainstream films introduce technical innovations that spread slowly to non-commercial areas. But the recent SIGGRAPH conference and trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center demonstrated that computer-generated imagery is having a more profound effect on medical, technical and educational film making than on Hollywood features.
The atmosphere inside the exhibition halls resembled Sunday afternoon on the Venice Beach boardwalk, but instead of T-shirts and sunglasses, the vendors were hawking computer software, monitors, joy sticks, printers, digitizers and other high-tech paraphernalia intended for industrial users, rather than studio animators.
Computers "draw" three-dimensional images of microscopic viruses, enabling medical researchers to create drugs that literally fit onto the microorganisms. Industrial designers use computer systems to render everything from gears to car engines to jet planes. Animation programs allow people to move around and even through a structure before it's been built.
Aside from a few special effects and experimental films, the only computer animation seen by large audiences has been in television logos and commercials. Countless chrome-and-neon shapes have whirled and glittered and darted into infinity, but the promised revolution in animation hasn't materialized.
None of the films that featured extensive computer-generated sequences--"Tron," "The Last Starfighter," "The Flight of the Navigator"--did particularly well at the box office. And despite advances in both hardware and software, computer graphics is still expensive. A top-quality computer-animated commercial costs between $2,000 and $4,000, or about twice what drawn animation runs.
Because most computer films are made by technicians, rather than trained animators, the results have been artistically unimpressive. No computer program has matched the flexibility and immediacy of drawing.
"I became an animator because I love to draw, and I'll kill any man who tries to take the pencil out of my hand," says Disney animator Glen Keane. "There's a tactile sensation to the graphite tearing away from the pencil onto the paper as you draw that punching buttons at a computer terminal can't duplicate."
Like matchmakers and revivalist preachers, computer graphics advocates have spent a great deal of time telling audiences how wonderful things are going to be. The claims that machines would replace human animators or that computer simulations would put great actors of the past into new films were obviously premature. But computers do offer film makers an enormously powerful tool, one capable of creating images impossible to produce any other way.
Regrettably, directors, animators and the computer technicians themselves have largely failed to exploit the potential of computer graphics to dazzle audiences with wondrous visions, as fantastic as anything ever put on film.