Animation Is Just a Desktop Away

Lawrence J. Magid is a Silicon Valley computer analyst and writer

When historians look back at the 1980s, they are sure to note both the personal computer and the videocassette recorder. The personal computer has emerged as a tool for business and personal creativity, while the VCR is used primarily to enjoy the creativity of others by bringing entertainment into our homes.

As the 1990s near, the two technologies are coming together in a form known as desktop video. Personal computers are being used to make it easier and cheaper to produce home or commercial videos with animation, sound, titles and special effects that used to require the services of a video production company.

Desktop video is attracting hobbyists, small businesses and even television professionals. IBM PCs and compatible machines, Apple Macintoshes and Commodore Amigas are showing up in broadcast TV control rooms and video production houses. Some computers are being used as command centers to control multiple video recorders, compact disc players, monitors and sophisticated editing equipment.

A related development is the emergence of desktop presentation--the use of computers to help create materials for live presentations at business meetings, classes or other gatherings. Such presentations typically use slides or overhead transparencies made from computer-generated art.

At the same time, people making presentations increasingly are connecting computers directly to large-screen monitors or video projection devices. In some cases, this isn't much of an advance over old-fashioned slide projectors. With some programs, however, computers can add animation and sound to a presentation, making it look much like a desktop video.

Before you jump on the desktop video bandwagon, consider how much time and effort you're willing to spend. Simple effects--such as creating a bouncing ball--are often easy, but sophisticated animation requires a great deal of time and skill.

For an animation of someone walking across a room, for example, you would need to go through the steps animators always have used. You must create a background and multiple pictures of the person and provide instructions for the sequence of movements to create the effect. (Most programs, though, will allow you to edit existing images, so you don't necessarily have to start from scratch for each movement or frame.)

But with the right software, just about all popular personal computers can be used to help create videos. The Commodore Amiga and Apple II come with video output jacks that can be connected directly to a VCR. Other systems such as the IBM PC, Apple Macintosh and most Atari ST models require extra equipment to send signals to TVs or video recorders.

The built-in video outputs are not suitable for broadcast quality, but add-on video boards are available for most computers. To mix computer graphics with taped or live images, you'll need a mixing device called a genlock that ranges in price from about $200 to well over $1,000, depending on your computer and your quality requirements.

Also keep in mind that graphics take up a lot of disk space. A full-length cartoon would require an enormous amount of disk storage.

Although it hasn't done well in the general business market, the Commodore Amiga is popular for both home and professional video applications. It's also relatively cheap. A complete system can be bought for less than $2,000.

Electronic Arts of San Mateo has published desktop video software for the Amiga since 1987. One of its programs, DeluxeVideo, enables Amiga users to produce animated sequences and titles along with zooms, fades and rolling credits. The program uses graphics created with the company's painting program, DeluxePaint II, which also is available for the IBM PC and Apple II GS.

A companion product for the Amiga, DeluxeMusic Construction Set, lets you create and edit background music and other sounds.

The software company is expected next month to release a new program for the Amiga called DeluxePaint III--Paint With Animation. You use the Amiga's mouse to "paint" color graphic images and employ DeluxePaint III's animation features to move the images around the screen.

Electronic Arts graphics programs come with drawn images that you can use right away. That's great for people like me, who can't draw decent pictures with or without a computer.

If you plan to use an IBM PC to create videos, you'll need a device that translates the video output so that it's compatible with a VCR. A Stamford, Conn., firm, US Video, makes a $700 card for the IBM PC that doubles as a high-resolution computer display card. An optional $350 genlock adapter allows you to mix computer images with live video. The board works with any IBM PC-compatible software.

US Video Vice President Bob Arthur offers an interesting suggestion for the executive who wants to share good financial news with stockholders: Use the card and some animation software to create a video image of "a person jumping up and down on a Lotus 1-2-3 bar chart."

Although there are plenty of IBM-compatible graphics programs, only a few programs provide animation.

Show Partner F/X, from Brightbill-Roberts & Co. of Syracuse, N.Y., offers animation and special effects such as bouncing logos, fading weather maps and moving organization charts. The $350 program comes with software that lets you copy graphics from other programs.

Rix Software of Irvine offers Colorix-VGA Paint. The $199 program, which requires an IBM-compatible computer with a VGA display adapter, is a high-resolution painting program that includes tools for fades, animation and special effects. Later this year, the company plans to release a more sophisticated animation program called ShowRix.

Apple likes to introduce new concepts with great fanfare. At last month's MacWorld Exposition, Apple Chief Executive John Sculley demonstrated his company's vision by using a Macintosh II to control a presentation that featured stereo sound, live TV and computer animation. Viewers were impressed, but the technology doesn't come cheap.

To begin with, you need to spend at least $5,000 for a Macintosh II or SE/30, but the system probably will cost you closer to $8,000 by the time you include a color monitor, high-capacity hard disk and at least four megabytes of memory--accessories that are almost essential for doing serious work. For video output, you'll need to spend anywhere from $600 to $6,000 for a converter and genlock.

Then you'll need some software. The most talked about program is MacroMind Director, from Chicago-based MacroMind. A state-of-the-art program, MacroMind will mix graphics, sound and animation. It is due for release next month and is expected to cost nearly $700.

If you're willing to settle for black and white display, you can get a basic Mac SE for about $3,000 and run Studio One, which soon will be released by Electronic Arts. The program has built-in painting and animation tools.

Don't expect to create Disney-style animation or the next "Star Wars" after only a few hours of practice. Even though programs provide shortcuts, producing videos is painstaking work that requires you to specify every image and to indicate how long it will remain on the screen. And no amount of computer equipment or software can make up for a lack of talent or taste.

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