When Ian Pearson first dreamed of creating a computer-animated television show, his best effort wound up looking like a very long video game. The characters were blocky, their movements were stilted and the color was severely limited.
Ten years later, the spellbinding animation of "Reboot," TV's first fully computer-animated series, evokes a lush world of dense color and three-dimensional movement.
Animation experts say ABC's new Saturday morning children's show is sparking visions of a new entertainment medium--one not using actors or drawn by hand but rather developed completely inside a computer. Plans are in the works, these boosters say, for computer-animated feature films and an increase in the use of computers for animating special effects in both film and television.
"This is what everyone has been talking about doing and wishing they could do for the last several years," said Mason Core, a Los Angeles-based computer animator who works mostly on industrial films and videotapes.
But the tremendous expense and snags encountered by Pearson and his partners--the series has been off the air for the past few weeks because they fell behind in the production schedule--raise questions about the medium's viability, at least in the near term.
In its potential for pushing the envelope or winding up merely as an astoundingly expensive novelty, "Reboot," whose first season of 13 episodes cost $10 million to produce, reflects the current state of computer animation in film and television: It's a field whose great expectations and wild growth have techno-artists rubbing their hands with glee--and financial executives scratching their heads.
"Someone's got to start it--someone's got to take that risk," said Jennie Trias, president of ABC Children's Entertainment. "I hope it works out for us."
Although the network would not release exact figures, ABC paid "more than double the cost of a high-end priced Saturday morning show" for the right to air "Reboot" in the United States, Trias said. The series is set inside a computer, where bad guys in the form of computer viruses battle the good residents of a town called Mainframe.
Costs include the purchase of computers--which ran to $5 million of the first season's budget, according to Pearson--retraining animators to work with computers and a huge investment of time. It took an entire day, for example, to put sound behind an eight-minute sequence, Pearson said. And that was a tremendous leap forward from earlier versions of the technology, which would have required a whole day to animate a sequence that lasted just a few seconds.
It's so expensive, the Vancouver-based Pearson said, that until he got the backing of a major entertainment company, he wasn't able to purchase any equipment and had resorted to making two-minute demonstration sequences on borrowed computers. Limelight Productions, meanwhile, which funded the initial effort, was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year and acquired by Toronto-based Alliance Communications. At the time, industry experts speculated that the high cost of producing "Reboot" might have contributed to Limelight's decline.
It's that cost, said Seth Levinson, vice president of management information systems for DIC Entertainment, one of the largest producers of children's animated television shows, that will keep computer animation's influence limited in the near term.
Traditional animation companies do use computers, he said, but only to enhance pen-and-ink work. For example, he said, computers are sometimes used to add color once an animator has drawn the outlines of a cartoon. Or computers are used to save money by filling in the frames between hand-drawn cels.
Few--if any--in the industry expect computer-generated animation to replace traditional cartoons. But the technology has already found its way into impressive sequences in feature films: Many of the special effects in "Jurassic Park" were computer generated, as was the stampede scene in "The Lion King."
And enthusiasts say full-length computer-animated features are not far away.
"It's an entirely new medium," said John Wright, president of Viewpoint Datalabs, which operates a catalogue of stock images that computer animators can buy for use in commercials and other works. Computer imagery, he said, is forming a rising tide that will exist alongside traditional animation but not replace it.
"It is a different tool, and it has its own quirks and its own strengths," said DIC's Levinson. Computer animation is great at creating photorealism, camera zooms and morphing, Levinson said. It's less successful at creating characters, he said, who still can look "robotic" and too perfect.
The technology is developing so fast that "Reboot" has an entirely different look now than when it was accepted by ABC just two years ago. At that time, Bob, the main character, had the jerky movements and two-dimensional look commonly associated with computer-generated graphics. Now, aside from being bright blue--a change that was based more on creative and multicultural concerns than technology--Bob is three-dimensional and moves like the combination real person and super-hero he is meant to be.
Even the first few episodes in September look different from the ones to come as the series returns this week.
"The first three or four episodes," Pearson said, "were the equivalent of 'Steamboat Willie' "--the first Walt Disney cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse.
So far, ABC says, audience response has been good, with the show ranking in the top 10 among children ages 2 to 11, its target audience. The show is also airing in Canada, and in January will be seen during prime time in England.
"It's cool," said William, a third-grader at Western Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, after being shown a tape of "Reboot" with his class.
"It moves in a way that people can't move," observed Relyn, one of William's classmates. "It's creative."
ABC's Trias said the network was willing to spend big money for "Reboot" to catch the eye of kids such as these while they are channel surfing. The network already has renewed the show for another season.
Implicit in ABC's support is the hope that the cost will go down--and, indeed, now that Pearson has purchased his computers, half the cost of the first season will be eliminated.
"I think we've upped the ante," says Pearson, who is ready to tackle a feature film on computer. "I think people are going to have to try a little harder from now on."
And someday, computer boosters say, the cost of the whole process will drop dramatically.
"The real next shift," said Wright of Viewpoint Datalabs, "is for people to create the entire animation of (a show like) 'Reboot' in their basements."
* "Reboot" returns at 7:30 a.m. Saturday on ABC (Channels 7, 3 and 10).