Cheaper than printing it out: buy the paperback book.

Out of Control

Mickey Mouse is one of the ancestors of artificial life. Mickey, now 66 years old, will soon have to face the digital era. In one of the permanent "temporary" buildings on the backlot of Disney's Glendale studios, his trustees were cautiously planning ways to automate animated characters and backgrounds. I spoke to Bob Lambert, director of new technologies for the Disney animators.

The first thing Bob Lambert made clear to me was that Disney was in no hurry to completely automate animation. Animation was a handcraft, an art. Disney Inc.'s great fortune was sealed in this craft, and their crown jewels -- Mickey Mouse and pals -- were perceived by their customers as exemplary works of art. If computer animation meant anything like the wooden robots kids see on Saturday morning cartoons then Disney wanted no part of it. Lambert: "We don't need people saying, 'Oh damn, there goes another handcrafted art down the computer hole.'"

Then there was the problem of the artists themselves. Said Lambert, "Look, we have 400 ladies in white smocks who have been painting Mickey for 30 years. We can't change suddenly."

The second thing Lambert wanted to make clear was that Disney had already been using some automated animation in their legendary films since 1990. Gradually they were digitizing their worlds. Their animators had gotten the message that those who didn't transfer their artists' intelligence from their heads into an almost living simulation would soon be dinosaurs of another kind. "To be honest," said Lambert, "by 1992 our animators were clamoring to use computers."

The giant clockwork in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective was a computer-generated model of a clock that hand-drawn characters ran over. In Rescuers Down Under, Oliver the Albatross dove down through a virtual New York City, a completely computer-generated environment grown from a large database of New York buildings compiled by a large contractor for commercial reasons. And in The Little Mermaid, Ariel swam through clusters of fish whose schooling was simulated, seaweed that swayed autonomously, and bubbles that percolated with physics. However, with a nod to the 400 ladies in white, each frame of these computer-generated background scenes was printed out on fine painting paper and hand-colored to match the rest of the movie.

Beauty and the Beast was Disney's first movie to use "paperless animation," at least in one scene. The ballroom dance at the end of the film was composed and rendered digitally, except for the hand-drawn characters of the Beast and Belle. The shift in the movie between the real cartoon and the faked cartoon was just slightly noticeable to my eye. The discontinuity protruded not because it was less graceful than the hand animation, but because it was better -- because it looked more photographic than the cartoon.

The first Disney character to be completely paperless was the flying (walking, pointing, jumping) carpet in Aladdin. To make it, the form of a Persian carpet was rendered on a computer screen. The animator bent it into its poses by moving a cursor, and then the computer filled out the "between" frames. The digitized carpet action was then added into the digitized version of the rest of the hand-drawn movie. Lion King, Disney's latest animation, has several animals that are computer-generated in the manner of the Jurassic dinosaurs, including some animals with semi-autonomous herding and flocking behaviors. Disney is now working on their first completely digital animation, to be released in late 1994. It will feature the work of an ex-Disney animator, John Lassiter. Almost the entire computer animation will be done at Pixar, a small innovative studio located in a remodeled business park in Richmond Point, California.

I stopped by Pixar to see what kind of artificial life they were hatching. Pixar has made four award-winning short computer animations done by Lassiter. Lassiter likes to animate normally inanimate objects -- a bicycle, a toy, a lamp, or knick-knacks on a shelf. Although Pixar films are considered state-of-the-art computer animations in computer graphic circles, the animation part is mostly handcrafted. Instead of drawing with a pencil, Lassiter uses a cursor to modify his computer-rendered 3-D objects. If he wants his toy soldier character to be depressed he goes into his figure's happy face on the computer screen and drags the toon's mouth into a droop. After testing the expression he may decide the toy soldier's eyebrows really shouldn't droop so fast, or maybe its eyes bat too slowly. So by cursor-dragging he alters the computer form. "I don't know how else to tell it what to do, such as making its mouth like this," says Lassiter, forming an O with his mouth in mock surprise, "that would be any faster or better than doing it myself."

I hear more of this communication problem from Ralph Guggenheim, production director at Pixar: "Most hand animators believe that what Pixar does is feed scripts into a computer and out comes a film. That's why we were once barred from animation festivals. But if we were to really do that, we could not create great stories....The chief day-to-day problem we have at Pixar is that computer animation reverses the animation process. It asks animators to describe before they animate what it is they want to animate!"

Animators, true artists, are like writers in that they don't know what they want to say until they hear themselves say it. Guggenheim reiterates, "Animators can't know a character until they animate it. They will tell you that it is very slow going in the beginning of a story because they are becoming familiar with their character. Then it starts speeding up as they become more intimate with it. As they get to the halfway point of the film, now they know the character well and they are screaming through the frames."

In the short animation Tin Toy, a plume on the toy soldier's hat shakes naturally when he bobs his head. That effect was achieved with virtual physics, or what the animators call "lag, drag, and wiggle." When the base of the plume moved, the rest of the feather acted as if it were a spring pendulum -- a fairly standard physics equation. The exact way the plume quivered was unpredicted and quite realistic because the plume was obeying the physics of shaking. But the face of the toy soldier was still manipulated entirely by an experienced human animator. The animator is a surrogate actor. He acts out a character by drawing it. Every animator's desk has a mirror on it that the animator uses to draw his own exaggerated facial expressions.

I asked the artists at Pixar if they can at least imagine an autonomous computer character -- you feed in a rough script and out comes a digital Daffy Duck doing his mischief. There was uniform grave denial and shaking of heads. "If animating a believable character was as easy as feeding a script into a computer, then there would be no bad actors in the world," said Guggenheim. "But we know that not all actors are great. You see tons of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe impersonators all the time. Why aren't we fooled? Because the impersonator has a complex job knowing when to twitch the right side of his mouth or how to hold a microphone. If a human actor has difficulty doing that, how will a computer script do it?"

The question they are asking is one of control. It turns out that the special effects and animation business is an industry of control freaks. They feel that the subtleties of acting are so minute that only a human overseer can channel the choices of a digital or drawn character. They are right.

But tomorrow, they won't be. If computer power continues to increase as it has, within five years we'll see a character created by releasing synthetic behavior into a synthetic body star in a film.

The Jurassic Park dinos made it very clear how nearly perfect synthetic body representations are today. The flesh of the dinos was visually indistinguishable from what we'd expect a filmed dinosaur to be. A number of digital effects laboratories are compiling the components of a believable digital human actor right now. One lab specializes in creating perfect digital human hair, another concentrates on getting the hands right, and another on generating facial expressions. Already, digital characters are inserted into Hollywood films (without anyone noticing) when a synthetic scene demands people moving in the distance. Realistic clothing that drapes and folds naturally is still a challenge; done imperfectly it gives the virtual person a clunky feel. But at the start, digital characters will be used for dangerous stunts, or worked into composite scenes -- but only in long shots, or in crowds, rather than in the full attention of a close-up. An entirely convincing virtual human form is tricky, but close at hand.

What is not very close at hand is simulating convincing human action. Especially out of reach is convincing facial behavior. The final frontier, the graphics experts say, is the human expression. A quest for control of a human face is now a minor crusade.