May 17, 2006

Humor, irony and surprise endings enhance technology at 2006 computer animation fest

When the Cornell Program of Computer Graphics was launched in the early 1970s, it was considered a major achievement to start with drawings of a building and create a computer-generated image of, say, Rhodes Hall. Today, computer-generated images fill the movie screen with dinosaurs, Tolkien creatures and giant gorillas, and the abbreviation CGI has become part of everyday language -- at least for movie buffs on the Internet.

Not a few of those movie creatures were created by graduates of the Cornell Program of Computer Graphics, six of whom have won awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work at companies like Pixar, Sony Imageworks, Dreamworks and Industrial Light and Magic. Now, a new generation of Cornell animators is coming up, and work by recent students was screened May 14 in the Willard Straight Theatre for an enthusiastic audience -- of mostly recent students.

The 75-minute presentation, "Cornell Animation Fest" -- subtitled "Best of the Best" -- was made up of short films ranging in length from one to about five or six minutes in length, all student class projects from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2006. A few students reported being up until 5 a.m. Sunday finishing work for the presentation. One ambitious film was presented as a "work in progress" with the seams showing.

In a short introduction, Donald Greenberg, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics and director of the Program of Computer Graphics, praised the creativity of his students and added, in a nod to the effort they had put in, "Nobody ever overestimates the time it takes to make a good animation."

The program, presented in chronological order, was in a way a short history of recent progress in the field. Films from 2002 often relied on characters made up of cubes, spheres and other simple shapes. Later, characters became more detailed, backgrounds and surface textures improved, and motion became smoother. A lot of that, Greenberg said, reflects increased computer power and improved software, as well as students who arrive at Cornell with more experience.

But as any fan of "South Park" will tell you, it's the story that counts, and most of the films offered quirky, often hilarious vignettes with ironic twist endings worthy of "Twilight Zone" episodes: People at a bus stop never found out why their cell phones kept ringing, but the audience did; a chameleon's efforts to find friends paralleled the tale of the ugly duckling; an elephant struggled to lose weight with no help from his trainer; and a medieval warrior thought he had gotten the best of a dragon but learned the meaning of "do unto others."

One film, presented as a work in progress and overlaid with wire boxes, markers and outlines, gave a sense of the complexity of computer animation while still delivering its story of a fish that lost his love and found her again, but would learn that all was not as it seemed.

Not all students in Greenberg's classes are computer science majors. Many come from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and others are scattered across several colleges. At a time when the university is seriously examining the interface between technology and the arts, Cornell's computer animators offer a shining example of the possibilities.