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Professor provides an animated history lesson in new book, class

Allison Engelby Allison Engel
Gino Piserchio at a Moog Synthesizer
Photo: Andy Warhol’s composer Gino Piserchio at a Moog Synthesizer cross-connected with one of the earliest scanimate systems, called an Animac, at Dolphin Productions in 1971 (Photo/courtesy of David Sieg)

The digital revolution in animation is over, according to Tom Sito, longtime animator and recent author of Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (MIT Press, 2013), the definitive history of the art form.

The upheaval occurred from 1991 to 1995, the years when the seminal films Toy Story, Terminator and Jurassic Park were released.

“Before that, saying ‘I want to do a movie with computers’ was considered ridiculous,” he said. “After that, not using computers in a movie was considered ridiculous.”

Added Sito, “We are looking at the revolution now in the rearview mirror.”

So it made sense for a history to be written. Sito, a professor who has taught at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1994, had previously written Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions From Bosko to Bart Simpson, a history of animation unions. He was astonished that no one had tackled the larger story of the history of computer graphics. Once he started his research, he understood why.

It was no linear story, like that of traditional cartoon animation, which traveled from flip books through cels to motion pictures and television.

“There was not one Edison-like genius inventor you can point to,” Sito wrote in his book. “Not one Walt Disney-type megamind who single-handedly advanced the medium by leaps and bounds.”

Instead, it was many people from diverse backgrounds: scientists, beatniks, military officers, nerds and nonconformists who all shared the dream of creating art with a computer.

“They created something no one asked them to and made something no one wanted,” said Sito, and they did it separate and apart from Hollywood. “It was engineers who had a longing to do art and artists who had a longing to create art in a new way.”

As digital techniques engulfed Hollywood’s earlier notions of filmmaking, the importance of knowing their history seems obvious. But, as Sito discovered, few understand how they originated.

“Many think that George Lucas just rubbed a lamp and Pixar popped out,” he said.

Sito, who has worked for Walt Disney, DreamWorks, Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros. and Fox, was the ideal person to tackle the history.

He started his career in 1975 at the end of the golden age of animation, when Chuck Jones and Disney’s Nine Old Men were still working. He knew many of the classic animators and had been president of The Animation Guild three times. He had worked on groundbreaking animated blockbusters: Beauty and the Beast, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Shrek. He remembered the original story meetings on Toy Story.

Still, it took Sito seven years of research and writing. The tangled evolution of computer graphics had to be walked back through no fewer than seven parallel tracks: academia, industrial and defense research, special effects for live-action films, video games, avant-garde and experimental filmmakers, corporate research and commercial animation. Innovators in the various tracks were working independently and did not start speaking to each other until the late 1980s, he said.

For his research, he traveled across the United States and Canada, conducting 75 interviews.

“Every person I interviewed had six other people I should talk to,” he said.

The book opened to strong reviews, and Sito has spoken about it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Sheridan College in Canada, and at Pixar and DreamWorks. He was a keynote speaker at the 25th conference of the Society for Animation Studies, which was held at USC last June.

One reason for its popularity is the clear, engaging writing. This is no overly technical, jargon-filled treatise. A reviewer from the animation blog Sprockets wrote: “It isn’t often that I read a textbook that is a real page-turner, but Tom Sito’s new book is definitely a must read.”

“I’m afraid I’m not good at writing about technical terminology,” Sito said. “I’m an artist and I come from storytelling: Herodotus, Homer and the Skalds.”

Sito has created “The Rise of Digital Hollywood,” a two-credit course on the history of computer graphics that will be offered for the first time next spring from 7 to 9 p.m. on Mondays. It is open to majors and nonmajors.

Why would students need this knowledge? Sito’s course description provides the answer.

“Without computer graphic [CG] imaging, the Titanic in the movie Titanic could not sink; the armies of Mordor could not march on Middle Earth. We would never have known Buzz Lightyear, Laura Croft or how to play Quidditch. CG has become central to how we experience media today.”

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