Saturday, September 3, 2011

New York Institute of Technology + Popeye and Mighty Mouse Animators = Start of Computer Animation

From the 1920s through to the early 1960s the New York area was home to two major animation studios: The Fleischer Studios (which later became Paramount Pictures' Famous Studios) and Terrytoons.

The Fleischer Studios produced the Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons; while Terrytoons had Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle, and Tom Terrific.

These studios were no longer in existence when I started my career in animation in the mid-1970s. However, my first job at New York Institute of Technology landed me right in the middle of the most talented group of animators who had worked at Fleischer/Famous and Terrytoons. It was from these animators (Johnny Gentilella, Marty Taras, Dante Barbetta and Earl James) that I received my on-the-job training in the basics and mechanics of animation.

A few years earlier, Dr. Alexander Schure, the founder of (and who basically owned and ran) New York Institute of Technology, had started working towards developing a computer graphics program. With this as a goal, he had put into production "Tubby the Tuba" as full-length animated feature. The basic purpose was to have a team of computer engineers study the process of putting together an animated feature and see what technical problems needed to be surmounted by a computer.

In March of 1975, I wound up being hired as the studio's first full-time inbetweener. (I worked at the studio and developed into an assistant animator, leaving in May of 1976 to work on the animated feature "Raggedy Ann & Andy".)

The animation studio was on the NY Tech campus in Long Island. As Tubby was being produced by a crew of animators headed by Chuck Harriton and Johnny Gentilella, a separate crew on the far side of the campus (headed by a young Edwin Catmull) was busy experimenting with ways to draw and color pictures on a computer screen.

This is the same Edwin Catmull who is the current president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

There were times when Johnny Gentilella and some of the other animators would work with the computer crew. The animators' task was to draw and animate simple objects with the tools the computer crew was developing, and explain to them what difficulties they had using these tools.

The eventual direct result of all this experimentation was the development of both Disney's CAPS system and Pixar's CGI systems.

I have posted two sets of documents. The first is from a 1997 interview given by Edwin Catmull, where he gives some of his background history, explaining how he became involved with Dr. Schure and how he left to go work with George Lucas.

The second set of documents is Catmull's analysis of the problems facing computer-assisted animation. This analysis was finished circa 1977. It is very informative, giving a clear and concise step-by-step outline of all the phases of producing an animated cartoon.


  1. And if you feel like a laugh John, there's always this...

  2. Christopher, sorry, but I took a look at that YouTube video clip of the intro to "Tubby the Tuba" and found the voice-over "commentary" to be obnoxious. For my taste at least.

  3. That's OK, I didn't care for the sort of Howard Stern-ish approach they did there myself, but it's funny someone had the nerve to do one at all to this film if they liked/hated it that much. I'm sure Alexander Schure was a very respectable person during his life. Perhaps he had his heart set a little too high while making this film, but the lessons learned from that point on certainly help to put us on the right track where CGI has evolved to today.

  4. This video was on Cartoon Brew yesterday, it's an early example of CG animation by Catmull ... from 1972!

    It's interesting that the process they show, of creating a maquette and digitizing it with a scanner, is basically the same process used today.

  5. I knew Alexander Schure, and it's embarrassing that someone would lampoon him as if he were a moron. Schure was a pleasant, sophisticated guy with all the best intentions in the world. I not only worked on Tubby but was a graduate of the school, so I had plenty of time and experience at the place - prior to the whole computer setup.

    John, you've posted some really important documents here. I wish they had sought to do something more than imitate 2D animation in an attempt to compete with Saturday morning animation. They might have broken through sooner if they weren't spending so much time trying to figure out how to do inbetweens. Though there's no doubt that this really put them on the right track.

  6. Michael, I found these documents on the internet several years ago, and am surprised that they haven't been posted on other blogs. At least, I'm not aware that they have been. It wasn't until I started blogging myself that I decided to post them in a way that showed how computer animation as produced by Pixar didn't just appear fully formed, but was connected to 2D traditional animation.