After a string of box-office disappointments such as Mr. Peabody & Sherman and Penguins of Madagascar, DreamWorks Animation is going through a pretty brutal downsizing. The cartoon studio, which has been releasing three feature films a year, is slashing its production schedule and laying off hundreds of employees. And as part of the process, it’s shuttering PDI/DreamWorks, its facility in Redwood City, California.
When I heard the news, my mind didn’t turn to any of the big-budget features produced by PDI/Dreamworks, starting with Antz in 1998. Instead, I thought about an era well before there was a DreamWorks. One even before it was clear that it was possible to produce feature-length cartoons with computers rather than pencils, ink, and paint.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, I spent a lot of time watching short computer-animated cartoons at about the only places you could see them: technical conferences (such as SIGGRAPH) and festivals of short cartoons. At the time, such films were part demo, part entertainment. And many of them were made by a company called Pacific Data Images. Founded by Carl Rosendahl in 1980, it was eventually swallowed up by DreamWorks Animation, which acquired 40% of PDI in 1995 and the remainder in 2000, creating the modern, soon-to-be-defunct entity known as PDI/DreamWorks.
(Pixar was the other key pioneer: Here’s an interview I conducted with John Lasseter in 1989, in which he told me that he hoped the studio would be able to produce a feature-length computer-animated cartoon someday.)
It’s been a long time since I’ve attended SIGGRAPH or gone to an animation festival. But many of the shorts I enjoyed are on YouTube. And you know what? They’re still fun to watch, and show how quickly computer animation evolved in its early days.
Here are a few cartoons that PDI made back when it was helping to establish computer animation as an entertainment medium.
In 1983, the general public was just beginning to realize that there was such a thing as computer animation. (Disney’s Tron had come out the previous year and attracted plenty of attention.) It was still an era in which you didn’t have to do much more than rotate shapes in 3-D space to dazzle people.
Robots have long been favorite subjects for computer animation–hey, if they look a bit stiff and artificial, as computer animation often does, it’s in keeping with their character. Note that in 1985, PDI didn’t even try to give these guys faces or legs.
If you didn’t see this back in the mid-1980s, trust me–it was mind-blowing. It didn’t dawn on me that the dinosaurs might be made out of chrome because it was easier to render shiny metal than scaly skin at the time.
More robots. But the state of computer animation was progressing at such a rapid clip that this cartoon, with its slightly unnerving feel, is a notable stylistic advance on 1985’s Botco.
This one feels less like a demo and more like a bona fide cartoon, with a story, gags, a bit of adventure, and music. Even though it stars a train, PDI is now doing real character animation and creating imagery and movement that feels organic.
By this point, PDI is fully capable of creating the effect called stretch-and-squash in the animation business: The shapes that make up these characters get pushed to their extremes to accentuate their personality and humor.
Pixar’s Toy Story–the first computer-animated feature–had been released in 1995, proving that it was not only possible to produce a long CGI film, but to make one into a blockbuster. So 1997’s Gabola dates from the very end of the era when computer animation was interesting simply because it was computer animation. But both PDI and Pixar were still figuring out how to animate human beings.
PDI, Pixar, and numerous competitors long ago shifted most of their attention to feature-length work. But Pixar is still actively producing short cartoons as well. Even its newest ones retain at least a little of the experimental feel that computer animation had when it really was experimental. And every time I see one, I get a pleasantly nostalgic jolt that takes me back to the old days.