Learning CGI the Hard Way


My first computer animated shot, 1994.

When I first experienced Jurassic Park at the movie theater in 1993, my mind was blown! The dinosaurs were incredibly realistic - ILM had created a cinematic milestone that would change visual effects forever. Uncertain about my future as a stop-motion animator and truly inspired by what I had seen, I decided to take the challenging step into the realm of computer character animation. But how would I accomplish this goal?

At the time, the gateway into computer graphics was quite difficult, particularly for artists and animators. The profession required a technological mentality but it was starting to open up to creatives due to the more user-friendly software. School courses were practically non-existent, written information was scarce, and the internet as we know it today did not exist. Despite all that, I was determined to learn and decided to teach myself how to do it as I had done previously with painting and stop-motion animation! Accordingly, in 1994, I bought my first computer, an Apple Power Macintosh 7100, and started the journey from scratch.

In those early years, there was a huge gulf, in both power and price, between personal home computers and professional workstations and software. Professional software such as Softimage was out of my financial reach so I settled on Animation Master by Hash Inc., the only real option for character animation on a personal computer. Fortunately, my experience as a stop-motion animator was helpful to my understanding of the digital equivalent since both are “3D”. Even then, it was extremely frustrating to learn without someone to guide me in the details. Additionally, the Animation Master software was quite full of bugs, crashing my computer regularly. My first project was, of course, a dinosaur - specifically a small flying reptile known as Rhamphorhynchus. In my spare time, I slowly learned how to model, animate, light, and render a shot. For the background of that project, I used the software Vistapro to create a desert scene with a river oasis.

My first computer animated shot was quite primitive compared to those in the great Jurassic Park; however, I considered my work a success because I had learned the basics of how to accomplish the task. All the effort was worthwhile because the following year, in 1995, my CGI experience helped me to land a job at the emerging computer animation division of Walt Disney Feature Animation!

© 2022 Joel Fletcher

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