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Deneroff’s Law about Computer Animation

How to Train Your Dragon

Animation historian Harvey Deneroff writes perceptively about animation past and present, and not so long ago, he wrote something about computer animation that caught my attention and which helps to explain the ever-increasing complexity of animation imagery. He calls it “Deneroff’s Law”:

In 1958, C. Northcote Parkinson, famously stated in Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And Deneroff’s Law basically states: Given more powerful and complex tools, filmmakers will inevitably use them to make more complex films.” This rather simplistic observation is by no means original and in fact was inspired by a comment John Lasseter made during a phone interview about Toy Story 2. If I remember correctly, he said something like when presented with a computer 10 times more powerful, rather than using the added power to produce animation 10 times quicker, animators will usually opt to make their animation 10 times more complex and expensive.

He explores “Deneroff’s Law” in much greater depth and gives it historical context on his blog which I recommend reading.

  • It’s not always a pursuit of gratuitous detail. Many times it’s solving known problems that had to be tolerated with less available computer power.

    We can make a cheap movie fast today with characters that look and move like the ones in the old “Money for Nothing” video but should we?

    (I don’t mean to ridicule the result of “Money for Nothing”. That was pioneering work and I’m sure they got everything they could out of what they had.)

  • Ah laws, while I agree with the sentiment and the idea of the law there are external factors that can also affect its application. Take for instance the robotics theory of the uncanny valley. The closer you try to match humanity the more repulsive it becomes to the audience. Some thought the eventuality of CG animation would result in realistic characters that could be interchangeable with real actors. In actuality with films like FInal Fantasy: Spirits Within and Polar Express we find that the uncanny valley comes into play and the characters become harder to accept where as a simpler human, like in the Incredibles is more acceptable. There are many exceptions to this, but the point still stands that just because you can do it doesn’t mean its the best choice.

    • Mac

      I don’t think it is always the case that the closer a cg image is to a photo of a real human the more repulsive it is. I think Benjamin Button did a very good job of achieving the subtlety of skin shading and facial movement that was surprisingly pleasing, much more so than the less accurate Final Fantasy.

  • Isn’t there something called Catmull’s Constant that says despite advancing technology render time remains constant for the exact same reason?

    Given that these faster computers don’t make crafting a proper story much faster, the bigger studios will keep going in the more detailed direction, while for smaller indie animated filmmakers this technology makes possible what wasn’t a few years ago.

    I think it’s also gone the other way, where digital technology and Flash made production cheaper and rather than getting better work for the same price producers pushed to make the same crap for less money.

  • Jim

    For the most part this observation feels accurate, but the specific example (animating 10 times faster) is not the best. No amount of computing speed can enable a character animator to pump out 30-40 seconds of feature-quality animation per week. In that regard, the limitation is (and always has been) human ability.

  • Matt Bell

    The fact that the CGI medium (both 2D & 3D, or the computer in general) has already developed and achieved so much within the short span of our lifetimes is incredible.

    The vast majority of films out there are often “realistic” representations and literal retellings of people, places and events, and that’s fine. But with animation you have the freedom to make metaphor believable and alive on screen, as you can craft every frame. So take advantage of the medium and use it to do what another medium can’t do or currently isn’t doing. Realistic, naturalistic, I am not excluding these treatments, as any good artist should master them. Everything we know and how we comprehend visuals is based on this shared reality that we all perceive. But there is more than just one approach to this in film making, particularly with animation.

    By saying that CG 3D & realism is the only way in which animation can or should progress you’re simply limiting your pallet and your basis of knowledge that has been refined through it’s other mediums, 2D, Stop Motion, hybrids, etc… the inclusion of which will allow you a fuller spectrum of creative visual choices.

    To make something engaging and feel authentic or specific to an audience, your purpose should be to convey a certain truth or human experience, because that’s what we all are. Even if your characters are only representations of human personas, and not “human” themselves. If you’re going to create a film, with all the effort involved in doing so, then do it with a passion and a purpose (other than just money)! And perhaps the most difficult and frightening thing of all, have some major aspect of it relate to YOU!

    If you can engage and connect directly with whatever it is that you’re creating, then most likely others will be able to as well.
    I believe that your chosen medium, style and level of visual complexity will always be subordinate to this.

  • Caresse

    In the wise words of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “…[the scientists] were so pre-occupied with whether or not they could they never stopped to think whether or not they should…”

    In the words of Samuel L. Jackson’s character: “hold onto your butts…”

    And if I stay here too long I’m just going to transcribe the entire script from Jurassic Park.

    “Oh that? That’s just the power trying to come back on”

  • And, Jeff Goldblum’s character also said, “Faster, must go faster!” as the T-Rex chased the jeep.

    By the way, I included that “gag” when I boarded “Toy Story2.”

  • Peter F

    As an 18 year artist veteran of the videogame industry, I can confirm that Deneroff’s Law most definitely applies to videogame development.