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‘Where the Wild Things Are’: An Early CG Experiment by John Lasseter and Glen Keane

Hans Perk recently posted scans from a 1983 edition of the Disney Newsreel, an in-house newsletter about happenings around the studio. The issue had an article about an animation test created by John Lasseter and Glen Keane using Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as subject matter.

While the project will undoubtedly be familiar to fans of Lasseter and Keane, I found the article’s contemporaneous account of the production to be interesting, especially Lasseter’s quote: “In five years these tests will seem so primitive, they’ll look like Steamboat Willie does today.” Below I’ve reformatted the piece for easy on-line perusal:

“Experimenting with Computer Generated Graphics”
Originally published in the Disney Newsreel (vol. 12, no. 23; June 10, 1983)

Disney’s animated cartoons have been extremely popular in the past, focusing strictly on drawn animation in a carefully realistic style. The release of TRON last summer has indicated that Disney artists are beginning to experiment with new animation technologies and techniques.

TRON was the first motion picture to incorporate an extensive use of computer-generated graphics. At the time of the production of the film, the state-of-the-art images that the computer produced were too metallic and precise. Because of those characteristics, the computer’s application was ideally suited for the “environment” of TRON , but totally inappropriate for the organic and “dreary” look of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Where the Wild Things Are

One of the challenges presented to Disney animators today is to create computer-generated images with a human or animated element. It is the challenge Glen Keane and John Lasseter are accepting.

Based on Maurice Sendak’s award-winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, Glen and John are combining drawn animation and computer images in a series of film tests.

Where the Wild Things Are

The Wild Things test is done by encoding characters’ and background perspectives and the changing position of the camera into the computer. MAGI Synthavision Inc. (Mathematical Applications Group Inc.) artists and technicians create simple groups of geometric shapes that represent the basic forms of the characters and put them in a computer-generated model of the set. This is all done according to the position of the camera as it follows the action in the film, and these resulting images are photographed. Drawings are electronically encoded back into the computer which places them in the correct positions within the set in each frame. The computer will also color the animated drawings, adding shadows and highlights according to the animator’s instructions. This entire images is photographed on film by the computer for the final product.

Where the Wild Things Are

The entire process gives the perspective of a three-dimensional cartoon, with the camera moving in and around obstacles in the environment.

The Wild Things test is being done to determine the success of both animator and computer interacting with one another. Disney animators want to see if this technology can be incorporated to enhance or even re-design the traditional “animated cartoon.”

According to the head of Disney’s Special Visual Effects, Lee Dyer, “[Motion Picture Production Vice President] Tom Wilhite is encouraging us to try different things.”

John, Joe Ranft and Brian McEntee are developing The Brave Little Toaster, which in its final form could become a 70-minute full-length feature film. “Basically, Wild Things is a test piece,” explains John, “but we would like to use this technique for The Brave Little Toaster.

Part of the problem with expediting the film’s production is the limited ability Disney has to create computer-generated images. All work in the past has been done by outside computer imagery firms.

The combination of computer-generated graphics and Disney animation is in its very basic stages in terms of what is could eventually become. John reports that, “In five years these tests will seem so primitive, they’ll look like Steamboat Willie does today.” But just as Steamboat Willie gave Disney the recognition as a forerunner in animation technology some 50 years ago, The Wild Things test and The Brave Little Toaster have the potential to giver Disney similar recognition in the future.

And the finished test in case you’ve never seen it:

  • tedzey

    Now THAT was a good read! I would’ve loved to see what would’ve happened if the brave little toaster was computer animated. I’m not saying that it would make the film better since going on cartoon brew has taught me that the brightest bells and whistles don’t necessarily make the story better; but it would’ve been interesting to see if having the first completely computer animated film released almost ten years prior to “Toy Story” would’ve made for more progress today.

  • “I would’ve loved to see what would’ve happened if the brave little toaster was computer animated.”

    They did it last summer. I was called “Toy Story 3.”

  • So this is the project that got Lasseter fired from Disney?

    Any record of how long the test took to do?

  • Mike Gabriel

    God bless the visionaries and dreamers. John saw the glories of this direction for animation before anybody else, including me, who was at Disney at the time. He was—and is—a believer in the things yet to be. But for John, first and foremost, always, is the emotion of the character’s journey regardless of medium. Tools to tell your story that’s what animation is all about Charlie Brown.

  • Mike

    now that was great cg, the combination of MAGI and Disney was a winner; this could have been a great feature, the flow of the sequence is awesome…. maybe we can also finally see “Oilspot and Lipstick” again…

  • Andy Prisney

    Ciao from Italy,great website!!!Fantastic this video!!! Someone can find “Oilspot And Lipstick” I remember it, but it is unavailable! Can help me? Thanks.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      I almost had a chance to get it on 35mm one time myself but passed it up.

      What I didn’t pass up on was the chance my mom managed to tape a special off The Disney Channel back in it’s “Premium” days when they showed some unique stuff in it’s early years. They did a doc. about computer animation that showed this very same footage you’re seeing here. Although seeing it as a 7 year old, I had the impression it was a clip from a longer production that was still in the works, and got rather depressed that all we have is this 30 second clip. But still, it showed where the seeds were sowed!

      • BrianR

        Pretty sure you’re referring to “Beyond Tron”. It’s a great special, documenting the current state of computer animation ca. 1983. I remember seeing it on the Disney Channel in its early days. I uploaded it to Youtube a couple years ago, but it didn’t last long before being pulled. Even though to my knowledge it’s never been released on video.

  • “Hey John, We decided to put an article about your recent CG experiments in our Disney Newsreel…PS you’re fired”

  • snip2345

    At which point in the article does it state that John was fired for this? Or is that common knowledge designed to make me feel out of the loop?

    • No, the article does not say he was fired. In interviews Lasseter has said he was fired after the exploratory CG work he was doing didn’t show any immediate path to cost savings over traditional methods.

      I presume this is the CG work.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        You could sorta say he was at least trying here. Certainly the route of hand-drawn characters over a CG background was quite a new thing but perhaps wasn’t quite in the forecast for the studio just yet (though it happened anyway).

  • David

    This video has been on YouTube for years now and it was also documented in “The Pixar Story”

  • Pedro Nakama

    You have to find the one that has Tim Burton working on “Vincent.”

  • David

    This video has been on YouTube for years now. It was also seen in “The Pixar Story”

  • X

    Funny thing is that with the technology we have today this look and marriage of 2d and 3d can be easily done yet Disney hasn’t yet explored it to its full potential. From what I can tell they are turning their backs on 2d. Can anyone explain why PATF is called a failure it made $270 million and the production cost was more around $60 million not $107 million, I was there at Disney and worked on it. Hopefully they will find some direction. Maybe they should think about asking Brad bird to a 2d film now there’s an idea.

    • ChrisHerself

      After The Iron Giant, Brad Bird could serve me a turd sandwich and I’d eat it with a grin on my face.

  • HH

    “This is NOT the future of animation, YOU’RE FIRED!”