Thoughts on CGI

by Eric Schwartz
from the AmiTech Gazette, January 2015

Scanning through the Amiga news scene, there are a few things going on. An Amiga RGB to component video cable adapter is available, making a high quality TV hookup easier. I’m not sure of the exact nature of the adapter, but it would appear the compatibility with various Amiga video modes and scan rates depends on the versatility of your TV or monitor.

A small update to Personal Paint (version 7.3a) is available for 68K-based Amigas and OS4 systems, available through the AmiStore app store or direct download, or even on a CF card. As a long-time PPaint user, I’ll likely get a copy sooner or later, though what I really want to see is a version which runs on my MorphOS system without the ‘quirkiness’ of the legacy versions. Also available from the AmiStore is zTools 1.3, a package of useful system utilities and applications for OS4 systems. Finally, a new version (2.9) of AROS Vision, a drop-in OS replacement for classic 68K-based Amiga systems is available for free. It comes with a good amount of software included. I’ll admit I’m not sure what specific advantages AROS Vision offers over the Amiga OS 3.x, but if one has a spare classic machine to work with, it could be fun finding out.

As an Amiga fan, I have a long-standing interest in computer generated graphics and animation. I still like to try squeezing high-quality images and renders out of older software pretty often. The nature of computer-generated imagery has shifted over time as technology and horsepower have grown. Computer generated images and effects have been around longer than some people may assume, appearing in television shows and major motion pictures as early as the 1970s. by the 1990s, CG advanced to the point where nearly anything could be rendered to the screen realistically, and the tech just got faster and more powerful from there, until CG effects have come to be seen as cheap and overused (and often is, especially with those who are happy to substitute visual effects in place of things like cinematography or story telling). We can look at Toy Story, the first full-length CG animated movie, as a bit dated and primitive today (especially when viewing the humans or animals in that film), and compare to the film’s own sequels, which come off better. Improvements in technology and software are part of this, but another bit element is style. You’ve probably heard of the “uncanny valley”, the concept where, when something like an animation becomes a closer representation of a human or other familiar living thing, imperfections and differences are magnified in our perception, making it more off-putting than something less realistic. Pixar and other CG animation studios learned to avoid this by making their human characters more cartoony than realistic, as truly realistic rendered humans frequently seem more like moving mannequins or even corpses, at least until something truly indistinguishable from live action is achieved. The thing I find fascinating is while computer-animated cartoons are increasingly stylized and cartoony, the surface texture, at least in big time feature films, has pushed to be as photo-realistic as possible. Take a film like “Up”, for example. The main character has skin with pores and razor stubble, realistic hair and clothing, even though he’s a short stump of a man with a head that is literally squared-off. What excites me now is that, where the tech has made realism ‘easy’ now, experiments and variation in style and artistry are rising up again. While “The Lego Movie” is rendered in photo-real CGI (of plastic bricks), the animation is purposefully designed to look like something that could be achieved in stop-motion filming of real Legos (if they had access to the billions of pieces needed to make the huge set pieces seen on screen). On the way are CG films for Popeye and Peanuts. Early trailers for Peanuts are interesting as they closely resemble the animation style of the classic TV specials, even if Snoopy has a realistic fur texture now. On the other end of the spectrum, you have shorts like “Feast” and “Paperman” which change up the rendering, trading photorealism for something that could easily be mistaken for hand-drawn 2D animation. Cool, yet also a little sad when real 2D drawn animation is all but completely dead in US feature films. Still, it all goes to show what many of us Amiga users knew all along, and some filmmakers and executive have yet to learn - that computer graphics is a tool for artist creativity, and not an end unto itself.