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MEET THE ROBINSONS

Animating The Robinsons
In 2005, Walt Disney Feature Animation added its first fully computer-animated feature film to its long list of technological achievements with the release of "Chicken Little.” For the first time, that film put computer tools in the hands of some of the industry's top artistic talents. They, in turn, adapted such classic Disney animation principles as "squash and stretch”—a technique that lends a rounded quality and vibrant, fluid motion to characters—to the CG world with endearingly zany results.

But the characters of MEET THE ROBINSONS would stretch Disney's animators even further and in entirely new directions by presenting them with a species they'd never animated in a computer before: human beings.

The filmmakers knew it wouldn't be a simple transition. After all, digitally animating humans in lifelike ways has proven fraught with complications in its very brief history. For all the amazing progress computers have made over the last few years, they still haven't quite matched up to the incredible variability of human characteristics. That means compromises have to be made—but for Steve Anderson, the key was making sure, no matter the technical difficulties, that the Robinsons would come off as far more than "cartoon cutouts” and become people the audience actually cares about.

Animation supervisor Michael Belzer also began his career in the traditional animation world on such films as "The Nightmare Before Christmas” and "James and the Giant Peach” but then did a stint at Pixar where he dove headfirst into the cutting-edge of digital technology. For Belzer, MEET THE ROBINSONS was a chance to combine the classical artistry of Disney with the thrilling new future of digital animation that can go where even animation never went before.

"I think it is a really fun time to be an animator,” says Belzer, "because we're applying all the history of the past to these new forms, and we had a great opportunity to do that in MEET THE ROBINSONS. We all loved the story so much, it really inspired us.”

Belzer oversaw a team of some 66 animators and assistant animators for a period of close to three years. From the beginning, he was keenly aware of the outsized proportions of the mission. "The biggest challenge was going to be animating human beings,” he explains.

"Because we already live in a 3-D world, and our brains are very in tune with that, an audience will notice even the littlest things that are off when it comes to human characters, whether it is their articulation or the way their hair moves or the way their clothing wrinkles. We used the same technology as on ‘Chicken Little'but to create a very different type of animated world. And of course with every new digital film, the artists are always looking to improve the techniques.”

For Belzer, that meant delving into the tiniest of textural details. "For example, we spent a lot of time adding wrinkles and a more tactile feeling to all of the clothing in the film, which makes the world feel that much more palpably real,” he says. "One really tough area was Bowler Hat Guy's cape, which created a visual challenge because you have to pay very close mind to any silhouette. For the first time, we actually gave the animators some digital tools to do initial cloth simulations themselves so they could work out a lot of the kinks before we sent it on to the cloth department.”

Belzer notes that an area where, even in the digital era, Disney still does things in a distinctive way is in assigning all the main characters his or her own supervising animator. "It's really an exciting way of working and was key to MEET THE ROBINSONS because there are so many unique characters that you can put a lot of personality into,” he comments. "This way, we have animators who really understand who the characters are and their most subtle

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