National Research Council of Canada


The following was taken from The Film Animator Today: Artists Without A Canvas, Science Dimension volume 3 issue 5 October 1971.

"Most potential users of computers," say Nestor Burtnyk and Dr. Marceli Wein of the Data Systems Section of NRC's Radio and Electrical Engineering Division, "are not particularly interested in programming, but they are interested in solving a problem. For them, the important thing is to be able to communicate freely with the computer in a way that is meaningful to them and relevant to their problem."

What the animator wants, they say, is a facility where he can do the kind of operation he wants to do. He doesn't have to have any knowledge of how the computer is programmed because the programs that provide him with this facility have been written by someone who understands computer programming.

A package of three-dimensional drawing and manipulating programs developed by NRC allows the animator to work with the computer. The animator sits at a display console with a cathode ray tube display, which is very much like a television set. He is provided with a variety of input and control devices such as keyboard buttons, knobs, thumbwheel encoders, a light pen and a hand-held positioner called a "mouse." With these devices, he draws and manipulates pictures in three dimensions directly on the display screen. A number of separate picture components, each capable of independent motion, may be manipulated separately as desired and then combined to form a composite picture.

A group of supporting graphic programs complements the 3D graphic package. A free-form sketching program allows the animator to create free-hand drawings. Other programs operating in conjunction with the package allow distortion by modification of picture components. Using the "mouse" to control position, the coordinates of selected points may be changed in any direction. In addition, selected parts of an image can be distorted by shaping. The animator therefore has available to him a greater freedom of choice and expression.

"The animator is attracted to the computer," says animator Pierre Moretti of the National Film Board, Montreal, "because it is able to handle complex visual structures that would involve a tremendous amount of handwork or which would be impossible to handle by conventional methods. In addition, viewing a sequence as it is being done can save the animator time since he doesn't have to wait for laboratory processing to evaluate his work. The hope of lessening the amount of tedious work involved in animation is very interesting to us."

A few years ago when it was necessary to rely on elaborate programming in order to work with the computer, it was mostly intriguing to the animator. However, since interactive systems have been developed, there no longer is any doubt that the computer is useful to the animator.

"'The use of this new tool," says Mr. Moretti, "may lead us to discovering new approaches to animation."

The technique of key-frame animation used in the NRC system involves the creation by the animator of isolated frames at key intervals during a sequence, with the in-between frames to be computed by interpolation. Since the pictorial content of successive key frames need not bear any particular relation to one another, a wide variety of transformations is easily produced.

selected frames of a walk sequence .
Above: Selected frames of a walk sequence. There are five key frames per cycle of the walk. Each key frame consists of three cels. (NRC)

Starting with a script and a story board, the series of key sketches that will progressively depict the action must be planned. These keys will include the extremes of all movements, since they will be used as the terminal points for interpolating the in-between frames. Once all the key frames have been established, the animator can begin preparing his picture components or cells by sketching the images directly on the display. As these picture cels are created, they are saved in the disc library for use at a later time. Each picture cel is interpreted as a 3D shape that may be scaled, rotated, and positioned as required. A composite cel for a key frame may be assembled by overlaying a number of individual picture cels. Pictures for subsequent key frames may be partially or completely redrawn, or alternately, may be derived by modification of existing pictures using one of the distortion routines.

The Data Systems Section, in collaboration with the National Film Board, already has made an experimental film which was shown at a conference of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers held in New York last October. NFB also has started work on a program of computerized animation films and expects to have its first 10-minute film ready some time this year.

. A promotional sequence from the CBC Graphics Department for a Network special
Above: Children of the World - A promotional sequence, designed by Philip Quan from the CBC Graphics Department for a Network Special.  Two excerpts are shown here. (CBC)

"Visiting artists," say Mr. Burtnyk and Dr. Wein, "are encouraged to experiment with our facility in order to help assess its usefulness in their creative work. So far their adjustment to this new medium has been generally favorable."

Will the computer replace the animator?

"The most important function of the animator," says Pierre Moretti, "is to create or to invent ideas - not to make thousands of drawings. I don't think the computer will have this type of imagination for some time - if ever!"

Reprinted courtesy of the National Research Council of Canada

. CANDU--A Consistent top 25 Performer
Above: "Hunger/La Faim" (National Film Board of Canada)

NRC scientists Nestor Burtnyk and Marceli Wein, were honoured at a new Festival of Computer Animation in Toronto. They were recognized as Fathers of Computer Animation Technology in Canada. Burtnyk, who began his career with NRC in 1950, started Canada's first substantive computer graphics research project in the 1960s. Wein, who joined this same project in 1966, had been exposed to the potential of computer imaging while studying at McGill. He teamed up with Burtnyk to pursue this promising field.

The Division of Radio and Electrical Engineering's Data Systems Group wanted to develop ways to make computers easier to use, and it settled on computer animation as the application to pursue after Burtnyk returned from a 1969 conference and heard an animator from Disney studios talk about how cartoons are made. In the traditional process, a head animator draws the key cels or pictures that demonstrate the actions. Assistants then draw the fill in pictures that carry the image from one key picture to the next.

The work of the artist's assistant seemed like the ideal demonstration vehicle for computer animation. Within a year, Burtnyk had programmed a complete "key frame animation" package that allowed the creation of animated sequences by providing only the key frames. The National Film Board in Montreal was contacted, and a project to allow artists to experiment with computer animation was started.

The first experimental film involving freehand drawings, called Metadata, was made by artist and animator Peter Foldes. This led to a more substantial collaboration on a 10-minute feature called Hunger/La Faim about world hunger and about rich and poor countries.

It took Foldes and his NRC partners a year and a half to make, and in 1974 it became the first computer-animated movie to be nominated for an Academy Award as best short. It received other honours, including the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and other international film awards.

The profile and the quality of Hunger inspired a generation of Canadian computer animators. NRC scientists gave lectures and held workshops, and pretty soon others joined the field, leading to computer animation courses and new companies across Canada.

At the February 1996 Festival of Computer Animation at the Ontario Science Centre, Burtnyk and Wein were presented with special trophies and letters from the Prime Minister recognizing their individual contributions and each as A Father of Computer Animation Technology in Canada.

Reprinted courtesy of the National Research Council of Canada


Questions and Answers about Hunger

These questions were asked to the creator of Hunger, Marceli Wein (mwein@WatCGL.UWaterloo.CA)

What kind of computer and hardware were used?

The computer was an SEL 840A - SEL later became Gould. It had wordlength of 24 bits, because it was a realtime computer for command and control and data acquisition. The 24 bits were well suited for 2 analog quantities such as 12 bit coordinates. Memory was 8K words or 24K bytes with 1.75 microsecond cycle time. The computer's realtime strength was in its interrupt system. There was no command line interpreter and all control was from the display, an IDI point plotting display (Carl Machover was VP of IDI). The graphics controller was home grown design and built in the lab at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

Were there parts where inbetweening was manual and not computer done -- this seemed the case where the woman was dancing?

All in-betweening was by software. The dancer was rotoscoped (traced from actual film) every 12th frame and then software interpolated. They actually filmed a gogo dancer in their building for the occasion!

When exactly was the system and the film done?

The project was started in 1969 and Nestor Burtnyk was the senior person reponsible for much of the software. Because he changed career directions he disappeared from the scene in the graphics community. The paper describing computer assised key frame animation was presented at the Fall 1970 SMPTE conference and appeared in the SMPTE Journal in March 1971. They made an experimental film with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and Peter Foldes in 1971 - Metadata - then started working on Hunger. The work was completed in 1973 but the optical work at NFB continued until the release in 1974. Peter Foldes commuted from Paris for three-week stints leaving the technical people to work on software enhancements between visits.

What were the prizes that it won and were any related to the technology as opposed to for the film in general?

The major prizes included: Cannes Prix du Jury, Academy Oscar Nomination, a prize at the Berlin Festival and five others. All were for artistic achievement. The Ontario Science Centre and the Film Institute gave them an award just last fall for the technical side of the work.


Interactive Skeleton Techniques for Enhancing Motion Dynamics in Key Frame Animation by Nestor Burtnyk and Marceli Wein in Communications of the ACM, October 1976, volume 19 #10, pp. 564-569


Name Came from Went to Comments
Marcelli Wein   U. Waterloo  

Nestor Burtnyk

Doris Kochanek      

Peter Foldes

Rene Jodoin