Retired NRC Scientists Burtnyk and Wein honoured as Fathers of Computer Animation Technology in Canada

Sphere volume 4 1996

Canadians have helped to change the face of Hollywood over the past few decades through computer animation software, programming skills and technical direction for films like Jurassic Park, Disney's Toy Story, Jumanji, Apollo 13, Casper, the Flintstones, Interview with a Vampire, and many more.

As a result, computer animation is now a multi-million dollar business in Canada. Companies such as Montreal's Softlmage and Toronto's Alias/ Wavefront have not only helped to define international technical standards, but have assumed a leadership role within the computer software industry.

The Walt Disney Company's 1995 decision to locate major animation studios in Toronto and Vancouver is the latest evidence of Canada's strength in this field.

Many people have contributed to this national success. Visionary teachers, young technical wizards who have left for Hollywood, and brilliant entrepreneurs from coast to coast are important figures in Canada's computer animation story.

Yet it is clear that origins of our national leadership in the field can be traced to early work at the National Research Council almost 30 years ago. This research, which included many firsts in computer graphics, has been recognized by leaders in the industry for many years.

However, the story has not been well-known outside of professional circles. This changed in February when two of the key figures, retired 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.

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Above: "Hunger/La Faim" (National Film Board of 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