Saturday, December 19, 2009

Remembering a pioneer in PC animation software: "Autodesk Animator"

Two months ago, October 2009, marks an interesting anniversary for animation: It’s been 20 years since animation software was available in any meaningful form for the PC platform.

Around October 1989, Autodesk released an extremely well written and revolutionary MS-DOS art program that worked on even an Intel 286 chip: Autodesk Animator.

Everybody hates it when old people start saying “I remember when,” but you cannot imagine the excitement I had when this software was first released. It literally made me buy my first computer: A Packard Bell 286 computer from a catalog-department store called Service Merchandise. The computer had a 40 megabyte hard-drive and 1 megabyte of RAM.

You young people need to pause for a moment and consider what I just said: My dream computer had less than 1/8000th the amount of RAM present in your pocket mp3 player. It did NOT come with a mouse, monitor, modem, network card, sound card (they actually barely existed then until SoundBlaster shook up the scene), CD-DVD-whatever drive…and so on. By the time I added the monitor and bought a mouse to install (yes, it was sold separately), the price was up to $4K in 1989 dollars.

Then I got a video card that was supposed to output to TV for another $900 (It barely worked).

Then I bought a drawing tablet from Summagraphics (later to be bought by Wacom) from a mail order company that later became CDW.

Then, I fired up my machine to make my first animation on the computer.

I don’t have the original files. This is from a videotape, made with that awful video card and recorded onto SVHS. It was actually played on the original 286 computer. See if you can guess when the computer was getting seriously strained…

It looked like crap! The sound had to be added afterwards by starting a reel-to-reel tape at the exact moment the animation started. The scene to scene transition was so horrible due to the slow graphics, you had to start and stop the VCR on each scene to primitively edit the movie. I am amazed it looked as good as it did!

Was this a step up from Super 8mm movies that I did in the pre-computer animation era? You decide. Here’s a Super 8mm clip:

My film animation, even on cruddy Super 8mm stock and with 3x4 inch drawings is so much better.

Autodesk Animator was a breakthrough product on the PC that was only somewhat successful, even when the price dropped to a third of its introductory price ($300 to $99). Unfortunately, it was confined to 320 by 200 resolution, 256 colors, and no sound. The graphics on the PC were strangled by a narrow bus, so even a fast PC (486’s were starting to appear) was not sufficient for a decent video experience.

On the other hand, it had a fascinating interface that was designed for artists and was fast and easy to use. It somehow did all of its work without crashing on virtually no memory in an operating system that hated graphics. It also shipped with a remarkable number of utilities that converted animations from other platforms, including the vastly superior Amiga (more on that in a later post).

I kept trying to create something worthwhile on the platform, but never succeeded. Here was another attempt that was never finished… for reasons that are obvious. I’m embarrassed to put this up, but here it is.

Around 1991, Autodesk came out with a second product: Animater Pro, which listed for about $800 and could do higher resolution animations. It seriously stumbled for about a year while the immature PC platform tried to speed up its video bus. By 1993, the program was stabilized and worked very well. I was able to produce a couple of animations on the platform that did not look too bad.

The program still had some problems. It did not do sound at all and there was still no decent way to export your product to video and television without a lot of expensive hardware.

In 1995, Autodesk released its final 2-D animation software: Animator Studio. It advertised the software heavily. It featured sound and an unlimited color spectrum. Unfortunately, it managed to hit the scene at an awkward time. PC’s were about to receive a revolutionary update, Windows 95, which required an urgent update for Autodesk. Clean, television friendly video output was still very difficult. Worse, the program was clumsy and simply did not run very well. It was difficult to create animations in the program. I played with the program for a long time and created nothing useful.

In 1996, output to video became possible as affordable (but still expensive) m-jpeg systems began to appear. Finally, you could output a broadcast quality signal. Unfortunately, the tools for animation were no longer receiving support from Autodesk. I did manage to create a few animations for broadcast, using Animator Pro in MS-DOS and then porting them over to Windows and adding sound. One of them got a lot of television play locally for more than a year. See if you can spot the drawing pixels…

Unfortunately, Autodesk has long departed from its attempts at 2-D animation software (though not from high quality video effects and 3-D animation software). The PC platform was poorer for Autodesk’s 2-D Animation departure.

So, let us take an “animation pause” and remember Autodesk.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Big Day Today for Disney and Toon Boom

This is a big day for Disney and Toon Boom.  Too many years have passed since Disney released an actual hand-drawn motion picture.  Today, the studio releases "The Princess and the Frog" to rave reviews.

What's especially cool about this release is knowing the studio did the entire production on the same Toon Boom software I use to create my animations. 

It looks like Disney has remained true to its long tradition of high quality drawn animation.  Let's hope it does well at the box office.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

End of Year Top Health Stories of 2009

End of year lists: Top Health Stories of 2009 included the following:

1. Health Care Reform dominated the news with talk about "Death Panels" terrifying seniors who feared being bumped off early to make way for younger patients.  It was, of course, total nonsense.  The mere fact that anyone took it seriously is a sad commentary on the state of our nation.

2. In second place, H1N1 dominated the news.  Patients became frantic about getting vaccines for both the regular flu and H1N1.  The fact that children were at greatest risk for death from H1N1 did not deter older adults from pushing to the front of the line. 

3. Breast cancer recommendations took a leap into the bizarre as women under 50 were advised against mammograms, defying all previous guidelines.  Since my practice partner had her cancer caught at age 48 by a mammogram (link to story), we took particular offense at these recommendations.

4. A story that got a lot of local attention was the banning of smoking in bars. As a rabid anti-smoking fanatic, I still could not get much energy up for this one.  Good grief!  It's a BAR, not the YMCA!!!

5. Finally, a drug too many of us are familiar with, Coumadin, may have finally met its match.  Coumadin is life saving, but a nightmare of deadly side effects.  It is also labor intensive to monitor on the part of both doctors and patients.  A replacement that does not require monitoring may be on the way!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Curse of the Scrambled Cursor..... is SOLVED!

Since Windows 7 arrived, Tablet PC users working in portrait mode have battled the curse of the duplicate and scrambled cursor.  It was confusing, headache inducing, and annoying. 

It remained through multiple beta and final revisions of Windows 7.  Much to our horror, it remained in the final release.

The appearance looked like:

Now, the solution has been found!

Go to Control Panel

Find "Mouse Properties"
Go to "Pointer Options"
Put a check mark in the "Display Pointer trails"
Slide the bar over to "short"
Apply the changes and then restart journal.

This problem seems to have been solved. I am a heavy Journal user and this has driven me CRAZY!!!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

It’s the “Windows 7 Rant!”

I’ve been listening to the non-stop computer press love affair with Windows 7. Upgrade your PC’s! Don’t be afraid! This time Microsoft has done it right!

Well, not exactly…

We have a lot of laptops in our office and home. We try to stick with major brands and configurations. A few built desktops are in our home, but mainly we have Tablet PC’s, which tend to stick to basic Intel Motherboard and Graphics configurations. Thus, you would think these would be easy to upgrade.

Guess again!

Again, these are major brands: Lenovo, HP, Toshiba, Fujitsu. These have all been best selling tablet pc’s. Microsoft should know these machines!

Here are the issues:

1. Portrait mode on a tablet PC creates a double cursor. These machines were designed to be held and used like notebooks, using the tablet feature and Windows Journal or Office One Note. It’s usable, but you often get confused by the weird double cursor. This bug appears in every tablet we have and was present from even the Beta One days of Windows 7. Unfortunately, the bug was never fixed. I’ve spent A LOT of time on this. There is no fix.

2. Higher resolution laptop monitors have a strange habit of reverting to low resolution every 15 minutes or so and every time the system powers down or hibernates. Again, you have no idea how many hours I have spent trouble shooting this and looking for some sort of menu item, registry entry, driver change, etc. to try and keep the machine in it’s native screen resolution. The machine is a Fujitus 4220 tablet with SXGA screen. Incredibly frustrating!

3. Windows 7 acts oddly with networks. Hooking to a network can be a lengthy affair. Hooking to a network printer can be terribly slow. If you are having trouble with this, I’ve found a reboot often solves the problem.

4. My tablet art programs choke with Aero, the fancy glass appearance in menus that appears in Windows 7. This is disappointing, but not a deal killer. The solution: Turn off Aero. Good luck finding the menu choice. I tried to find it in the “help” menu. Instead, I had to use Google and the Internet. Hey, Microsoft! Help us out a little bit.

I’ve just started and am barely using the new OS. Why? I’ve been too busy trying to make is function!

Are there things to like? Of course! There are features I love, but they are currently overshadowed with these very irritating problems!

I bought several copies of the upgrade version to install. It looks like I may have some copies left over because some of these machines are going back to XP Tablet.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Toon Boom Event

This week, I attended the "More for Less" event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Toon Boom, the makers of animation software.

In the 1930's, Walt Disney was not content to only create an animation studio. He wanted to form an "animation community" to foster and enhance the art of animation. His efforts resulted in some of the finest animation of all time and, of course, ultimately led to the creation of the entertainment powerhouse we know so well today.

Joan Vogelesang, CEO of Toon Boom is attempting to create and foster a similar community, using the miracle of worldwide interactive communication. Animation is experiencing global growth. Skilled animators are now in short supply as studios across the world are created and expand. Yet, technology has changed the model. Animators no longer must congregate in a central Burbank, California headquarters as in Disney's day. Today, an animation studio can be virtual and literally span the globe.

The challenge is to change the thinking of traditional animators, particularly in this country. Though we must compete in this global economy, we can still be active participants. The message of the evening: We have the tools to do "more for less."

What is unique about Toon Boom compared to other companies has been its strong support of the animation community in all areas of the world.

Supporting the animation community was emphasized Wednesday evening and the excitement of the crowd at the D.C. event was obvious. The night started with a reception for a gathering of people from all areas of life, united by the common bond of animation. Most were total strangers before the event, yet the socializing was enthusiastic as everyone shared their thoughts, plans, and project hopes.

Joan Vogelesang's opening introduction was vigorous and inspiring. No sign of economic downturn here! Animation is growing even as the economy struggles (an observation, incidentally, also noted by Disney as he contemplated his studio in the midst of the Great Depression 75 years ago).

She then turned over the stage to company CTO Francisco Del Cueto who skillfully demonstrated the high points and capabilities of Toon Boom's various software products.

Cynically, we may remind ourselves that Toon Boom is in the business of selling software. Yet, this multiple city tour by the CEO and CTO is serving a purpose far beyond a simple sales pitch. This meeting inspired a sense of community among a scattered group of Washington, D.C. animators who were looking for motivation, ideas, and help. Contacts were made and concepts were discussed. Who knows what will emerge as a result of this meeting?

I have been using Toon Boom's animation products for the past six-plus years. I pay for their software and upgrades, so I have not been bribed to say nice things. The company's attention to detail is remarkable. This is also a studio in the big leagues. They make the animation software that runs Disney. Yet, they treated a group of rag-tag artists and animators like equals. Toon Boom is an involved, socially aware and active company.

All summer long, this tour has been in place, moving across the country. Frankly, I worried as I fought traffic Wednesday from Virginia to D.C. at the height of rush hour, that I was walking into a tedious sales event. I was pleasantly surprised. This tour is a wonderful idea.

No doubt, these presentations and gatherings are an expensive project for them. Hopefully, it will be repaid by many lifetimes of goodwill as the community continues to adopt their products.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

H1N1 News Conference

As if to emphasize the recent bad press regarding the unreliability of "the cloud," YouTube Video has managed to become unreliable in hosting some of my animations. Here's the H1N1 update animation posted on Dailymotion:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

H1N1 News Conference

This is very serious. Please watch this carefully.

Website fixed

After several years of patching up the same home page, it was becoming a slow-loading bloated mess. I've redone the page from scratch. I can't code direct html like Andrew, but I can fumble in Front Page and embed YouTube videos!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Healthcare Debate

Okay.... Here's my input to the healthcare debate...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Save Wilderness Battlefield!

The new animation to support the effort to save the Civil War Battlefield in Wilderness is finally finished.

This short little 30 second spot took a lot of animating and uses the great new features in Toon Boom's latest software: Animate Pro.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

DEVO is back!

All is right with the world.

Good news, America!

Everything is going to be okay again....

"DON'T SHOOT" - DEVO from DEVO Channel on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Studio 5 Announced

Holy Cow! There’s a sudden slew of software announcements coming from Toon Boom. The latest news: Toon Boom Studio version 5 is coming.

It looks like the added features allow you to do more with imported video and rotoscoping. I’ve played with rotoscoping in the past and found the effects to be interesting.

Improved export options will be available. Frankly, Studio has always been very good at exporting video to different formats, so I’m having trouble imagining how this could be improved. It sounds like it will be more seamless in interacting with web video services.

It’s their lower end animation product, yet it does things and has an ease of use that is unmatched in more expensive programs from other companies. This is a program for professionals, regardless of how they portray it.

If you are just starting in animation, Toon Boom Studio is the place to begin your adventure. Then you can upgrade and you lose no money in the process.
Go ahead! Make the leap!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Animate Pro.... I can't wait!

When Toon Boom comes out with a new animation product, I immediately use the product to create my next animation. This often feels like plunging into a cold swimming pool, such as when Solo first came out, but once you get used to the program, you really can get to know it well as you work out the kinks.

When Solo first came out, I used it to create the cell phone animation where the girl goes “blah, blah, blah” while driving. There were times that I felt I was immediately pushing the software to its limits and I certainly pushed my tablet pc to its rendering limits. When I was done, though, I really felt like I’d learned a lot of the program, though certain elements still remain a bit mysterious to me.

When Digital Pro came out, I repeated the procedure.

Just for the heck of it, I also use the lower end product, Studio, for projects when a new update comes out, just to play with the program. Studio is still an amazing piece of software for the price.

Now, I’m anxiously awaiting Animate Pro. In particular, I’m waiting for the ability to create basic three dimensional worlds, even though the style is still flat two dimensional.

The reason behind this anticipation: I’m stuck. I’m working on an animation to help with the current campaign to save the Wilderness Battlefield area from rampant development.
Walmart is moving in and I suspect more will be coming. I created a setting for the animation that takes place in a huge department store. The problem is I want to do some camera moves that can only be done if I massively recreate scenes. What I’m doing now is simply not holding together well in Digital Pro. I believe the Animate Pro tools will fix my dilemma.

So, my next animation will use Animate Pro. I keep anxiously checking my email for its release. In the meantime, I’m using Storyboard Pro to create newspaper cartoons. Hopefully, I can create enough of them to give me time to dedicate to the animation.

Hmmm…. Maybe I should check my email-box again. Toon Boom might have something for me…..

Monday, April 13, 2009

EMR... We're all DOOMED!

A somewhat modified version of the Electronic Medical Records animation.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Animate Pro announced! HOO HA!!!

Great news for animators! Toon Boom has announced a new program to update "Digital Pro."

It's called "Animate Pro."

The coolest part of this program will be the ability to manipulate drawings in a 3-D space.

Several of my animations featured cars driving with the background moving from front to back. This simulation of a 3-D camera was actually a real pain in the neck with the current available programs. True, there is a limited 3-D capability in both "Digital Pro" and "Toon Boom Studio," but there are serious limits on the camera moves. On some of my animations, there are strange artifacts that start to appear with the cars on the road that I tried to conceal with character placement.

The 3-D camera will be very helpful in adding drama to limited animation. Yes, limited animation is wimpy, but when you are a lone animator and want to crank out a commercial spot quickly, you can maximize your quality by dramatic zooms or subtle perspective shifts.

"Animate Pro" will be a top end product for serious animators. The current upgrade prices seem very reasonable to me, though.

Check it out at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Intuit Quick Books is trying to kill me

Intuit software makes Quickbooks Pro, the standard for company accounting. It's pretty much a mandatory piece of software that must be updated regularly. We started the company with the 2002 version, updated in 2005, and were advised to update to the current 2009 by our bookkeeper

I've dreaded this moment.

To put it simply, Quickbooks updates its software for one major reason: It wants to turn your company files into an incompatible format that will require everyone in your management: bookkeepers, accountants, etc. to also update the software. This keeps everyone paying an annual ransom of $100 to $200 per year per machine installed.

Quickbooks also demands that you physically call the company to activate the product. You cannot use that new fangled internet thing. First, you wait on hold because all operators are busy. Then, you must try to spell “Mussey,Sarber, & Associates, P.C.” to some poor underpaid guy in a third-world cubicle and hope he doesn't mistake your “s” for an “f.” Then he gives a sales pitch, which he mercifully cut short when I let it be known my agitation level was sky high because the software appeared to be scrambling our company books.

Anyway, attempts to resume our company's entire lifetime numbers began to result in all sorts of messages: “The files must be updated and converted and the process will ONLY take 30 minutes or so.” Then: “The company files appear to be in a corrupt form. Do you want to recover?”


So, I click yes and the machine chugs along, advertising in the sidebar about other features they want to sell me for hundreds of bucks more than the annual ransom fees.

The books have been “recovered.” I am temporarily reassured... until I try to back up our files. “The files are corrupt. Do you want to recover?”

When I hit this error message five times in a row, a cold sweat begins to drip on my forehead as I start to hyperventilate. I try to find help on the Intuit forums. It turns out this nightmare is a special “feature” in the 2009 version that requires careful review of the “qbwin.log” file to decipher.

This is, of course, easy if you programmed the program yourself and you don't make the mistake of thinking the “qbwin.log” file is in the main program directory. No! It's scattered somewhere else. It turns out that opening the “qbwin.log” file located in the Quicken program directory actually gives you the 2005 file!

Silly me.

A special help page on the Intuit knowledge base helps you find the particular “qbwin.log” file that is in use now. It's “easy” to access it! You go to the “about” screen, hit F3, then hit F4, then hit alt-F5, face North and bang your head on the spacebar. It actually works!

Thank goodness Intuit provides such “intuitive” menus! Just send me the damn paycheck and I'll write the 2010 version myself!!!

Amazingly, going through all the equal signs and hieroglyphics, I find the line that I think points to the verification error. The message is a strange “identification” error. Intuit's help-page asks me to copy and paste the error message into their Intuit “error help” search site and assures me the answer will become obvious. I paste the piece of error text: It comes up with zero. Intuit has no idea what the error message means. I'm screwed.

I scan the Intuit customer support forums some more and find a slew of angry messages from customers who are having this identical problem even after MONTHS of trouble-shooting, tech support phone time, email exchanges with Intuit, reinstalls, etc. When you try and call Intuit's third-world based support site, all you get is an unhelpful request to reinstall the program and try again. This takes 30-plus minutes per install and never works, based on the angry customer complaints.

The stakes here are not trivial. This is the entire accounting history of my medical practice here! When it gets scrambled, I might as well bring my own handcuffs to the IRS audit.

Anyway, I figured out a "work-around" for the error. I simply turned OFF "backup verification."

Maybe this is how AIG's downfall started.

I can hardly wait for “Electronic Medical Records.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Amiga Computer: After all these years we still miss it!

This is a magnificent animation by Amiga Animator Eric Schwartz that tries to describe the incredible fondness many animators and video specialists held for the Amiga Computer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If you never had an Amiga, you would never understand it....