017 > TRUE or FALSE
Tony Pritchett at the ICA's Cybernetic Serendipity retrospective, 2014.

017 > TRUE or FALSE

> Tony Pritchett created the first computer-animated character in the world.

A bold statement, but I believe it to be true.

I’m not a computer art, film or animation historian, but in this post, I’m going to explain how I’ve arrived at this conclusion. It’s. a bit of a long blog post!

// Dunno what modest Tony would have thought about this – and personally I’m not someone who thinks it’s important to be the ‘first’ or the ‘best’. However, there’s a lot of disinformation out there online (in case you weren’t already aware) and so I thought I’d do my best to set a few records straighter.

The Flexipede is what us animators call, ‘character animation’. The creature appears to be sentient. It is alive and reacting to it’s environment.

In my humble opinion, the little creature gives is the world’s first comedy performance in a CG cartoon.

AND – I would dare to claim that Tony created the world’s first computer generated animated story. Not a lot happens – but it the film does have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.

// Tony was a wonderful storyteller with a great sense of humour and comic timing.

So, IF The Flexipede =  character animation, is it the world’s first?

The Flexipede was created in 1967.

The Tony Pritchett Archive contains loads of documents (correspondence, listings etc) showing that it was created over a 6 month period.

The master negative (made from the cutting copy) is dated 18/12/’67.

It’s pretty safe to say that it was created in 1967.

Schrödinger’s Kitty – I would say this cat appears to be ‘alive’. It’s what us animators call, ‘character animation’. More about this later.

Allegedly, in 1968 a group of Soviet physicists and mathematicians lead by Nikolai Nikolaevich Konstantinov, created ‘Koshechka’ (Kitty) using a BESM-4 computer. This has been referred to as:

“…the first computer animation of a character, a walking cat.”

I love the way the film looks and wanted to find out more about how it was made. I’ve found a paper published in 1974 but I don’t speak Russian – or computer. Luckily for me, Dr. Victoria Marshall kindly put me in touch with her colleague at STFC, Dr. Oleg Chekhlov.

A huge thank you to him for helping me understand the process by which ‘Koshechka‘ was made. To summarise: It involved printing out ‘W’ characters as listings and also adding hand drawn elements. It seems as if the ultimate goal was to let the computer work out the ‘mechanics’ of the movement – and then allow the artist to trace over and add all the fun acting bits and ‘the artists’ hand’. Sounds like a great idea to me!

Anyway, the film is clearly a GREAT ACHIEVEMENT, but it was created later than Flexipede. Sorry Kitty.

A frame from Tony and Benedict's animation 'Logic and the Computer' a number of films which were part of the 'Mathematics in Action' Series, (which ran from 1965 -1970).

// Tony and Dr. Benedict Nixon created some computer animation at the BBC to illustrate how a Turing machine functions. This was for a series of educational programs with the great title, ‘Mathematics In Action’. Like the makers of Koshechka, they used animated characters, printed on listings paper. They did not trace them, but did film them on a (BBC) rostrum stand. I have a few frames from the film, which is in a very bad state of repair. It seems likely that it was created in 1966. I’ll create a separate post about this at a later date.

In 1967 the brilliant Chuck Csuri together with programmer James P. Shaffer, created several animations, using Fortran in the Ohio State University’s IBM 360.

People name Sine Curve man as being the first, but the duo made other animations too – including arguably the most famous one, ‘Hummigbird’. Where as Sine Curve Man was output via pen plotter, Hummingbird was output onto a Calcomp 835 Microfilm recorder. Then there’s Hummingbird II, too.

Was Hummingbird the first computer-animated character? According to some of the internet, yes.

TP loved the original ‘Hummingbird’ and created a piece of animation based on it– which I will tell you more about some day.

Also just to say that I’m also a great admirer of Csuri ’s artwork and if you’ve never seen any I recommend taking a look.

The digitised creature drawn with outstretched wings, was ‘cut up’ into lines. These lines were transformed by the program written in FORTRAN, but whereas TP used FORTRAN to create what us animators call ‘character animation’, Csuri used it to do a thing called ‘morphing’.

Csuri took a line and told the computer to transform that line’s x/y co-ordinates over time, whereas what TP did was say to the computer, okay – this frame you draw these co ordinates…the next frame these… and so on – and he did this in such a way as to create, character animation working with the Flexipede’s ‘imaginary body mechanics’.

Morphing is a technique in the character animators tool kit, but Csuri didn’t use it to create character animation. The bird does not appear sentient like Kitty and Flexipede do, or to move using joints. It’s a manipulated still drawing, not a cartoon character with it’s own imaginary skeleton and physics. Does hummingbird care? Probably not. It’s in the MoMA.

Csuri never claimed to have created the first computer-animated character. He apparently agrees that he created the words first morphing images – (although at the time of the bird’s creation, the term hadn’t been coined.)

And so it looks like The Flexipede is still in the running as the world’s first computer animated character… if it weren’t that is, for Michael Noll with his Computer Ballet, made way back in 1965.

Computer Ballet (1965) by A. Michael Noll at Bell Labs. Nb. Both a 3D stereographic and a 2D version were created.

Noll used FORTRAN IV to program an IBM 360/65 (with 1MB of memory!) using the same technique as TP used to create Flexipede, whereby the film was output to a microfilm recorder. (SC4020 for Ballet. Benson Lehner for Flexipede).

In the film we see white lines on black – this is effectively a positive print – you see the white lines ‘drawn’ by the microfilm recorder. The Flexipede is a duplicate negative – so that’s why you see black lines on white.

Anyway, the point is, is that Noll did all this in 1965.

My initial statement, ‘Tony Pritchett created the first computer-animated character in the world’, is FALSE. : (

But – those dancers… I just don’t see them as appearing ‘alive’. As a character animator, I’d say Noll’s Computer Ballet is motion graphics and not character animation. But it’s subjective.

I personally think that it’s fair to say that The Flexipede is the world’s first computer generated character animation and the first ‘illusion of life’ achieved through animation.

Compare the Flexipede’s spiral eye reacting to stimulus onscreen… this is animation acting. A facial expression. It is what we call a ‘take’. Noll’s ballet dancers are wonderful but wether they are acting or not is debatable. I suppose you could get into a whole thing about dance and performance here. They’re acting with their whole bodies – but I just think it looks like motion graphics to me – not little like stickmen dancing about.

Anyway, this post is getting way too long.

And who am I to judge anyway? Just some character animator who’s learned how to press few Adobe software buttons :)K

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