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.
Questions and Answers about Hunger
Q: What kind of computer and hardware were used?
A: 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).
Q: Were there parts where inbetweening was manual and not computer done -- this seemed the case where the woman was dancing?
A: 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!
Q: When exactly was the system and the film done?
A: 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.
Q: What were the prizes that it won and were any related to the technology as opposed to for the film in general?
A: 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.