Lascaux to Toy Story: the best trick ever invented

Lascaux Cave painting, Solutrean-Magdalenian period (19000 8000 BCE)As we fly in a simulated rollercoaster on a celluloid track past giant popcorn tubs and supergulp cups toward a computer-drawn docking station, an almost athletic feat of spatial imagination, a voiceover reminds us about gift certificates and concessions. I lean over and whisper, "What's amazing is that we expect this now."

By which I mean the quality of graphic animation that is now standard in commercials and movies and will perhaps soon be an expected part of resumés and term papers.

The movie theater opener popped a memory into my head of the earliest computer animated sequence I remember seeing, at the second Animation Festival at Coolidge Corner, the independent movie house in Brookline, Massachusetts. It consisted of geometric forms in that curiously airless, compressed yet limitless space that is the hallmark of the digital realm. Pyramids, cones, cylinders, spheres and cubes floated free of gravity as we looped around, above and below them, watching them turn on a ribbon of 'road' or zooming around them on a Renaissance piazza-like grid. Sometimes the shapes were upholstered in colored patterns like bad party shirts, then molded into seamless white columns and plinths and choreographed with classical music to convey the elegant potential of this new world.

It was a strangely moving portrayal of depth and volume. As an art student learning how to create the illusion of form in two dimensions in the time-honored way, with pencil and paper, I saw the pristine lines as the opposite of the scratchy drawings I loved in some of the contemporary hand-drawn films in the Animation Festival. Yet this new form held a power and a potential that couldn't be ignored. Here were the same principals of perspective I was learning applied in a medium so advanced and so new one could barely register its implications for the world of animation, let alone imagine how ubiquitous it would become in film and advertising.

It continues to impress me as an artist and a teacher that rendering space on a flat surface, whether with a stick on a cave wall, a pencil on paper, or a stylus on digital pad using the most sophisticated computer applications in the world, is still one of the best, most compelling tricks humans have ever invented. In the age of Wii and Xbox, HD and iPhone and every conceivable kind of entertainment at our fingertips, we continue to line up at $23 dollars a ticket to see innovators and masters of drawing and painting from Michelangelo to Picasso, and admire the graphic imaginations of contemporaries such as Julie Mehretu or William Kentridge.

In addition, at prices creeping close to those charged for blockbuster shows at major museums, we flock to see Toy Story 1, 2, 3 (and beyond?) - technically a collection of drawn shapes, colors and light flickering on a flat white surface. Highbrow, lowbrow, it's all drawing, and it's a damn fine trick.

In the darkened movie house in Brookline, I glanced over at my computer-literate friend, who understood far better than I the technical achievements and complexities involved. To my amazement, as she gazed at the closing credits for the blocks and spheres, tears streamed down her face. Of course she couldn't yet imagine the travesty of James Cameron's much touted yet unconvincingly rendered, upended Titanic, nowhere near as powerful as the clunky black-and-white original reenactment...but that's another story.

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Toy Story 2 in 3D Trailer