Animation History

The quest for depth

The rise and fall of the multiplane camera in animation.

In the world of 3D animation, the illusion of depth is a luxury that comes for free. We can create immersive three dimensional environments and animate characters moving through them with ease. But it wasn’t always this way.

Primitive beginnings

In the early days of animation, both the characters and their environments were crudely drawn and decidedly flat in nature. Backgrounds contained only the bare essentials required to stage a piece of action and get a laugh.

This situation was partly the result of early animators coming from cartooning backgrounds but also the economics of producing animated shorts at the time simply didn’t allow for a greater level of detail.

Through the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, as the Walt Disney Studio grew and achieved increasing success, a greater emphasis was placed on increasing not only the believability of the performances but the dimensionality of the characters and the worlds they inhabited.

As higher calibre artists were employed, the characters quickly evolved from their primitive beginnings to have more solid and dimensional forms.

The quality of the background art was also increasing. Elaborate, dimensional, paintings were being created which gave a feeling of depth but, however beautifully painted a background might be, this illusion of depth was shattered as soon as the camera started to move.

The source of the problem

In traditional, hand drawn, animation, the final image was typically created by first tracing the animator’s drawings onto transparent sheets of celluloid using ink. Paint was then applied to the rear of these “cels” and they were placed on top of a painted background before being photographed onto film.

In order to create the illusion that the camera was moving through the scene, it was possible to either move the background image slightly for each frame of film or to move the camera towards or away from the image.

Whilst this system could create an illusion of motion through an environment, the results were basic. All elements within a scene would move at the same rate regardless of how far from the camera they were meant to appear.

Imagine looking out of the window of a car in motion. Objects close to the car flash past in a blur whilst more distant objects hardly seem to move at all. This is the parallax effect which was missing in early animation.

Solving the parallax problem

To overcome this limitation, and enable more complex filmmaking techniques, a new type of camera system was needed.

Various studios experimented with finding solutions to this issue, each of them employing variations on the same theme.

By placing different elements of the background art on sheets of glass, it become possible to move them independently and create the effect of parallax. The multiplane camera was born.

Whilst the Walt Disney Studio was not the first to employ a multiplane camera, they were arguably the studio which first perfected and elevated its use.

Developed for Snow White, but first put to use in 1937 on their Oscar winning short film The Old Mill, the Disney version of the multiplane camera was a huge contraption requiring a team of technicians to operate.

Standing around 15 feet tall, with a downward facing camera, it could accommodate up to seven individual planes of artwork each of which could be moved in multiple directions.

By varying the speed at which each was moved, it was finally possible to simulate the effect of a camera moving through an environment.

Not only were parallax effects made possible by this system, it was also possible to add depth of field, where individual elements of the scene move in or out of focus as the camera appears to move through the scene.

You can watch Walt Disney introduce and explain his multiplane camera in this video:

Beyond the multiplane camera

Following its debut in 1937, Disney made use of the multiplane camera on its feature films from Snow White all the way through to The Little Mermaid in 1989.

After this time, the multiplane process went entirely digital through Disney’s proprietary Computer Aided Production System (CAPS). This system allowed for far more complex camera moves with greater layers and depth than were achievable with the traditional cameras and was used until Disney closed their traditional animation department in 2004.

Learning from the past

With the arrival of 3D, achieving a sense of depth is no longer the challenge that it once was but it’s easy to ignore the lessons of the past.

When everything was hand drawn or painted, it needed to be carefully planned and there was always a clear consideration of where to place elements to enhance the feeling of depth.

Even in a 3D environment, if we don’t think about our composition carefully then we won’t get the full depth enhancing effects of parallax or depth of field.

Equally, when we plan our animation it is important to consider how we can move our characters through space, both towards and away from the camera, rather than simply across it.

Taking the multiplane camera into the third dimension

There are now a number of different pieces of software in which we can replicate the effect of the multiplane camera, one of which is Blender.

I am currently working on a new class which will not only show you how to replicate the effect of a multiplane camera but also go beyond that simple effect by incorporating 3D elements with a painted background to create the feeling of a three dimensional illustration.

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