Animation is undeniably one of the great unsung heroes of the entertainment industry. The groundbreaking concepts achieved in an animated film simply do not receive the same acclaim as would a brilliant car-chase in a live-action movie. When it comes to Disney, there are who believe that the animation department exists for the sole purpose to create toys and collectables that can turn a big profit at theme parks. It is easy to assume that corporate giants are behind these creations and forget that there are passionate artists whose inventions were made in the pursuit of art that are the heart and soul of each production. Such inventions like Deep Canvas, a piece of technology whose conception is inextricably tied to the last great Disney Renaissance film have brought these artists into the public eye.
Deep Canvas is a piece of software, similar to the earlier Pixar-designed CAPS program. Animators were able to create drawn art in a computer-generated 3D space, after it was developed for use in the 1999 film Tarzan. In a groundbreaking manner, the software "recalled" where strokes had been made, and as the camera was moved about kept the background in perspective. It was essentially as nifty as characters running through artwork. The CAPS system, impressive as it had been in older Disney films (and excellent in the creation of large environments), didn't measure up to the look produced by the Deep Canvas technology.
The work on Deep Canvas was the brainchild of Dan St. Pierre, who was working as the layout artist on Tarzan. Having been used a great number of times in film and TV, the story of a man in Africa having been raised by apes, was already famous; audiences already knew his propensity towards swinging on vines through the treetops. The audience was able to (seemingly) swing and fly along with Tarzan, through jungle treetops, thanks to the Deep Canvas technology that Disney employed.
Deep Canvas was born out of the production designers' need to make the African jungle as realistic as possible, knowing the importance of Tarzan's relationship with it. The CAPS and Pixar-helmed computer animations of the time were impressive, but to a great degree they still looked very much like video game levels. When traditionally animated characters were imposed on top of those backgrounds, the result was often jarring. With Deep Canvas, the backgrounds looked just as painted and stylized as the foreground elements, and the result was near-total audience immersion. Interestingly, the Tarzan scenes seemed like they were filmed even though no camera was used in the traditional animation.
The end result was met with praise from film critics, moviegoers, and industry professionals. Daniel St. Pierre received an Annie Award for his achievements in animation production design, and the creators of Deep Canvas were awarded a Technical Achievement Academy Award in 2003. Following Tarzan's success, it was used for sequences in other Disney films like Atlantis: Treasure Planet and The Lost Empire. However, with the decline of traditional animation in the 2000s, Deep Canvas wasn't used a great deal before the company decided to change its direction. This highly developed and specialized software has Tarzan as it's landmark production so far.
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