Emru Townsend: Michael, your comment on aesthetics was interesting--given your experience, do you have any thoughts on how the aesthetics of computer animation have changed throughout the span of your career?
MC: Fundamentally little has changed, the image quality has improved but the nature of the images remains the same. The "Frankenstein complex" (the drive to recreate yourself) still seems to motivate much of CGI. One of the first pieces of computer animation (3D solid shaded raster graphics) was a black and white version of a human hand flexing done at the University of Utah in the late 70s; this year  at SIGGRAPH one of the highlights of the show was a very realistic human hand flexing created by someone at Alias, the same basic image only with added realism. This has come to an extreme with the advances in motion capture; now CGI characters can move almost exactly like their creators.
Much of the earliest computer animation was abstract by default; you couldn't do anything else. Now a sort of quasi-realism is the norm. Software packages tend to create a homogeneous look.
Still, the "wow" of the CGI image seems as important the image itself. The fact that an image is done "by" a computer still excites people.
In the old days image quality was much less important. The images could be very funky, now things keep getting more and more slick.
It's interesting that both of you remark on the "gosh-wow" factor of CGI. I find that many people, once they discover a production used computers, tend to dismiss it as being too easy because it was "all done by computers" or are automatically awestruck because it was "all done by computers." How do you react to this sort of thing, especially if it's from a client on a commercial project?
ED: There has been a lot of hype about computers and entertainment these days. I can't blame those who are not part of the process for believing that computer production work is all done by a computer program. In the end, if the product is good, and the audience believes in what it is seeing, and is entertained by what it sees, then I don't really care how they imagine the job got done. Most agency clients have seen tons of CGI and are not influenced much by the "gee-whiz" factor unless they see something truly different.
Usually the commercial client is not interested in the process as much as in the results. We try our best not to burden the client with the specifics of production (except for schedule and budget). We don't sit down in front of the computer with the client and have interactive sessions like at a post house. Instead we concentrate on the result; we look at the tape or film.
Most clients tend to be relatively conservative about their expectations for CGI. They know that it is easy to spend a ton of money and end up with something less than wonderful. When we bid a job at PDI, we try to make sure that we come up with a budget and schedule that will give the client what they want and will live up to our own standards, as well. That can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for some jobs, but we find that in most cases, our bids are in line with our main competitors. It is not unusual for the client to decide that our price is too high. And if competitive bidding doesn't give them a price they like, they'll end up changing their approach or going to a smaller house that might cost less and can hopefully still give them a reasonably good result. Agency clients that have been burned by this cost-cutting approach are the ones that usually end up jaded with CGI, and the odds are they won't use CGI again.
MC: Having been doing this stuff since 1979, I would have to say that the "gosh-wow" factor has changed over time. Earlier there was a sort of disbelief or complete lack of comprehension that a computer could be involved in making a image. Now there is a basic understanding that if something new comes along, chances are that is was done with a computer. For instance a comedian on a popular late night talk show was joking about ILM morphing black people into lamp posts in all Woody Allen movies shot in New York. Computer effects are now well known; terms like morphing, virtual reality and even ILM have worked their way into popular culture and are generally accepted. Despite this general awareness there is a lack of understanding of what is it we actually do, or what it is the computer does, etc. This becomes clear when dealing with clients. We can sometimes use this to our advantage and maintain a little more control over the process. As a rule of thumb some knowledge is a dangerous thing and very little knowledge is a blessing in disguise when accompanied with a trust that we know what we are doing.
Well, it looks like we're close to wrapping things up. Are you guys working on anything right now?
ED: Things are cranking along at a pretty good clip these days.
We continue to do character animation for commercials. Most recently I finished animating a couple of bathroom sign characters for a Budweiser commercial.
Now I've moved on to doing some animation tests for a potential entertainment job featuring computer-animated Warner Bros. characters. [Note: It seems to have worked out; Eric Darnell is no longer at PDI, and is now at Warner Bros.--Emru.]
We're also beginning work on a piece of animation for an upcoming episode of The Simpsons.
Finally, when I have the spare time I'm working on my next in-house project, Drive to Big Smoke, which I'd like to have finished sometime next year.
I think everyone in the industry is looking forward to the release of Pixar's feature film this fall [Toy Story], which I'm sure will be incredible, and should inspire even more interest in computer character animation as a very viable tool for entertainment.