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kottke.org posts about Where Good Ideas Come From

Disney’s multiplane camera, an innovation in illusion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

In a short film shot in 1957, Walt Disney described the multiplane camera, one of the many inventions and innovations his company had developed in order to produce more realistic and affecting animations. Instead of shooting single cels of animation on a single movable background, the multiplane camera could shoot several independently moving backgrounds, creating a sense of depth and perspective. A 1938 article in Popular Mechanics explained how the camera works.

Disney wanted to increase the eye value of the many paintings making up a picture by achieving a soft-focus effect on the backgrounds, illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating” background from foreground, thus keeping background objects to their proper relative size.

His production crew labored for three years to perfect the novel picture-taking device to achieve these results. It consists of four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages may be shifted both horizontally and vertically. On each carriage rides a frame containing a sheet of celluloid, on which is painted part of the action or background.

Resembling a printing press, the camera stands eleven feet tall and is six feet square. Made with almost micrometer precision, it permits the photographing of foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first is held firmly in place two feet from the lens and the lowest rests in its frame nine feet away. Where the script calls for the camera to “truck up” for a close-up, the lens actually remains stationary, while the various cels are moved upward. By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features, retain their relative sizes.

After being deployed on a short film as a test, the multiplane camera was used to film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film. In the chapter on “Illusion” in his newest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson writes that the use of the multiplane camera (along with other innovations in animation developed since the days of Steamboat Willie) had a profound effect on audiences.

All of these technical and procedural breakthroughs summed up to an artistic one: Snow White was the first animated film to feature both visual and emotional depth. It pulled at the heartstrings in a way that even live-action films had failed to do. This, more than anything, is why Snow White marks a milestone in the history of illusion. “No animated cartoon had ever looked like Snow White,” Disney’s biographer Neil Gabler writes, “and certainly none had packed its emotional wallop.” Before the film was shown to an audience, Disney and his team debated whether it might just be powerful enough to provoke tears — an implausible proposition given the shallow physical comedy that had governed every animated film to date. But when Snow White debuted at the Carthay Circle Theatre, near L.A.’s Hancock Park, on December 21, 1937, the celebrity audience was heard audibly sobbing during the final sequences where the dwarfs discover their poisoned princess and lay garlands of flowers on her. It was an experience that would be repeated a billion times over the decades to follow, but it happened there at the Carthay Circle first: a group of human beings gathered in a room and were moved to tears by hand-drawn static images flickering in the light.

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion — the dancing mouse is whistling! — into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Interestingly, the multiplane camera also seems to be an instance of simultaneous invention (a concept also covered by Johnson in an earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From). In addition to Disney’s multiplane camera, there were a few earlier earlier efforts and it’s unclear whether they were invented independently or how one inventor influenced another. But one thing is for certain: only Disney’s camera was deployed so skillfully and artfully that it changed cinema and our culture forever.1

  1. Without getting into it (too much), I can’t help thinking of Pixar’s push to make Toy Story. There’s always an emphasis on the technology with Pixar, but Lasseter and the rest of them were huge animation nerds…and Walt Disney nerds in particular. They were interested in telling stories and they believed, like Disney, that developing new technologies could help them do that more effectively. Toy Story was Pixar’s Snow White and their subsequent movies (Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Ratatouille) have shown how successful they were in telling affecting stories with 3D computer animation.

How to invent things: edit your mess

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2013

In an essay that covers similar ground to Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, David Galbraith offers an interesting perspective on maximizing your creative potential.

I remember the very instant that I learned to be creative, to ‘invent’ things, to do things in an interesting and unusual way, and it happened by accident, literally.

I created mess around myself, the kind of chaos that would be very dangerous in an operating theater but which is synonymous with artists’ studios, and in that mess I edited the accidents. By increasing the amount of mess I had freed things up and increased the possibilities, I had maximised the adjacent possible and was able to create the appearance of inventing new things by editing the mistakes which appeared novel and interesting.

The adjacent possible is one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you want to apply to everything around you.

Johnson and Kelly on ideas

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2010

Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson talk about their new books, What Technology Wants (Kelly) and Where Good Ideas Come From (Johnson).

Kelly: The musician Brian Eno invented a wonderful word to describe this phenomenon: scenius. We normally think of innovators as independent geniuses, but Eno’s point is that innovation comes from social scenes,from passionate and connected groups of people.

Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity-there’s far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.

Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.

Johnson and Kelly will be conversing with each other further at the New York Public Library in mid-October.

Where Good Ideas Come From

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2010

Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, comes out in a couple weeks. As in many of Johnson’s previous books, place plays a starring role — Interface Culture was set in cyberspace, Emergence talked extensively about cities, The Ghost Map’s epicenter was a water pump on Broad St. in London, and Mind Wide Open mapped out our brain space. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson steps back to ask: what is the relationship between place and ideas? What are the attributes common to places in which innovation happens? The trailer for the book explains further.

I’ve read the book and the last chapter’s discussion of market/non-market environments & individual/network approaches in relation to innovation is alone worth the price of purchase, nevermind that the rest of it is interesting as well. Heck, even the appendix is fascinating; it contains a chronology of the key human inventions and innovations from 1400 to the present that is difficult to put down.

Steven Johnson’s new book on innovation

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2010

Steven Johnson announces his new book: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation.

I look at human environments that have been unusually generative: the architecture of successful science labs, the information networks of the Web or the Enlightenment-era postal system, the public spaces of metropolitan cities, even the notebooks of great thinkers. But I also look at natural environments that have been biologically innovative: the coral reef and the rain forest, or the chemical soups that first gave birth to life’s good idea.

Sounds great.