Anderson expands Blue Sky’s toon horizons

If you’re among the millions of TV viewers who smiled the first time you saw computer-animated polar bears sipping Coca-Cola, then you’ve noticed the work of director Henry Anderson. He directed the first four spots in what has become a classic campaign. “When I go on recruiting trips,” admits Anderson, “people don’t know me, but they know those bear commercials! They’ve been seen all around the world. It’s amazing.”

What’s really remarkable, given the short life span of most advertising campaigns, is that the polar bear spots have become perennial favorites. Their enduring appeal is a testament to what Anderson does best — character animation so expressive that no dialogue is required. “Showing the personality of the character is the primary thing for me. It’s something that I felt was really lacking from computer graphics early on,” Anderson says.

“For computer graphics to really expand, we’ve needed more believable characters involved in more engaging stories. That’s really the crux of it,” he adds. “We’re now at the point where the characters that we create on computers are accepted in films. We’ve shown that they can be believable, and we’ve started moving into more interesting definitions of what those characters can be.”

To pursue that goal, Anderson recently signed with Blue Sky Studios in Harrison, N.Y. While Blue Sky has a decade of experience doing 3-D computer-animated commercials, they’ve also expanded into feature CG work with “Joe’s Apartment,” “A Simple Wish” and “Alien: Resurrection.”

At Blue Sky, Anderson anticipates “doing more feature work. We’re really hoping to do an all-animated feature and a feature that has a significant amount of CG combined with live action.” After eight years as a CG director, Anderson is philosophical about the prospects. “Even now, with the current boom in animation, the proportion of animated films to live-action films is still very small. The lion’s share of what all the CG studios do is combination work,” he says.

Such “combo” work is something at which Anderson already has excelled. He directed the Emmy Award-winning computer animation in the television special “The Last Halloween,” which featured four CG characters interacting with actors. “It was one of the first pieces of that length that had characters put into live-action scenes. Even though that was just five years ago, in computer graphics terms it seems ancient. We were just learning all the tricks that now are done in every film.”

Whether his characters move through real worlds or graphic ones, Anderson believes the essential challenge is always “to create convincing personalities — so people forget for a few minutes that they’re watching a computer-generated character.” He acknowledges the difficulties that are inherent in achieving this with CG characters, “particularly when you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, like the fur on the first Coke bears. There are technical things that I look back on that I don’t like, but I’m very proud that people viewed the bears as characters. They weren’t viewed as effects.”

Anderson has proved himself extremely adept at imparting personality to the unlikeliest of characters in a variety of commercials, from a man made out of a paper match to a barbecued chicken who sings the blues. Now he’s hoping that Blue Sky’s proprietary technology, which can achieve very photorealistic effects, will enable him to attempt some highly sophisticated animation.

“There’s a piece I’d like to do that’s heavily influenced by a ballet, and the costuming is going to be really extravagant. I’m working with one of the software people here to develop some of the fabric stuff that we need — we can really create things that are not just fabric, but will feel like burlap or silk,” Anderson notes. He adds that “right now, the interaction of clothes against one another is really difficult to do, but at some point, there will be a way to do that and then we’ll really be able to costume characters. Right now, I just start with that as an ideal and then work backward to simplify it down to what we can do.”

This pragmatic attitude keeps Anderson looking for ways around the limitations of present-day CGI. “We come up against limits all the time. We find ways to have a character come through despite the technical limitations we have now, or we continue ahead and write new technology to do it,” he says. “Then,” he adds with a laugh, “we usually hit another limit. Computer animation has a long way to go before we exhaust all the creative possibilities. There are always these limits — we just keep pushing them further and further out.”

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