Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cutting Edge Technology In 1976: The Lyon Lamb Video Animation System

Lyon Lamb Video Animation System - a Revolution
Recently Disney producer Don Hahn posted a nostalgic piece at the Disney FaceBook Group about some cutting edge technology from 1976: the then brand-new Lyon Lamb Video Animation System. It was an astonishing development - you could shoot your animation and see a pencil test immediately instead of sending it off to the rostrum camera dept to be filmed, and then having to wait for the developed film to come back the next day. Nowadays all animators take real-time playback for granted. Until the Lyon Lamb, the only real-time playback was in the imagination of the animator. So, how did the animators do it? How could they possibly know in advance how their work would come out?

They still do!
The answer, of course, was talent, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. Animation was a craft that could only be perfected by a select few - those dedicated, talented animators who could keep the timing and spacing in their head (and the performance) without having to see a pencil test first. Animators like Milt Kahl barely needed to look at animation dailies - why would they? They already knew what their work would look like.

When I started to learn animation in 1987 on the set of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I marvelled at the animators who could play their performances out in their head, without having to test their work. For me, starting out, I simply could not have managed to learn the craft of animation without the benefit of the video playback machine.

In fact, a decade earlier, I can remember visiting my father's Soho Square studio back in the mid-1970s when the video playback machine was first invented. Dad was hugely enthusiastic, bringing the very first models to London from the USA - revolutionary technology. 

But old hands like Art Babbitt (who was then working at Soho Square) hated the new machine. "It's a crutch" snorted Art. The implication being, you should put in the hours and learn it the hard way. if you needed to see how the animation would come out, you weren't a real animator.

Lyon Lamb

The reality was that the animators of old had in fact mastered their craft the hard way, by learning timing and spacing, for the simple reason that they had no choice but to do so. They could not test their work, and therefore it had to be right - or, almost right - the first time around.

Imagine sitting in animation dailies with Walt Disney and seeing your pencil test back from the film lab for the very first time. I mean, seriously, it's bad enough in dailies if you have already seen your work, and you know it works OK. To be seeing it for the first time without the benefit of a preview - I can hardly imagine how the sweat must have rolled down their backs.

So thank you to Don for taking us back to the 1970s. and reminding us that even back then there was new technology revolutionising our industry, just like today.



  1. That is a great post and very informative. We actually still use the little square monitor alongside the camera and rostrum at my university.

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