Computer Animation Production System

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The Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) was the first digital ink and paint system used in animated feature films, designed to replace the expensive process of transferring animated drawings to cels using India ink or xerographic technology, and painting the reverse sides of the cels with gouache paint. Using CAPS, enclosed areas and lines could be easily colored in the digital computer environment using an unlimited palette. Transparent shading, blended colors and other sophisticated techniques could be extensively used that were not previously available.

The completed digital cels were composited over scanned background paintings and camera or pan movements were programmed into a computer exposure sheet simulating the actions of old style animation cameras. Additionally, complex multiplane shots giving a sense of depth were possible. Unlike the analog multiplane camera, the CAPS multiplane cameras were not limited by artwork size. Extensive camera movements never before seen were incorporated into the films. The final version of the sequence was composited and recorded onto film. Since the animation elements existed digitally, it was easy to integrate other types of film and video elements, including three-dimensional computer animation.

CAPS was a proprietary collection of software, scanning camera systems, servers, networked computer workstations, and custom desks developed by The Walt Disney Company together with Pixar in the late-1980s. It succeeded in reducing labor costs for ink and paint and post-production processes of traditionally animated feature films produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. More importantly, it provided an entire new palette of digital tools for the film-makers.

History and Evolution of the CAPS Project[edit]

Teh Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) developed a "scan and paint" system for cel animation in the late 1970s. It was used to produce a 22-minute computer-animated television show called Measure for Measure. Industry developments with computer systems led Marc Levoy of Cornell University and Hanna-Barbara Productions to develop a video animation system for cartoons in the early 1980’s.[1]

A technical group at Feature Animation under Stan Kinsey began to investigate the possibility of deploying computers for use within Disney Productions. They approached the Graphics Group at Lucasfilm to investigate digitizing the 2D cel animation process. Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith on annual pilgrimages from NYIT to Disney had long promised that they could do this.[2]

It wasn’t until a new management team came to Disney under Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in 1984 that the idea gathered momentum, and the project was officially launched with the hiring of a Project Director, Bob Lambert, in Aug, 1986.

Alvy Ray Smith from Lucasfilm and Lemuel Davis (Lem) from Disney proceeded to specify the system over the course of many months, resulting in a 21-page proposal which Smith wrote and submitted to Disney.[3] The business proposition had Lucasfilm design and build the imaging systems, and Disney Animation build workflow, logistics, data management, archiving, scanning, and recording systems with both teams involved in integration and user testing of all the components.[4] CAPS was the acronym of the overall system where the patented DALS system (Disney Animation Logistics System) handled tracking and delivery of all image components to the users workstations. Alvy hired Thomas Hahn to head the CAPS development team at Pixar.

Working together from 1986 through 1990 and beyond, the Disney and Pixar teams designed, deployed and tested all of the system components which formed the start of a deep relationship between Disney and Pixar, and eventually, after the 3D CGI production deal for “Toy Story” and other films, the purchase of Pixar by Disney. The Disney Animation production users made essential contributions during the integration and testing of the software to fit the system into Disney workflows with particularly important advice from animator, Randy Cartwright, who was assigned to the project to represent the artists point of view during the design.

The first usage of the CAPS process was Mickey standing on Epcot's Spaceship Earth for "The Magical World of Disney" titles. The system's first feature film test was in the production of The Little Mermaid in 1989 where it was used in a single shot of the rainbow sequence at the end of the film. After Mermaid, films were made completely using CAPS; the first of these, The Rescuers Down Under, was the first 100% digital feature film ever produced. Later films, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame took more advantage of CAPS’ 2D and 3D integration.

In the early days of CAPS, Disney did not discuss the system in public, being afraid that the magic would go away if people found out computers were involved.[5] Only in 1994 was Computer Graphics World, as the first from the press, invited to have a close look at the process.[6]

The system has not been used on a full feature since 2006's The Little Matchgirl.[7]

Special edition editing[edit]

For the Special Edition IMAX and DVD versions of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan, new renders of the original elements were done and recorded to alternate master formats. In addition, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King had newly animated sequences added to their special editions, and both of the IMAX editions and Aladdin had significant cleanup/restoration done on the original digital sequence elements to enhance detail, correct mistakes, and solidify clean-up animation and drawing.


In 1992, the team that developed CAPS won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Engineering Award. They were:[8]

Technical Abilities[edit]

CAPS was capable of a high level of image quality using significantly slower computer systems than are available today. The final frames were rendered at a 2K digital film resolution (2048 pixels across at a 1.66 aspect ratio), and the artwork was scanned so that it always held 100% resolution in the final output, no matter how complex the camera motion in the shot. Using the Pixar image computer, images were stored at 48-bits per pixel. The compositing system allowed complex multi-layered shots that was used almost immediately in Rescuers Down Under to create a 400-layer opening dolly shot. The DALS system made use of one of the first large-scale, custom RAID systems in the film industry.

Decline and legacy[edit]

Following the failure of Home on the Range in 2004, Disney Feature Animation management felt that audiences wanted only 3D computer animated features and closed down their traditional 2D animation department. The CAPS desks were removed and the custom automated scanning cameras were dismantled and scrapped. As of 2005, only one desk system remained (and that was only for reading the data for the films that were made with CAPS).

Since the merger with Pixar, as most of CAPS was shut down and dismantled, Disney's subsequent traditionally animated productions (How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, The Princess and the Frog, The Ballad of Nessie, and the new Winnie the Pooh) were produced using Toon Boom Harmony computer software, which offered an updated digital animation system.

Projects Produced Using CAPS[edit]

Feature Films[edit]

Short Films[edit]


  1. ^ Bruce Wallace, Merging and Transformation of Raster Images for Cartoon Animation, Proceedings of SIGGRAPH 1981, Vol 15, No. 3, Aug. 1981, 253-262.
  2. ^ Smith, Alvy Ray. "Alvy Ray Smith Disney Trip Notes 1977" (PDF). 
  3. ^ Smith, Alvy Ray. "CAPS Proposal Lucasfilm to Disney 1985" (PDF). 
  4. ^ Smith, Alvy Ray. "CAPS Pixar Executive Summary 1986" (PDF). 
  5. ^ Alvy Ray Smith: RGBA, the birth of compositing & the founding of Pixar
  6. ^ Disney lets CAPS out of the bag. (Computer Animation and Production System used for animated motion picture The Lion King)
  7. ^ Walt Disney's The Little Matchgirl
  8. ^ page for the CAPS Sci-Tech Award
  9. ^ "The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) - Full Cast & Crew". IMDb., Inc. Retrieved 2014-09-15. caps personnel