Toronto Artists Are Bringing Weird 90s CGI Back to Life

Short Circutz on YTV was before its time.

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Aug 17 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Jonah Kotzer

Canadian kids growing up in the nineties probably watched YTV, and if they did, they'll remember Short Circutz, a series of CGI cartoons that ran repeatedly from 1994 to 1996, often wedged between shows like the Wolf Larson-starring Tarzan and Bob Einstein's exhausted slapstick on The Super Dave Osborne Show.

A trio of Toronto artists has resurrected those CGI cartoons after they provoked feelings of nostalgia over YouTube. Basement Studio Project (its members are Natalie Logan, Halloway Jones and Heather Rappard) performed their version, called Sound Circuitz, on Friday at the SummerWorks stage festival in Toronto.

"[Old CGI] is a treat," Logan told me. "It's a throwback. Let's take a break from this glossy stuff we have to look at all the time... Simple shapes. Simple materials." Logan said she'd rather watch older, crappier computer animation because it's more thrilling than the CG-saturated entertainment of today.

Back when Short Circutz ran, YTV was pushing a handful of CGI cartoons, including ReBoot, Beasties (or Beast Wars) and Insektors. Kids clearly took a liking to that new frontier of animation, and while they were dazzling at the time, they look like cave paintings in 2016. "We wanted to bring elements of where that was in our past into the real world: Taking virtual elements and turning them into real life, with cardboard and fabric and light," said Logan.

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At Basement Studio Project's show, music played among tubular sheets and rotating flats, sculptures of lovelorn birds, fish and an ongoing projection of the CGI film that inspired the scene, a short called Love Found. It was created in 1987 to demonstrate Boids, a program that simulates flocking patterns in a virtual space.

It tells the tale of a red hawk with Gundam Wing-like features catching the eye of a pink and glamorous fish. The two exchange looks across the halfway point of their small universe, before the bird decides to swoop up and dive straight into the water, smashing the air/water barrier. They give each other little smooches, and in the background you can see all the fish and the birds swirling together. The whole thing lasts about two and a half minutes.

It's one of the many echoes of a fable, the most famous being a rabbinical offhand from Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye asks of his daughter Chava, "A bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?" It is about the line dividing worlds, though both that play and Sound Circuitz illustrate how these lines evolve over generations.

Love Found. Video: Jax184/YouTube

For Logan, Rappard and Jones, the two worlds that needed merging weren't just air and sea, but the the present and the past, the virtual and the real, some hammy early 90s computer animation and paper mache sculptures.

Short Circutz was developed by YTV to fill an empty four minutes in their 12-minute ad-space. These segments were drawn from Mind's Eye and Imaginaria, which were VHS and LaserDisc compilations of late-80s and early-90s CGI, demos and proof-of-concepts from several studios, including pre-Disney Pixar shorts.

Some were abstract hodgepodges of artistic and spiritual imagery. Some told short stories about rude idiot dogs and extremely off-putting aliens. Many were essentially music videos that liberally recycled footage. Imaginaria's "Anything is Possible" appears to have a marching anthem to contextualize pre-made demo reels, including a British Smarties commercial. All of them are as fun to watch as they are dated.

The show in Toronto. Image: Jonah Kotzer

At the Toronto show, as Jones' band Baby Cages performed a set, the audience milled around. When the sax-heavy Halifax-based Special Costello went on, a number of people fell into the space to dance and stretch interpretively among the shadows of fish and birds.

The core inspiration for Sound Circuitz, those halcyon 3D days, was obvious. "I hope everyone's getting nostalgic tonight," said Jones during her performance.

Bad technology and good nostalgia make excellent bedfellows. Adults always boomerang back to the artifacts of their childhood, but millennials and later generations will experience this sensation in overdrive as technology advances at a much more rapid pace.

By the time Spider-Man 2 came out in 2004, the once-dizzying effects of the first film released two years earlier seemed archaic. Jumanji, a 1995 jungle adventure that was sold on Robin Williams acting like a rubber super ball alongside some top-notch special effects, has monkeys that by today's standards look like Halloween decorations.

When I asked about parallels to the comeback of early CGI, Heather Rappard wasn't so quick to compare it to the revival of vinyl records, for example. Records offer a distinctive, and sometimes richer, listening quality. She said that Short Circutz is more like the love you'd have for a cassette tape, admiring the specific and limiting aesthetic for something that is by all accounts outdated. Fond memories last longer than technology.