Randy Cartwright’s Timely iPhone App

Veteran animator Randy Cartwright knows a thing or two about timing. Having worked on such diverse films as Aladdin, Charlotte’s Web, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean, he’s tackled a broad range of animation challenges. But he’s always missed having one simple tool that would make the frame-by-frame art of animation easier: ‘I never had something I could hold in my hand while I acted out a movement; something that showed me how many frames that movement was. I’ve always used stopwatches and had to do annoying calculations to figure out the frames.’

So Cartwright decided to invent what he needed, and came up with the Animation Timer, an app for the iPhone that can be downloaded from Apple for $4.99. It enables users to tap an iPhone to start the timer, act out a movement and then tap the phone again to register the elapsed time. Twenty entries can be captured in succession. The response has been very positive, especially from students, notes Cartwright. ‘They can see when a movement takes 200 frames, and when they start thinking in those terms they’re thinking in animation footage. It’s a different way to conceive of time. Animators are primarily artists, and not attuned to math calculations at all.’

That wouldn’t describe Cartwright, however, who’s been tinkering with computers

since his days as a young Disney animator, back when Tron was produced. Cartwright was trained by Disney legends Ollie Johnston and Eric Larson, but he also taught himself basic programming on his home computer and later refined the studio’s Animac Pencil Test System. He also was the artistic design lead on the Disney/Pixar C.A.P.S system, which earned him Sci Tech honors from the Academy. Throughout his busy career, Cartwright continued thinking about an animation stopwatch. ‘I tried to program it for years on the computer, but it’s too awkward to act something out and use a keyboard. A regular stopwatch was actually handier than a computer that showed you frames. Then when I got an iPhone, the idea came back to me.’

Cartwright was working on Disney’s The Princess and the Frog at the time, but spent about six months of weekends developing his Animation Timer app. Apple apps are programmed in Objective-C, which he admits, ‘is not a simple language. I had to get a small C program code for a stopwatch and then translate that to Objective-C. I’m really not good enough to do programming from scratch. The first version I turned in to Apple crashed.’

But now that the Animation Timer is getting regularly downloaded, Cartwright is pleasantly surprised. ‘It’s probably a pretty limited market, but it’s actually bigger than I expected. I’m really pleased that several animators have said it’s exactly what they’ve been looking for.’

Now Cartwright is mulling over what he might develop for Apple’s iPad. ‘I’ve been thinking it might be good for making storyboarding more efficient.’ One thing that’s certain is that he’ll be keeping the needs of artists in mind. ‘One reason I’ve enjoyed programming is that most programs written for animators are not usually written by someone who knows the job!’