Friday, November 9, 2012

A Very Brief Introduction to Robert Abel & Associates

Tomorrow is the Robert Abel event at the UCLA school of Theatre & Film, which I may or may not be able to attend. I have taken this occassion to write up a very brief introduction to the period that Robert Abel & Associates was a part of. I could write many, many pages about Abel's but I am not going to do that here. Here I am just going to do a page or so of very basic background.

Robert Abel & Associates (Abel's) was a famous visual effects production company mostly in the world of advertising and commercial production, but not entirely. It employed some of the most accomplished people in the field of visual effects and has alumni who are very important in the field as it is today.

I was there only briefly, from 1980 to 1983 or so, working on building what we called the "raster" computer animation system. What we call computer animation today is what we would have called "raster" back then, in contrast to vector animation, and other forms.

It is going to be hard for someone who only knows the field today, or of the last decade, to relate to what Abel's was and what it did. Here is some background to try and make some of it comprehensible.

1. The community of people was small, much smaller than it is today. Maybe a couple of hundred people, although maybe its a few more depending on how you define this community (e.g. visual effects, effects animation, matte painting, rotoscope, camera, etc).

2. The production companies that did exist varied in size from 1 - 80 people, and occasionally would grow larger when they had a project that could support it.

3. The companies were production companies, financed through the personal wealth of the founders, and living on a week to week basis depending on what jobs were in house. If there was no work, everyone would be laid off immediately.

4. There was occasional motion picture work, but not much and not continuously (e.g. motion picture work was nice to have but if you wanted to keep people employed you had to do other things). There was also some television work and intermittent theme park / special venue projects.

5. But at the end of the day, if you wanted to pay the rent, people in visual effects and other related fields often did commercials and such things as "broadcast graphics".

6. The two 800 lb gorilla's in the field of visual effects and graphics oriented advertising was R/Greenberg in NYC and Robert Abel & Associates in Hollywood. If you worked in this field in NYC, then you are likely to have worked at R/Greenberg. And if you had done visual effects in one form or another in Los Angeles, you were likely to have worked at Robert Abel & Associates, even if only briefly.

7. Abel's and R/Greenberg would compete for the big, technical advertising projects. Not the cute projects that had a lot of live action, more like Cliff Robertson AT&T commercials.

8. The advertising business is director driven, and at Abel's, in general, the art director was the director in charge.

9. Generally speaking, the projects themselves were done, e.g. accomplished by the "technical director" who was the filmmaker, if you will, for the project, as directed by the art director.

10. Computers were only a tiny part of the techniques used in visual effects. And perhaps the least important of the techniques.

The good news is that there were some extraordinarily talented people who worked there, and did some of their best work. The bad news was that Abel's, as a culture, encouraged people to work to their detriment and damage their health and in some cases their lives.

I will always be grateful for meeting some of the people I met at Abel's, but I would not want to work under such circumstances, if I could avoid it, again.   It was the Abel experience that first made me realize that the workplace needed to be regulated or in some way moderated to prevent the kinds of abuse I saw there and elsewhere.

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