Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Ancient Past of Early Computer Animation (draft)

This is all just going to be rewritten.

A friend of mine, Terrance Masson, hosted an event at SIGGRAPH 2014 to tell some of the stories behind the early work in computer animation.   I was invited because it is thought that I know quite a few of these stories, and I do.  But instead I wrote up some notes as to why it is very difficult for people to look at the early work in computer animation and make much sense of it or know why these projects are important, if indeed they are.

Although I am going to try and explain some of the factors behind these projects.  But it may still be very hard to understand.   

I may say that I walked through the snow five miles each day to go to school and you may believe me.  I may say that if we wanted to do computer animation we had to build our own computer and you may believe me.  I may tell you that the electronics for a 512x512 frame buffer (graphics display) without the monitor might cost you about $30K.   Or that a major production studio had about 1/2 gigabyte of disk total.

It is extremely difficult to look into the past and really understand what people were thinking and why they did what they did.  If you are going to understand history, even the history of people still living, then you are going to have to realize how recent certain things really are, how much smaller the community was, how much less money was involved, and how much of this was essentially an outsider activity.

The projects I am referring to were created and premiered, generally at SIGGRAPH, between the years 1995 - 1993 or so.   By 1995 at the latest, it was a completely different world.

So here are some things to consider when viewing an early computer animation project (in no particular order):

1. The further back you go in time, the more likely it is that they wrote their own software or someone on the team was writing software.   What!  Write one's own software!?  How technical!  Yes, thats right, to do computer animation you had to know what a computer was.

2. As far as we know, no one in authority thought this was really going to work. No mainstream entertainment organization believed that they were going to be making movies with computer, that 3D animation would take over from 2D to a large degree, that visual effects would use synthetic imagery, etc.

3. With the exception of Lucas and possibly Disney, so far as I know none of the major studios paid for any of this technology until it was all proven to work and make them money.

4. Some people were being paid to do the projects you know about, some were not.  Those who were paid were often expected to do a real job as well, or in some cases their management permitted people to work on the project you are looking at rather than their real job.

5. Computers were unbelievably slower and more expensive.  A 12 bit 512x512 frame buffer (e.g. color display) cost about $30K in 1976 dollars.  Note that is 12 bits, e.g. 4 bits each R, G and B.

6. Some of the best motion graphics was done between 1976 and 1978.

7. All of the projects that we are talking about here were labors of love.

8. Attending the "film" show was an intellectual activity, as my friend Andy Kopra has pointed out.  It was the ideas being demonstrated that made the project important.  If you did not know what those ideas were then you would not be able to understand the piece.  So for example, imho, "Luxo, Jr" by Pixar was about demonstrating that a character could be brought to life in classic Disney character animation terms using 3D graphics.  The film was about proving that such a thing was possible, and only secondarily about a lamp playing ball with another lamp.

9. Although there were people who were interested in the commercial applications to the entertainment industry, there were also many people who were interested in abstract filmmaking, electronic and video synthesis and other, completely non-commercial uses in the visual arts.

... to be continued

Rashomon (1950) on IMDB

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