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Vol.32 No.1 February 1999

Colour Me Primary

Mike Milne

February 99 Columns
About the Cover Gaming & Graphics

Mike Milne
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You can always spot the computer graphics professionals in a movie audience. They’re the ones that stay on to the very end of the credits, long after everybody else has gotten bored with discovering that the assistant deputy ladder-holder comes after the second-unit caterer’s shoelace adviser, but that both of them come before any of those poor “pixel slaves” who worked 15-hour days for 11 months to produce the digital effects... but enough of that, that’s a different story altogether.

Recently, I was watching the credits at the end of a thoroughly competent effects film (Blade), waiting patiently for the CG listing at the very end, just before the assurance that “no animals were injured during the making of this picture” (no animals, but what about the effects crew?). When they finally rolled around, I found that I couldn’t read them. The graphic designer had made a creative decision to make all the credits pure red, a reference (no doubt) to the colour of blood, which is a central feature of the preceding story. On the big screen, I expect it looked really cool. On the small screen (I was watching on DVD) it just looked smeary — because primary red “bleeds” (appropriately enough) into the surrounding background when viewed on ordinary interlaced video. Small letters (and CG credits are always in tiny letters, because there are so many names to fit in) tend to disappear completely, leaving only a homogenous smudge.

The problem of saturated colours in the TV colour space has long been a nightmare for TV graphics designers, who have had to fight to keep their text legible and their illustrations crisp, in the face of that electronic tyrant, the encoded TV signal. The bleeding effect is worsened, and affects a wider range of hues, if the background colour is mid-grey — there was a legendary graphic designer, head of the graphics department at the BBC in the early eighties, who would print the letters “L.B.O.B” onto junior designer’s storyboards with a special rubber stamp. They would looked puzzled, not knowing if their designs had been well-received. “Looks Better On Black, idiot!” he would shout, and walk away.

A memory of an early CG job comes back to haunt me every so often. It was my first “solo” flight on the spiffy new AIR software (Abel Image Research, for you nostalgia buffs) that ran on our pride and joy, the DEC VAX11/780, that screamed along at, well, at least a quarter of a MIP. This wasn’t quite state of the art in early 1984, but it was still serious machinery.

Back then, software packages treated the computer animation process as three distinct operations — modeling, choreography and rendering — which were handled by completely separate programs. (One might think that this was a rather inflexible arrangement — and one would be right — it was).

Although I had assisted as a digitiser on a number of commercials, I had never actually used the animation program and I was quite hazy about the renderer. However on this occasion the boss was away, a client had turned up with ready money and a script, and there was no one to sit in the pilot’s seat. Fighting the urge to flee, or to be incapacitated by a suddenly-discovered war-wound, I volunteered; and shortly thereafter I found myself face-to-face (or rather, face-to-chest) with a tall man in a floor-length black overcoat and a gloomy expression. I had finally met that strangest of creatures in the jungle of television production, the Commercials Director.

It is perhaps worth offering a word of explanation here, for those who have never had the occasion to move in the rarified circles that make up the advertising trade on this side of the Atlantic. The following points should be borne in mind: firstly, that everybody in the business, from the lowliest storyboard-holder to the tycooniest end-client, firmly believes that nobody in the whole wide world can make commercials like they do in the UK — that Britons have a naturally built-in talent (along with their other natural gifts for pageantry, mock-Tudor houses and lousy cuisine) that ensures their superiority above all others.

Secondly, that this superiority comes from a strange, quasi-mystical quality called “creativity” that pervades their wonderful industry from top to bottom, and ensures that their work is blessed with the wherewithal to perform its allotted task. And what, you might enquire, is that task? Could it be to sell products? Perish the thought! Or maybe to enhance public awareness of the client’s business? Not in a million years! So, what is the function of TV advertising in UK? Why, to win awards, of course! Surely you knew that!

Thirdly, that all Commercials Directors actually want to be something else. Directing television advertisements is just something they happen to be doing to fill in the time until... well, until they’ve found out whatever it is that they’re really meant to be doing. It might be directing feature films, or it might be writing the definitive English novel, or it might even be becoming a world-renowned artist — who knows?. One thing is certain, though — it will, of course, be extremely “creative.”

Unfortunately, all of this was unknown to me as I faced my first real-life director, trying to think of sensible things to say. Ignoring my polite noises of greeting, he stood silently for a few minutes before saying “I hate computer graphics.”

Now I must admit that this was not quite what I had expected from a client who was about to shell out many thousands of pounds for a four-second animation. CG prices were sky-high at the time, and the only intrepid souls who would brave the stratosphere of up-to-the-minute, Phong-shaded, 24-bit (count ‘em), bona-fide computer graphics, were true aficionados of the genre (and had more money than sense, we secretly believed).

The director (who was soon to be, but was not yet, a cult figure) continued: “I hate computer graphics because I hate those awful primary colours they always use. Always those bright, cheerful plastic colours with plastic highlights. I can’t stand them.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, except to enquire whether he would like some coffee, or tea, or milk, or a soda maybe (or perhaps a dry Martini, I thought, remembering what I had heard about advertising people) before getting down to work? “I’ll have a glass of warm tap water,” he replied. Ouch! Now that, my friend, is pure, unadulterated creativity at work.

In those bad old days, computer animation took much longer. Per-frame rendering times were in the half-hour category, so all animation tests were done in wireframe — and even a wireframe preview on our state of the art Silicon Graphics Iris 3130 was non-real-time unless it was laid down, frame by frame, onto videotape. This meant that during the animation stage, all the client got to look at were lines drawn on a black screen. And what colour were those lines? Well, er... primary colours, as it happens. It was actually possible to customize the wireframe colours (a maximum of eight, naturally), but as a rookie I didn’t know that. So, inevitably, there followed a series of complaints about the impossibility of true creation when one was forced to work in such a philistine environment, where even the rough outlines were so ghastly in their garishness, all that red, green and blue. And cyan! One couldn’t even look at that awful cyan without feeling the need for another glass of warm tap water!

Mike Milne is Director of Computer Animation at FrameStore, which together with its sister company CFC, forms one of Europe's largest digital effects teams. You'll have to go back two issues to find his old tag line, which was much funnier.

Mike Milne
9 Nole Street
London W1V 4AL
United Kingdom

Tel: +44-171-208-2600
Fax: +44-171-208-2626

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

After the animation was locked down (a process that could take a couple of weeks, for even the most simple of moves), the time came round to approve the materials — or more specifically, the colours — that we would be using for the spot. Given my client’s tirades against primary colours, and my trained instinct to avoid colour saturation in TV graphics, I had chosen only the most delicate of pastel shades. This would be the last time I saw the client before “pushing the button” on the final render — a task for which there was never enough processing power, and for which there was never enough time. Incidentally, it was often the case that the first time an animator saw a complete animation was the day it was delivered to the client; the previous night would have been spent painstakingly recording the frames onto videotape, one at a time, and fervently hoping that there were no obvious mistakes.

Nervously, I loaded my carefully-prepared frames into the frame buffer, one at a time. I think each frame took about 30 seconds to crawl from the disc up to the display hardware — a distance of about eight feet as the crow flies, except that a crow could cover about four hundred yards in the same time, while a Harrier jump-jet could cross the English channel. It had always seemed ridiculous to me that our technology was so slow, and never more so than when a client was watching his precious creation appear, scanline by scanline, on the big Barco, for the first time.

I could tell it wasn’t going well — the director’s face was getting longer and longer. Surely, I thought, he couldn’t complain about the colours — I had avoided any hint, any suggestion of a bright colour — and there wasn’t a highlight, plastic or otherwise, to be seen. What on earth could be the problem? “What on earth.. I mean, er .. is there a problem?” I asked.

“It’s the colours,” he replied. “They’re all wrong. Completely wrong!”

I ventured to enquire what colours would he like me to use? If I might be so bold?

“Oh, primary colours. This is computer graphics, isn’t it? So it has to be red, blue, green, yellow — very bright and shiny, with lots of bright highlights. Make it look like plastic — that’s what you have to do with computer animation; it’s what everyone expects”.

“One, two, three, four, five, six...” I counted slowly, to myself, and took a deep breath. “Right. Primary colours it is, then,” I said, out loud.

This particular director went on to become extremely rich and successful, and so was presumably not a fool — and the species he represents, Clients Who Hate Computer Graphics Because of the Bright Colours and Shiny Materials, are as numerous now as they were then. (And, in due course, this particular director discovered what it was that he was meant to be doing. He was meant to be a world-famous artist! Now all he needs is for the world to realise that too).