Vol.33 No.3 August 1999

The Story of Computer Graphics Premiers

Carl Machover - Photo credit: Louis Fabian Bachrach
Carl Machover
Machover Associates Corp.
August 99 Columns
Student Gallery Public Policy

CG Pioneers
Previous CG Pioneers Next CG Pioneers

The Story of Computer Graphics

Ed Catmull
Ed Catmull’s career spans many of the important trends in The Story of Computer Graphics, including research work at University of Utah and NYIT, and the use of computer animation in films produced by Lucasfilm and Pixar Animation Studios.

Poliovirus simulation.  Drugs are being developed based on simulations of diseases, including the HIV virus.

The Story of Computer Graphics
Evans and Sutherland co-founders David Evans and Ivan Sutherland were early graphics pioneers who developed flight simulation technology. Dave Evans and Ivan Sutherland had previously started the computer graphics department at the University of Utah.

The Story of Computer Graphics
The SAGE System (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) was built by IBM for the Air Force in the 1950s and was operational by 1953. SAGE used computers to track aircraft and displayed radar blips on computer graphic consoles as interactive vector graphics. It is known as one of the first applications of computer graphics to track enemy aircraft.

The Story of Computer Graphics
Brothers James and John Whitney Sr. began making abstract experimental animation in the 1940s using complex mechanical devices. By the early 1960s, John Whitney began using digital computers to continue the work. He was one of a few serious filmmakers to use both digital and analog techniques.

By the time you read this, the ACM SIGGRAPH HDTV 90-minute video documentary, The Story of Computer Graphics, will have premiered at SIGGRAPH 99 (on Sunday night August 8), with additional two-a-day showings through August 13. The film is the culmination of a three-year effort conceived by Walt Bransford, SIGGRAPH 98 Chair and carried through by the efforts of the production team.

The Production Team

Steve Silas, Producer, founder of 213TV Productions, is an ACE-nominated television producer and director and has created a wide variety of programming for broadcast, cable and home video. In 1989, he founded FRESH Electronic Publishing and created FRESH Video Portfolio, a video directory of computer graphic animation companies that became a standard industry reference for specialty broadcast CGI buyers.

Frank Foster, Director and Writer, is a VP and technology specialist at Sony Pictures Imageworks. His SPI credits include Striking Distance, Jumanji, Wings of Courage, Speed and Contact. Recently he created new Internet-based content including an on-line version of the game show, Jeopardy, and a 3D game based on the film, Starship Troopers.

Joan Collins Carey, Co-Producer, is a veteran visual effects producer and a long-time SIGGRAPH member. Collins created CG for the OmniMax film, The Magic Egg.

Judson Rosebush, Writer, Judson Rosebush Productions, is a director and producer of multimedia projects and computer animation. He founded Digital Effects Inc. in New York (1978-1985), the company that introduced computer animation to the commercial marketplace.

Carl Machover, Co-Executive Producer, is President of a computer graphics consulting firm, Machover Associates Corporation.

Dr. John Hart, Co-Executive Producer, is an Associate Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University.

Project Details

Thirty-seven industry, academic, organization and government sponsors contributed about $1.5 million in cash, goods and services and interviews were conducted with about 50 industry personalities. A series of one and two page advertisements for the film have appeared in Computer Graphics World since early this year, and generated about 400 inquires from 40-plus countries, including the U.S.A. and Canada and ranging from Algeria to Yugoslavia.

As noted in a SIGGRAPH news release, the film, shot entirely on state-of-the-art high-definition video, follows the 45-year evolution of digital technology to show how everything from weather patterns, flight simulations and surgery to the awe-inspiring animated effects found in classic feature films such as Jurassic Park, Tron and Terminator II are produced.

“The history of computer graphics is a rich tapestry, filled with wonderful stories that can inspire us all,” said Director Frank Foster. “The documentary spotlights the challenges that have been faced by the technicians, artisans, visionaries and studios in creating the hardware and software that have literally changed how we visualize the world.”

“Portraying an accurate historical record was paramount as was producing a documentary that would appeal to the broadest possible audience,” continued Producer Steve Silas. “In movies today almost everything can be created using visual effects, but we wanted to give the average person a perspective on how the technology evolved.”

Telling the Story

The story opens in 1954 when the government first used graphics on a radar screen to identify incoming aircraft into U.S. airspace. It follows the evolution of technology from college campus labs and research centers to industry and the studios of Hollywood. The documentary uses computer footage from the 1950s, some of which has never been shown publicly.

To add the human element to astounding graphics and visual elements, the film features behind-the-scene interviews with more than 50 pioneers in the industry. “These interviews show the intense determination, the mind-bending challenges and the intrinsic thrill the graphics and animation pioneers experienced bringing digital technology into our lives,” said Silas. “It’s an intensely inspiring story.”

Among those interviewed for the film are Star Wars creator George Lucas, Bell Lab’s Ken Knowlton, Pixar’s Ed Catmull, Jim Morris from ILM, television computer graphics pioneer Robert Abel, and early film animator Richard Taylor.

The documentary was mastered in high-definition video in anticipation of the upcoming broadcast of HDTV. From the HD master, SIGGRAPH producers will have the maximum flexibility for the film’s release in various formats, including 35mm, NTSC and DVD.

On a Personal Note

I hope you all have a chance to see this ground-breaking documentary - you can enjoy it even if you’re not a Pioneer!

In closing, have fun with this “essay” Pioneer Dick Mueller ( ran’s hard to realize that 1945 was 54 years ago (the tail end of WWII).

Author Unknown

WE ARE SURVIVORS!!!! Consider the changes we have witnessed:

We were born before television, before penicillin, before polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, plastic, contact lenses, Frisbees and the Pill.

We were before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams and ballpoint pens, before pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric blankets, air conditioners, and drip-dry clothes, and before anyone walked on the moon.

We got married first and then lived together. How quaint can you be?

In our time, closets were for clothes, not for coming out of. Bunnies were small rabbits and rabbits were not Volkswagens. Designer Jeans were scheming girls named Jean or Jeanne, and having a meaningful relationship meant getting along well with our cousins.

We thought fast food was what you ate during Lent, and Outer Space was the back of the Rivera Theater.

We were before computer dating, dual careers, commuter marriages, househusbands and gay rights. We were before day-care centers, group therapy and nursing homes. We never heard of FM radio, tape decks, electric typewriters, artificial hearts, word processors and yogurt. For us, time-sharing meant togetherness - not computers or condominiums; a chip meant a piece of wood; hardware meant hardware, and software wasn’t even a word!

In 1940, the term making out referred to how you did on your exam. Pizzas, McDonald’s and instant coffee were unheard of.

We hit the scene when there were 5 and 10 cent stores, where you bought things for five and ten cents. Sanders and Wilson sold ice cream cones for a nickel or a dime. For one nickel you could ride a streetcar, make a phone call, buy a Pepsi or enough stamps to mail one letter and two postcards. You could buy a new Chevy Coupe for $600, but who could afford one? A pity, too, for gas was 11 cents a gallon.

In our day, cigarette smoking was fashionable. Grass was mowed. Coke was a cold drink and pot was something you cooked in. Rock Music was grandma’s lullaby and aids were helpers in the principal’s office.

We were certainly not before the difference between the sexes was discovered, but we were surely before the sex change. We made do with what we had. And we were the last generation that was so dumb as to think you need a husband to have a baby!

No wonder we are so confused and there is such a generation gap today!

BUT WE SURVIVED!!! What better reason to celebrate?

— Submitted by Dick Mueller

Carl Machover is President of Machover Associates Corporation, a consultancy providing services to computer graphics users, suppliers and investors. He has been interested and involved in the field of CG for many years, written numerous articles and conducted a number of seminars. Machover is Editor of the CAD/CAM Handbook (McGraw Hill, 1996) and serves on the editorial board of several publications.

Carl Machover
Machover Associates
152A Longview Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605

Tel: +1-914-949-3777
Fax: +1-914-949-3851

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