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CG 101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference

Paul Younghusband reviews CG 101, a general, but detailed, book which covers a wide range of topics, from visual effects techniques, to terminology, job descriptions and visual effects history.

When this book arrived, my very first statement was, "Gee, that's a small book!" My, my -- how I was wrong. It may only be 6" x 8", about an inch smaller than most other books on my shelf, but contrary to popular belief, I discovered that size really doesn't matter CG 101 is written by Terrence Masson, a visual effects director working at Industrial Light & Magic -- a man who has more experience producing feature film quality visual effects than I do producing microwave "ready in 9 minutes" meals (and I make those a lot). Over his extraordinary career he has worked on True Lies, Batman Forever, Star Wars Special Edition, Spawn, Small Soldiers and Star Wars: Episode I, to name just a few of his movie credits. As well as that he has founded his own company, Digital Fauxtography, a company specialising in commercial, theatrical and large format film projects. Masson, among his many projects, created the CG tongues in the original Budweiser frogs commercials, and he developed the original CG production methodology for the South Park TV show. What better a man to give us the 101 on CGI? The book covers a wide range of topics, from visual effects techniques, to terminology, job descriptions and visual effects history. This is not a book of tutorials, nor a book on theory. It is a general, but detailed, overlook of the art, technology and people behind visual effects, as well as an in-depth "glossary" or reference guide to visual effects companies, tools and terminology. Let's take a brief look at what the book covers: Colour and Light The first chapter in the book is dedicated to colour and light, and although it is a small chapter, it outlines information of which many professionals working in visual effects are not aware. Colour and light are defined, and their relation to computer graphics is discussed. This is followed by a list of terms one would most likely come across on a daily basis working for a visual effects or design company, and they are certainly terms that will be encountered later on in the book. Painting and Graphic Design Chapter 2 is titled "Painting and Graphic Design," however, it is much more a compilation of software packages and companies that have made an impact on the world of 2D computer graphics. This extensive "directory" is quite in-depth, with a short background piece on each company/package, along with company contact information in many cases. Modeling Then the book moves onto modeling, where we are presented with yet another huge directory of software packages and companies, and also 3D modeling terminology. As with all of the terminology listings in the book this is exceptionally useful. At no other point have I come across such in-depth listings of computer graphics' frequently used terms.


Of course, background information on traditional animation techniques, along with some tips, are found in this chapter. Then, once again, we find another huge listing of animation terms. This illustrated listing is most informative, and details various animation techniques, principles, companies and tools. However, a most welcome addition to this chapter would be a list of the 12 principles of animation, along with a description of each principle (some are covered in the "Terms" listing, but not all). Although we've seen the principles in other books, they are age-old animation related information that I, personally, never get tired of seeing. Rendering The rendering chapter is nicely introduced with a few pointers about the pitfalls of the perfect CG world. In a computer graphics world it is easier to make things ordered and perfect than it is to make them unordered and imperfect. The introduction to this chapter talks about the little details that make CGI much more realistic (which often means making it imperfect). This introduction is followed by a few rendering examples, and then another huge and useful listing of rendering terms, techniques, companies and tools (this section was packed full of things I didn't even know existed!). Compositing We all get there eventually. Admittedly, compositing is my favourite part of the visual effects process (besides animation). This chapter kicks off with several things one should take into account when compositing, as well as some tips, tricks and reminders (very helpful). Then we (predictably) go into a nice long list of compositing terms, techniques, systems and companiescomplete with illustrations.

Input & Output

This was the least productive chapter for me. Basically the entire chapter is a listing of input and output devices, formats, tools and companies. Although I'm sure the chapter would be of use to some people, I am not really interested in ZIP drives, LCD displays, inkjet printers or digital disk recorders. Historically Significant Companies Now this was a chapter that had me very interested; a list of companies that have made significant contributions to the computer graphics industry over the last 20+ years. Alias, ILM, Softimage, VIFX, Santa Barbara Studios and Pixar -- they're all in there. But what's nice about this chapter is that the descriptions of the companies and their achievements are far more in-depth. Many of the listings contain quotes from significant people in the company, and where software is concerned, background information on the product, what it is, and how it has played a role in computer graphics is all included. Probably one of the book's better chapters, I genuinely enjoyed reading it (and I don't usually enjoy reading "lists" of things). Programming and Mathematics I dreaded reading this chapter, but actually found it quite useful. Things get off to a start with Masson recognising the brilliance of Ed Catmull -- one of the guys behind RenderMan. His other achievements include developing texture mapping, the Z-buffer method and subdivision surfaces. Then we slide back into our list of terms, with algorithms, booleans, quaternians and unit vectors among the many brain-busting terms here. Surprisingly, one doesn't actually need a PhD in Mathematics to understand what's written here; things are described in such plain English that even I could understand it. Basic and Miscellaneous Terms I always wondered what a VAR was! This listing isn't really going to bring about any major revelations for any reasonably read-up computer graphics individual, but this book is called CG 101 isn't it? Beginners may find the difference between UNIX and GNU fascinating, but I preferred to skip most of this chapter. Computer Graphics Timeline Yippee! This chapter is worth the price of the book alone. Starting from the 1940s Masson charters most of the major industry events, and the people and companies involved with them. The chapter contains biographies of important people in the industry, and lots of pictures showing early examples of CGI. This is the first time I have seen such a computer graphics history reference so in-depth, and it was a real pleasure to read. Frequently Asked Questions About Computer Graphics This chapter contains about a dozen or so "frequently asked questions" and answers about CGI, which are answered more in-depth than most other "FAQs" I've seen. Then it is followed by advice on demo-reels and getting a job in the CG industry. Age old advice, of course, but one can't stress the importance of these things enough. Computer Graphics Job Descriptions So, you want to be a digital composter? For anyone who has ever wondered what the difference between a production coordinator and technical assistant is, this chapter should help. Although it's not a complete listing, it does document the more common "jobs" out there. People often forget that not everyone has to be an animator, and that there's a lot more to computer graphics than the digital artist. This section is definitely worth a read. CG 101 was a worthwhile read (the side-bar trivia bits seen throughout the book really bring it alive), although I must admit I skipped over many of the lists of terminology. However, what's important to note is that this book isn't just a one-off read, it's a reference book. It will sit on my bookshelf and no doubt service me for many years. The Historically Significant Companies and Computer Graphics Timeline chapters are simply superb, and for me, they made this book an absolute joy to read. If you don't find this book of some use to you in your computer graphics travels (even if those travels are merely curiosities), then I for one will eat my hat! CG 101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference by Terrence Masson. Indianapolis, Indiana: New Riders Publishing, 1999. 500 pages. Paperback ISBN: 0-7357-0046-X (£36.99/US$39.99). Paul Younghusband is editor-in-chief of Visual Magic Magazine, a publication focusing on the 3-D graphics and digital effects industries.