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The Story of Computer Graphics Set to Open SIGGRAPH

If you want to post animations on the Internet then you need to become familiar with Macromedia Flash. Here Tom Calthrop does the introductions in a very useful "how to."

Brothers James and John Whitney, Sr. began making abstract experimental animation in the 1940s using complex mechanical devices. By the early 1960s, John Whitney was using digital computers to continue his work. He was one of only a few serious

The Shrine Auditorium once again rolls out the red carpet for a special premiere: SIGGRAPH's 93-minute documentary, The Story of Computer Graphics. The film is set to debut on Sunday, August 8, as part of the SIGGRAPH Conference's opening night celebration. Seating for the 8:30 p.m. premiere is open to all badged attendees on an 'availability' basis -- so arrive early to assure your spot at the screening!

An In-depth Account

Too often, historians are faced with the task of documenting events

that occurred many years ago, long after the pioneers and many of

the original artifacts are gone. However, SIGGRAPH's documentarians

tried to overcome this problem by documenting the history of computer

graphics before too much time has slipped away. Their account of the

45-year history of computer graphics includes interviews with over

fifty pioneers in the industry, as it traces the evolution of today's

technology back to its early days. Highlights include Star Wars

creator George Lucas, Bell Lab's Ken Knowlton, Pixar's Ed Catmull,

ILM's Jim Morris, early scientific visualization researcher Jim Blinn,

television computer graphics pioneer Robert Abel, and John

Whitney, Sr., considered by many to be the 'father' of computer


One of the first uses of computer graphics was to track enemy aircraft. The system above is called SAGE which is an acronym for Automatic Ground Environment. It was being used as early as 1953.

Also included in the film is never-before screened documentary and

computer-generated footage, reaching back more than four decades.

Viewers will be surprised to see a report being given by Edward R.

Murrow in the early 1950s, discussing the future of computer graphics!

Wide-ranging in its scope, the documentary then moves on to cover

everything from weather patterns, flight simulation, and surgery to

the latest animated effects found in theatrical feature films. The

film's director is Frank Foster, Senior Vice President of Sony Pictures

Imageworks, whose credits include the feature films Jumanji, Speed

and Contact. He explains that the creators of the documentary

thought of their work as storytelling, as its title suggests; he says,

"We delve into history, but stick to the story." Bringing

together such a vast array of computer graphics materials was "a

big challenge," according to Foster, who tells how the film's

content was determined: "SIGGRAPH is a very democratic organization.

For this project, we had a content committee of about a dozen pioneers

who advised us on what to include. Our script, written by Judson Rosebush,

went through a review process as we decided how to structure the film.

Of course, you can't put in everything from the entire period -- you

couldn't even include all the developments from the last year in a

ninety-minute film! In the process, we shot over seventy interviews,

including pioneers in the field as well as leading figures in the

industry today."

Drugs to combat sickness are being developed based on simulations of diseases.

Getting the Inside Story

The result, says Foster, is a "human story" that contains

elements of humor, drama, sadness, and triumph. He thinks the film

will appeal to a wide audience, saying that even a teenager with minimal

knowledge beyond some cartoons and video games will be able to enjoy

and learn from this film. Foster explains that the goal of the SIGGRAPH

documentary is summarized by Ed Catmill, now head of Pixar, who worked

unnoticed for many years, researching and developing technology that

helped bring computer graphics to the attention of the entertainment

industry. Catmull says, simply, "In the end, we got noticed."

The Story of Computer Graphics reveals the great debt that

today's dazzling feature films owe to the early pioneers in such fields

as medical research and scientific visualization. It was because of

the work of many research facilities that the technology developed

to the point where the entertainment industry felt it was worth the

risk to try it. Foster says that many stories of perseverance are

presented in the film. For example, it tells of individuals who stood

behind the first paint systems in the early 1970s, though they nearly

lost their jobs. Also included is the 'true story' -- as opposed to

the mythology one frequently hears -- of George Lucas' dream for the

future of computer graphics, as told by Lucas himself. Foster says

that The Story of Computer Graphics helps set the record straight,

giving credit to the individuals who built the field throughout the


Another function of the film has been to make individuals and institutions

more aware of the importance of computer graphic preservation. Foster

notes that many people were surprised by how quickly materials from

the 1970s and 1980s had decomposed. He says that "a lot of footage

from the 1980s had faded. For example, Triple I's Juggler could barely

be transferred. We had limited resources, so there was only so much

material we could restore." Working with Michael Friend of the

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Study Center, Foster

has made arrangements to store the component parts of The Story

of Computer Graphics in a special preservation vault.

Fiat Lux by Paul Debevec of the University of California, Berkeley, is the subject of a technical paper at SIGGRAPH '99. It is a good example of some of the latest techniques which includes a process called,

How to Catch It

SIGGRAPH attendees who miss the film's debut at the Shrine can see

it during its numerous screenings at the conference. The film will

be shown five times each day, Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m.

to 4 p.m. More information on screening times can be found at

After SIGGRAPH, the film will continue to be shown worldwide. Its

next stop will be Eurographics, which is being held in Milan during

September 1999. Because the documentary was created using high definition

video technology, plans for a high definition television broadcast

are also in the works, as are plans for distribution on DVD.

The documentary's production team also includes Executive Producers

Carl Machover, President of the computer graphics consulting firm

Machover Associates Corp., and John Hart, Associate Professor of Electrical

Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University. Producer

Steve Silas, founder of 213TV Productions, is an ACE-nominated television

producer and director, while the co-producer is longtime SIGGRAPH

member and veteran visual effects producer Joan

Collins. The documentary's writer, Judson Rosebush, founded Digital

Effects Inc. in New York and is former American Editor of Pixel

Vision Magazine and columnist for CD-ROM Professional.

Maureen Furniss, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Program Director

of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is

the Founding Editor of Animation Journal and the author of


in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).