Search form

SIGGRAPH: Past and Present

Super hip SIGGRAPH was founded in the world of academia and military tests far before visual effects were even considered. Joan Collins traces the growth of computer animation through the organization's conferences.

TRON, released by Buena Vista in 1982.

Even before ACM (Association for Computing Machinery)/SIGGRAPH started, there was computer animation. Despite popular belief, computer animation was not created to do visual effects. The new-comer animators go to the SIGGRAPH conference to see the latest and greatest animations. However, there was a time when going to SIGGRAPH's Film Show meant you waited with anticipation until the end of the show to see the one computer generated movie piece: like the Death Star from Star Wars done in 1977 by Larry Cuba or, the magnificent breakthrough piece, TRON done in 1982 by Magi Synthavision, Triple III, and Robert Abel & Associates.

One would go to SIGGRAPH to see work that one had never seen before, with people that were colleagues and collaborators. It was cool. You had to be there. In 1985, the short film Luxo Jr. by John Lasseter and William Reeves premiered at SIGGRAPH. The Academy followed the next year by nominating it for best Short Animated Film. One went to see Loren Carpenter's Vol Libre premiere at SIGGRAPH in 1980, because it couldn't be seen anywhere else. There was just no other market for showing a camera move around a snow-covered fractal mountain, except in academia.

A Beginning

SIGGRAPH has changed since its beginning. Imagine attending when the papers were primarily from academia. In it's infancy, computer animation was not economically feasible. Hence, the government was the only group that could afford to create CG hardware. The types of people that came to SIGGRAPH were heavily involved in the hardware and display industries. This lack of an industrial application defined the kind of attendees: military, aerospace, and government. The government worked in conjunction with the display industry and computer automation. Today, the first SIGGRAPH convention probably seems nerdy and sterile, but those pioneers are responsible for stimulating the birth of the photo-real visual effects industry that we take for granted.

SIGGRAPH has expanded from 30 signatures on a petition to start a computer graphics group in 1967, to 40,000 attendees expected at this summer's conference. Andries van Dam and Sam Matsa got ACM to endorse the formation of a special interest committee on computer graphics. The growing interest was evidenced by the standing room only crowds that attended the computer graphics professional development seminars given by van Dam and Matsa throughout the U.S. and Europe in the `60s. This provided the impetus for the development of an international SIGGRAPH community.

In 1969, the special interest committee became the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (ACM/SIGGRAPH). Over the years SIGGRAPH has grown to 7,000 plus members.

Early Conference Firsts

This Summer's 1997 SIGGRAPH conference will reunite some of the biggest early players in the visual effects industry such as Digital Productions, Omnibus, and Robert Abel and Associates. These risk-takers embody the pioneering spirit of early SIGGRAPH. One example of the extraordinary team-work that occurred was the film High Fidelity. Randy Roberts designed this test film to prove the concept of raster graphics, the next step beyond animation based solely on vectors. It was started in 1983, and shown at the 1985 SIGGRAPH in San Francisco. No "off-the-shelf" software here! Abel's created a distributed render, digital compositing system for visual effects. Their focus was to create elements that would be digitally composited. Michael Wahrman, systems architect on the raster graphics system at Abel's, was also director of a laboratory at the Rand Corporation. He purchased one of the first commercial UNIX licenses for use with Nick England's hardware, and wrote an Ikonas device driver (a software layer that allows an application to talk to the hardware). But there was no "packaged" solution. They even had to compute on a VAX 750 which by today's terms is less powerful than the average laptop.

John Lasseter's milestone1985 short film, Luxo Jr.

Jim Clark, who was formerly with Bell Labs and now with SGI, previewed the first Silicon Graphics IRIS graphics system in a hotel suite at 1983's SIGGRAPH. Jim issued the very first purchase order for a SGI to be used in entertainment to Robert Abel and Associates. Doc Bailey did some modeling work but when Joe Bell's film recorder didn't work, Tom Baron brought over a Mitchell camera and shot the images off of the screen. There was no whining about "the software not being able to handle key-frames." If they needed it, they wrote it. My heroes.

When Abel was purchased by Omnibus, it converged with Digital Productions and their approach to "Scene Simulation." Gary Demos, of Digital Productions, spent more time on the math. "Scene Simulation" was better, but not necessarily easier. The "Scene Simulation" concept, copyrighted at Digital Productions in 1984, won a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for the practical simulation of motion picture photography by means of computer-generated images. However, the SIGGRAPH conferences weren't just this DOA (Digital Productions, Omnibus, and Robert Abel and Associates) triad representing the "leading edge of technology." The Lucas Sprocket Systems Group had also received one of the first three SGI's and Doug Smythe, Lincoln Hu, Doug Kay and ILM received a technical Academy Award for their efforts in the creation of the ILM digital film compositing system.

Life Before TRON

There were computer animators prior to TRON, including many pioneers in the early 1970s. In 1974, The National Film Board of Canada produced a short film called The Hunger, directed by Hungarian animator Peter Földes. The Hunger received an Academy Award nomination for its trailblazing progress in the development of software and techniques for computer assisted key framing for character animation, a system developed by Nestor Burtnyk and Marcelli Wein at the National Research Council of Canada. Carl Machover, one of SIGGRAPH's most fondly revered pioneers, recalls selling Marcelli Wein equipment through the company that he founded, Information Display Systems (IDI), in 1960. There was also a computer animation User Group called UAIDE that published proceedings on the Stromberg Carlson Film Recorder, i.e. the SC 4020, in 1969. Character animation was created with a cathode-ray tube that put an electron beam through a stencil mask held in the recorder's neck. It was a conventional monochromatic vector display, but the point is that the technology existed.

According to Machover, the first SIGGRAPHs were not practical for the animation industry. Animation was still in the "stop-frame" phase. Animation was created by a plotter storage tube that made a picture, photographed it, then erased it in order to make another picture. This was 2D-based, and few were for entertainment purposes.

Jon Meads worked on such a plotter to create the "Carol Burnett - What's in the Stars" sequence for her variety show. The 35 mm frame-by-frame film was completed by Hiram French using a "Whirlwind." Bill Albertson came up with ideas, and Meads figured out how to do the programming. In 1974, Jon "Troll" Meads and Bob Shiffman decided that SIGGRAPH members needed a place to gather to exchange ideas about the latest computer graphics developments. The first SIGGRAPH conference was organized that year at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Over 600 attendees arrived when only 300 people were expected. Meads was the Program Chair.

The First Films

At the first SIGGRAPH conference, there was an interest in interactive devices, and in being able to work directly on screen. Animation was limited, but the proceedings were published in the journal Computers and Graphics. A young grad student came up to Meads and asked if it "would be inappropriate to submit a paper on the use of computers to do video animation." This young student was Tom Defanti, currently the Director of Electronic Visualization, and Associate Director, Virtual Environment NCSA. In Dallas, at SIGGRAPH 1986, a Local Groups party reminded Tom Defanti of the way the Film Show used to be. Attendees would bring the 3/4" video of their latest work, we'd cue it up and play it. No judging and everything got shown.

collinssiggraph04a.gifcollinssiggraph04b.gifcollinssiggraph04c.gif John Whitney created Arabesque in 1975, during an artist residency at IBM Labs.

Frank Foster, who organized the first International Film Festival in 1974, had 200 entries from all of the world, including The Hunger from Canada. The majority of the work at the time was technical research, which was the most advanced computer generated work. Even the most artistic pieces were simplistic. They showed all entrees over the course of three nights. They divided the entries into two categories: Art and Science. There were two nights of science and one night of art. In the Art category, Gary Demos had two films which contained mostly analog animation, with hardly any digital at all.

Generally speaking, if you were turning out computer generated "art" pieces in the early `70s, you were on a grant program that teamed an artist with a techie. Through the power of a grant, artist in residence, Lillian Schwartz teamed up with Ken Knowlton, who was in the computer techniques research department, for a collaboration at Bell Labs. Knowlton and other technical innovators were able to participate in "art" films by working for companies that pursued growth in the computing field. Stan VanDerBeek was also an artist in residence at Bell Labs with Knowlton. They collaborated on many computer generated films including the Poem Fields (Series 1 - 8). It was programmed in a CG language that Knowlton developed, called Beflix which was short for Bell Flicks. Another such example is John Whitney, Sr. who did Arabesque at IBM.

SIGGRAPH Begins to Put On A Show

The first SIGGRAPH Film Shows were predominately 16mm film. Since so much content was academic, there wasn't a film theater audience. The contributors were distributing to educational outlets that couldn't afford 35mm film playback. So, the producers would output on 35mm and down-rez for distributions on 16mm film. In fact, the first SIGGRAPH Film Show contained no video at all (or 35mm, for that matter). There were only 16mm entries. The only video available was only black and white, reel-to-reel. Color video existed on 2" quad tape and only television stations could afford such hardware. One-inch video was not in color at SIGGRAPH until the `80s.

The artists' ease-of-use only started when computers became cheaper and more user-friendly. Today's user interfaces allow the "newbies" to fly through, mastering the art of computer graphics. Character animation is also technically easier now, but talent is in ever-increasing demand to drive the quality.

But Can It Make Money?

Computer generated imagery was hardly being used for entertainment in the `70s. There were a few toothpaste commercials and some corporate broadcast graphics shown at the SIGGRAPH conferences. However, the CG community would look at the pieces, and, with work stations costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, say, "There's no money in it."

No one was convinced that CG had a commercial value, until James Cameron and ILM built a system to make it reliable. They took computer graphics into the commercial realm. It became apparent, after more Academy Awards started popping up, that visual effects could be financially feasible. ILM took awards for: The Abyss in 1989, Terminator 2 in 1991, and Jurassic Park in 1993. Total Recall captured an award for Metrolight and Tim McGovern in 1990. The topper was a Special Achievement Award to John Lasseter for the development and inspired application of techniques that made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film, Toy Story. Now, we see clips from movie after movie that use photo-real computer animation. You no longer have to wait for SIGGRAPH to see computer animation. Now, what movie doesn't use CGI?

The Biz Grows Up

According to CG pioneer Michael Wahrman, "Once upon a time, a group of pioneers proved that a hundred things that people said couldn't work, worked. Of those hundred, five are used every day in every film, and maybe another five are used occasionally. The other 90 are completely ignored. Computer generated character animation for films was once a wild idea, as was digital compositing, graphical user interfaces, behavioral animation [such as flocking and herding] and performance animation [real-time digital puppeteering]. But all of them worked, even though in each case they are limited and don't do everything." Wahrman was part of the Symbolics' team that presented "flocking and herding" in Stanley and Stella in 1987. "We presumed people would use behavioral animation, and we were delighted to see that Independence Day had used behavioral animation to do a lot of the dog fights. They called it `smart particles' deliberately avoiding the term behavioral, but I thought it looked great."

Michael continues by saying, "SIGGRAPH used to be the place you had to be to see the best work the first time ever. It used to be where the people that said, `I did that film,' were not your competitors. They were your co-conspirators. They had done the animation not for competition, but because they were making it work. But, it turns out the people in the audience were not your collaborators, but your competitors." It is not so much that the SIGGRAPH culture has changed; it has expanded to include today's breed of computer animators and their recruiters. If one looks at the forerunners of computer animation, one can see that they didn't fit into a category with which corporate America was comfortable. No one foresaw the future. The pioneers would take risks and fail. Talking with some of these old-timers is an experience that I highly recommend. They will tell you, "if it isn't off the shelf, figure it out yourself." There are so many more stories of how we got here that couldn't all be included in this article, and often, each story is countered by someone else who remembers it slightly differently. Carl Machover is the SIGGRAPH 1998 History Chair if you feel the need to clarify history. Or come to the Los Angeles Convention Center August 3 - 8 to see SIGGRAPH `97: the 24th International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. For information visit Special thanks to: Betsy Johnsmiller, Carl Machover, Frank Foster, Jon Meads, Michael Wahrman, and Steve Cunningham. Joan Collins is chair emeritus of the Los Angeles local group of ACM/SIGGRAPH, and a visual effects producer at Sony Pictures Imageworks.