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The Story of Computer Graphics
Set to Open SIGGRAPH

by Maureen Furniss

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 filmmakers to use both digital and analog techniques. All images are courtesy of SIGGRAPH.

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 graphics.

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 years.

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, "Image-based Rendering."

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 www.siggraph.org/movie. 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 Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.