History of computer graphics 1960-69




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1980-89


During the early 1980's SIGGRAPH was starting to really take off. Catmull explains, "SIGGRAPH was a very good organization. It was fortuitous to have the right people doing the right things at the right time. It became one of the very best organizations where there is a lot of sharing and a lot of openness. Over the years it generated a tremendous amount of excitement and it was a way of getting a whole group of people to work together and share information, and it is still that way today."

At the 1980 SIGGRAPH conference a stunning film entitled "Vol Libre" was shown. It was a computer generated high-speed flight through rugged fractal mountains. A programmer by the name of Loren Carpenter from The Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington had studied the research of Mandelbrot and then modified it to simulate realistic fractal mountains.

Carpenter had been working in the Boeing Computer Services department since 1966 and was an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Starting around 1972 he started using the University's engineering library to follow the technical papers being published about computer graphics. He eventually worked his way into a group at Boeing that was working on a computer aided drawing system. This finally got him access to computer graphics equipment. Working there with other employees, he developed various rendering algorithms and published papers on them.

In the late 70s Carpenter was creating 3D rendered models of aircraft designs and he wanted some scenery to go with his airplanes. So he read Mandelbrot's book and was immediately disappointed when he found that the formulas were not practical for what he had in mind. Around this time "Star Wars" had been released and being a big fan of the imagination Carpenter dreamed of creating some type of alien landscape. This drove him to actually do it; by 1979 he had an idea about how to create fractal terrain in animation.

While on a business trip to Ohio State in 1979, Carpenter ran into a person who knew quite a few people in the computer graphics field including individuals like Ed Catmull. He explained how Catmull had just been hired by George Lucas to set up a lab at Lucasfilm. Carpenter was immediately interested but didn't want to send in his resume yet, because he was still working on his fractal mountain movie. "At the time they were getting enough resumes to kill a horse" explains Carpenter.

Carpenter continues, "I wanted to demonstrate that these (fractal) pictures would not only look good, but would animate well too. After solving the technical difficulties, I made the movie, wrote a paper to describe it and made a bunch of still images. I happened to be on the A/V crew of SIGGRAPH 1980, so one of my pictures ended up on an A/V T-shirt. I had this campaign to become as visible as possible because I wanted to work at Lucasfilm and when I showed my film, the people from Lucasfilm were there in the audience. Afterward they spoke to me and said, 'You're in, we want you.'" Later, in 1981 Carpenter wrote the first renderer for Lucasfilm, called REYES (Renders Everything You Ever Saw). REYES would eventually turn into the Renderman rendering engine and today, Carpenter is still with Pixar.

Turner Whitted published a paper in 1980 about a new rendering method for simulating highly reflective surfaces. Known today as Ray Tracing, it makes the computer trace every ray of light, starting from the viewer's perspective back into the 3D scene to the objects. If an object happens to be reflective, the computer follows that ray of light as it bounces off the object until it hits something else. This process continues until the ray of light hits an opaque non-reflective surface or it goes shooting off away from the scene. As you can imagine, ray tracing is extremely computational intensive. So much so that some 3D animation programmers (such as the Yost Group who created 3D Studio) refuse to put ray tracing into their software. On the other hand, the realism that can be achieved with ray tracing is spectacular.

Around 1980 two individuals, Steven Lisberger, a traditional animator, and Donald Kushner, a lawyer-turned-movie distributor decided to do a film about a fantasy world inside a video game. After putting together a presentation, Lisberger and Kushner sought backing from the major film companies around Los Angeles. To their surprise, it was Tom Wilhite, a new production chief at Disney, that took them up on the idea. After many other presentations to Disney executives, they were given the 'OK' from Disney to proceed.

The movie, called "Tron," was to be a fantasy about a man's journey inside of a computer. It called for nearly 30 minutes of film quality computer graphics, and was a daunting task for computer graphics studios at the time. The solution lay in splitting up various sequences and farming them out to different computer graphics studios. The two major studios were Triple I and MAGI (Mathematical Applications Group Inc.). Also involved were NYIT, Digital Effects of New York and Robert Abel & Associates.

The computer generated imagery for "Tron" was very good but unfortunately the movie as a whole was very bad. Disney had sunk about $20 million into the picture and it bombed at the box office. This, if anything, had a negative influence on Hollywood toward computer graphics. Triple I had created computer graphics for other movies such as Looker in 1980, but after "Tron," they sold off their computer graphics operation. Demos and Whitney left to form a new computer graphics company called Digital Productions in 1981.

Digital Productions had just got started then they landed their first major film contract. It was to create the special effects for a Sci-Fi movie called "The Last Starfighter." In Starfighter, however, everyone made sure that the story was somewhat good before generating any computer graphics.
Digital Productions invested in a Cray X-MP supercomputer to help process the computer graphics frames. The effects themselves were very impressive and photorealistic but the movie cost $14 million to make and only grossed about $21 million - enough to classify as a "B" grade movie by Hollywood standards - it still didn't make Hollywood sit up and take notice of computer graphics.

Carl Rosendahl launched a computer graphics studio in Sunnyvale, California in 1980 called Pacific Data Images (PDI). Rosendahl had just graduated from Stanford University with a degree in electrical engineering and for him, computer graphics was the perfect solution for his career interest, television production and computers. A year later Richard Chuang, one of the partners, wrote some anti-aliasing rendering code, and the resulting images allowed PDI's client base to increase. While other computer graphics studios were focusing on film, PDI focused solely on television network ID's, such as the openings for movie-of-the-week programs. This allowed them to carve a niche for themselves. Chris Woods set up a computer graphics department in 1981 at R/Greenberg Associates in New York. In August of 1981 IBM introduced their first personal computer, the IBM PC. The IBM PC, while not the most technologically advanced personal computer, seemed to break PCs into the business community in a serious way. It used the Intel 16-bit 8088 microprocessor and offered ten times the memory of other personal computer systems. From then on, personal computers became serious tools that business needed. With this new attitude toward PCs came tremendous sales as PCs spread across the country into practically every business.

Another major milestone in the 1980's for computer graphics was the founding of Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) by Jim Clark in 1982. SGI focused its resources on creating the highest performance graphics computers available. These systems offered built-in 3D graphics capabilities, high speed RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Chip) processors and symmetrical (multiple processor) architectures. The following year in 1983, SGI rolled out its first system, the IRIS 1000 graphics terminal.

In 1982, Lucasfilm signed up with Atari for a first-of-its-kind venture between a film studio and video game company. They planned to create a home video game based on the hit movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark." They also made plans to develop arcade games and computer software together. Some of Lucasfilm's games included PHM Pegasus, Koronis Rift, Labyrinth, Ballblazer, Rescue on Fractalus and Strike Fleet. They also developed a networked game called Habitat that is still very popular in Japan. Today the LucasArts division of Lucasfilm creates the video games and is a strong user of 3D computer graphics.

In 1982, John Walker and Dan Drake along with eleven other programmers established Autodesk Inc. They released AutoCAD version 1 for S-100 and Z-80 based computers at COMDEX (Computer Dealers Exposition) that year. Autodesk shipped AutoCAD for the IBM PC and Victor 9000 personal computersthe following year. Starting from 1983, their yearly sales would rise from 15,000 dollars to 353.2 million dollars in 1993 as they helped move computer graphics to the world of personal computers.

At Lucasfilm, special effects for film were handled by The Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) division, yet early on they didn't want much to do with computer graphics. Catmull explains, "They considered what we were doing as too low of a resolution for film. They felt it didn't have the quality, and they weren't really believers in it. There wasn't an antagonistic relationship between us, we got along well, it was just that they didn't see computer graphics as being up to their standards. However, as we developed the technology we did do a couple pieces such as the Death Star projection for 'Return of the Jedi.' It was only a single special effect yet it came out looking great." For "Return of Jedi" in 1983, Lucasfilm created a wireframe "hologram" of the Death Star under construction protected by a force field for one scene.

The computer graphics division of Lucasfilm was next offered a special effects shot for the movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn." There was an effect that could have been done either traditionally or with CGI. The original screenplay called for the actors to go into a room containing a coffin shaped case in which could be seen a lifeless rock. The "Genesis" machine would then shoot this rock and make it look green and lifelike. ILM, however, didn't think of that as very impressive, so they went to the computer graphics division and asked if they could generate the effect of the rock turning life-like. Then Alvy Ray Smith came back and said, "Instead of having this rock in front of this glass box why don't we do what's meant to be a computer simulation and a program showing how it works for the whole planet." Thus Smith came up with the original idea and ILM decided to go for it. And so they generated a one minute long sequence. It was largely successful because it was meant to be a computer generated image in the movie, so it didn't need to have the final touches of realism added to it. The effect was rendered on Carpenter's new rendering engine, REYES. It turned out to be a very, very successful piece. As Smith would later say, "I call it 'the effect that never dies' It appeared in three successive Star Trek movies, Reebok and other commercials, the Sci-Fi channel, you see it everywhere." Following the "Genesis" effect, Lucasfilm used computer graphics for the movie "Young Sherlock Holmes" in 1985. In this movie, a stained glass window comes to life to terrorize a priest.

Tom Brigham, a programmer and animator at NYIT, astounded the audience at the 1982 SIGGRAPH conference. Tom Brigham had created a video sequence showing a woman distort and transform herself into the shape of a lynx. Thus was born a new technique called "Morphing". It was destined to become a required tool for anyone producing computer graphics or special effects in the film or television industry. However, despite its impressive response by viewers at the conference, no one seemed to pay the technique much attention until a number of years later in 1987 when LucasFilm used the technique for the movie "Willow" in which a sorceress was transformed through a series of animals into her final shape as a human.

Scott Fischer, Brenda Laurel, Jaron Lanier along with Thomas Zimmerman worked at the Atari Research Center (ARC) during the early eighties. Jaron Lanier, working for Atari as a programmer in 1983, developed the DataGlove. A glove for your hand wired with switches to detect and transmit to the computer any movements you make. The computer interprets the data and allows you to manipulate objects in 3D space within a computer simulation. He left later that year and teamed up with Jean-Jacques Grimaud; together they founded a company 2 years later in 1985 called VPL Research, which would develop and market some of the first commercial virtual reality products. Zimmerman, an MIT graduate who had developed the "Air Guitar" software and a DataGlove that allowed you to play a virtual guitar, also joined VPL Research. Zimmerman left in 1989 while Lanier stayed with VPL Research until November of 1992.

AT&T formed the Electronic Photography and Imaging Center (EPIC) in 1984 to create PC-based videographic products. In the following year they released the TARGA video adapter for personal computers. This allowed PC users for the first time to display and work with 32-bit color images on the screen. EPIC also published the TGA Targa file format for storing these true color images.

Early animation companies such as Triple-I, Digital Productions, Lucasfilm, etc. had to write their own software for creating computer graphics, however this began to change in 1984. In Santa Barbara, California a new company was formed called Wavefront. Wavefront produced the very first commercially available 3D animation system to run on off-the-shelf hardware. Prior to Wavefront, all computer graphics studios had to write their own programs for generating 3D animation. Wavefront started a revolution that would shape the future of all computer graphics studios. Also in that same year, Thomson Digital Image (TDI) was founded by three engineers working for Thomson CSF, a large defense contractor. TDI released its 3D animation software in 1986.

Up until this point, all of the image synthesis methods in use were based on incidental light, where a light source was shining directly on a surface. However, most of the light we see in the real world is diffused or light reflected from surfaces. In your home, you may have halogen lamps that shine incidental light on the ceiling, but then the ceiling reflects diffuse light to the rest of the room. If you were going to create a 3D computer version of the room, you might place a light source in the lamp shining up on the ceiling. However, the rest of the room would appear dark, because the software is based on direct light, incidental light and it would not reflect off the ceiling to the rest of the room. To solve this problem, a new rendering method was needed and in 1984 Cindy Goral, Don Greenberg and others at Cornell University published a paper called, "Modeling the Interaction of Light Between Diffuse Surfaces." The paper described a new method called Radiosity that uses the same formulas that simulate the way heat is dispersed throughout a room to determine how light reflects between surfaces. By determining the exchange of radiant energy between 3D surfaces very realistic results are possible.

In January of 1984, Apple Computer released the first Macintosh computer. It was the first personal computer to use a graphical interface. The Mac was based on the Motorola microprocessor and used a single floppy drive, 128K of memory, a 9" high resolution screen and a mouse. It would become the largest non IBM-compatible personal computer series ever introduced.

Around 1985, multimedia started to make its big entrance. The International Standards Organization (ISO) created the first standard for Compact Discs with Read Only Memory (CD-ROM). This new standard was called High Sierra, after the area near Lake Tahoe, where ISO created the standard. This standard later changed into the ISO 9660 standard. Today multimedia is a major marketplace for personal computer 3D animation. In that same year, Commodore launched the new Amiga personal computer line. The Amiga offers many advanced features, including a hardware level compatibility with the IBM personal computer line. The Amiga uses Motorola's 68000 microprocessor and has its own proprietary operating system. The base unit's retail price is $1,295.

Daniel Langlois in Montreal, Canada founded a company called Softimage in 1986. Then in early 1987 he hired some engineers to help create his vision for a commercial 3D computer graphics program. The Softimage software was released at the 1988 SIGGRAPH show and it became the animation standard in Europe with over 1,000 installations world-wide by 1993.

During this time, Jim Henson of Muppets fame approached Brad DeGraf at Digital Productions with the idea of creating a digital puppet. Henson had brought with him a Waldo unit that he had previously used to control one of his puppets remotely. The device had gotten its name from NASA engineers years earlier. They in turn had taken the name from a 1940's Sci-Fi book written by Robert A. Heinlein about a disabled scientist who built a robot to amplify his limited abilities. The scientist's name was Waldo. Thus when NASA (and later Henson) built their own version of the unit, they dubbed it Waldo.

The programmers at Digital Productions managed to hook up the Waldo and create animation with it, but that animation was never used for a commercial project. Still, the idea of Motion Capture was born. Today motion capture continues to be a major player in creating computer graphics. As for Digital Productions, at the time things were going great. They had purchased a Cray X-MP supercomputer because it was the fastest computer that money could buy. They were interfacing film recording and scanning equipment and they had about 75 to 100 employees. They had just finished their fist big movie project, "The Last Starfighter" and they did some special effects scenes for the movie 2010 (the swirling surface of Jupiter). They also worked on "Labyrinth" in 1986. Things were going very well for Digital Productions, perhaps things went too well.

In 1986 the two largest computer graphics houses in the United States were bought out by Omnibus Computer Graphics Inc. in hostile takeovers, Digital Productions (in June) and Robert Abel & Associates Inc. (in October). The reason this is significant, is that both companies had invested heavily in high-end supercomputers like the Cray X-MP (which cost about $13 million each). This had put the focus on buying the fastest number cruncher money could buy and then creating your own custom software.

As soon as Omnibus took control of Digital Productions the two co-founders of Digital, John Whitney and Gary Demos, sued the majority owner of Omnibus, Santa Clara-based Ramtek, for a portion of the sale proceeds. Omnibus subsequently locked both of them out of their offices at Digital Productions in July of 1986. In September Omnibus obtained a temporary restraining order against Whitney and Demos alleging that Whitney and Demos founded a competing firm, Whitney Demos Productions, and had hired at least three employees away from Omnibus and were using software and other information that belonged to Omnibus. The restraining order required Whitney and Demos to return certain property temporarily to Omnibus.

In October, Omnibus acquired Robert Abel & Associates Inc. for $8.5 million. However, by March of 1987, Omnibus started defaulting on the $30 million it had borrowed from several major Canadian creditors. Most of the debts were the result of acquiring Digital Productions and Robert Abel & Associates the previous year. In May, Omnibus officially closed down and laid off all its employees.

According to Gary Demos, "Abel & Associates was sunk just the same as us. At the time, we were the two largest effects studios, and that crash fragmented the entire industry. It changed the whole character of the development of computer graphics." Talented people from both studios found their way into other animation studios. Jim Rigel went to Boss Films, Art Durenski went to a studio in Japan, some went to PDI, some went to Philips Interactive Media (then known as American Interactive Media), others went to Rhythm & Hues, Metrolight, and Lucasfilm. Whitney and Demos created Demos Productions in 1986. It lasted for two years, then they split up and formed their own companies in 1988. Whitney formed US Animation Labs, while Demos formed DemoGraphics.

In the personal computer field, computer graphics software was booming. Crystal Graphics introduced TOPAS, one of the first high-quality 3D animation programs for personal computers, in 1986. Over the years, Crystal Graphics would continue to be a major contender in the PC based 3D animation field. The following year, Electric Image was founded and released a 3D animation package for both SGI machines and Apple Macintosh computers. In Mountain View, California, a new 3D software company was founded under the name Octree Software Inc.. They later changed their name to Caligari Corporation and now offer 3D animation programs for both the Amiga and PC platforms.

Also in 1986 computer graphics found a new venue, the courtroom. Known as Forensic Animation, these computer graphics are more geared to technical accuracy than to visual aesthetics. Forensic Technologies Inc. started using computer graphics to help jurors visualize court cases. Still creating Forensic animation today, they have been in the business longer than any other company. Now they use SGI workstations from RS-4000's up through Crimson Reality Engines. For their 3D software they exclusively use Wavefront but have a few interfaces to CAD modeling packages. For 2D animation they use a program called Matador by Parallax.

In that same year, Disney made its first use of computer graphics in the film "The Great Mouse Detective." In this first Disney attempt at merging computer graphics and hand draw cel animation, they only used the computer for some of the mechanical devices such as gears and clockworks. A Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) department was formed and went on to work on such films as "Oliver and Company," "The Little Mermaid," "Rescuers Down Under," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." With the highly successful results of "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast," Disney has increased the animators in the CGI department from only 2 to over 14.

About this time at Lucasfilm, things were getting a little complicated. The computer graphics division wanted to move toward doing a feature length computer animated film. Meanwhile ILM was getting interested in the potential of computer graphics effects. Catmull explains, "Lucas felt this company was getting a little too wide and he wanted to narrow the focus into what he was doing as a filmmaker. Our goals weren't really quite consistent with his." So the computer graphics division asked if they could spin off as a separate company and Lucas agreed to do that.

It took a year about a year of trying to make that happen. Catmull continues, "One of the last things I did was hire two people to come in and start a CGI group for ILM because they still wanted CGI special effects capabilities. So I went out to a number of people but mainly focused on Doug Kay and George Joblove. They turned us down the first time. We talked to them and interviewed them and they called up and said 'We decided not to come up, because we have our own company.' So I put down the phone and thought 'damn I have to keep on looking.' Then that night I called back again, and said 'Doug, you're crazy! This is the opportunity of a lifetime! Something went wrong in the interview. Come back up here and let's do this thing again.' He said 'OK!' so I brought him up again, we went through it all again, and this time they accepted."

The computer graphics division of ILM split off to become Pixar in 1986. Part of the deal was that Lucasfilm would get continued access to Pixar's rendering technology. It took about a year to separate Pixar from Lucasfilm and in the process, Steve Jobs became a majority stockholder. Ed Catmull became president and Alvy Ray Smith became vice-president. Pixar continued to develop their renderer, putting a lot of resources into it and eventually turning it into Renderman.

Created in 1988, Renderman is a standard for describing 3D scenes. Pat Hanrahan of Pixar organized most of the technical details behind Renderman and gave it its name. Since then Hanrahan has moved to Princeton University where he is currently Associate Professor of Computer Science.

The Renderman standard describes everything the computer needs to know before rendering your 3D scene such as the objects, light sources, cameras, atmospheric effects, and so on. Once a scene is converted to a Renderman file, it can be rendered on a variety of systems, from Macs to PCs to Silicon Graphics Workstations. This opened up many possibilities for 3D computer graphics software developers. Now all the developer had to do was give the modeling system the capability of producing Renderman compatible scene descriptions. Once it did this, then the developer could bundle a Renderman rendering engine with the package, and not worry about writing their own renderer. When the initial specification was announced, over 19 firms endorsed it including Apollo, Autodesk, Sun Microsystems, NeXT, MIPS, Prime, and Walt Disney.

An integral part of Renderman is the use of 'shaders' or small pieces of programming code for describing surfaces, lighting effects and atmospheric effects. Surface shaders are small programs that algorithmically generate textures based on mathematical formulas. These algorithmic textures are sometimes called procedural textures or spatial textures. Not only is the texture generated by the computer, but it is also generated in 3D space. Whereas most texture mapping techniques map the texture to the outside 'skin' of the object, procedural textures run completely through the object in 3D. So if you were using a fractal based procedural texture of wood grain on a cube, and you cut out a section of the cube, you would see the wood grain running through the cube.

The interesting part however was that Kay and Joblove (along with the other CGI specialist at ILM) became so efficient and the CGI grew and grew until today the CGI group is ILM. Its not a major department, it is...ILM. This is viewed by some as one of the most stunning developments in computer graphics history. One of the reasons the CGI department became so important is that it succeeded in what it intended to do. They set goals, budgets and they met them. Meanwhile, back at Pixar in December of 1988, Steve Jobs stepped down from his post of Chairman of Pixar, and Ed Catmull took his place. Charles Kolstad, the company's VP of manufacturing and engineering, became the new president.

Paul Sidlo had worked as Creative Director for Cranston/Csuri Productions from 1982 until 1987 when he left to form his own computer graphics studio, ReZ.n8 (pronounced resonate). Since then, ReZ.n8 has continued to be a leader in producing high quality computer graphics attracting such clients as ABC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC along with most of the major film studios.

Jeff Kleiser had been a computer animator at Omnibus were he directed animation for the Disney feature film "Flight of the Navigator." Before Omnibus Kleiser had founded Digital Effects and worked on projects such as "Tron" and "Flash Gordon." As things started to fall apart at Omnibus he did some research into motion capture. Then when Omnibus closed, he joined up with Diana Walczak and formed a new company in 1987, Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company. Their new firm's specialty was human figure animation. In 1988 they produced a 3-1/2 minute music video with a computer generated character named Dozo. They used motion control to input all of her movements.

Brad DeGraf, also from Omnibus, joined forces with Michael Wahrman to form DeGraf/Wahrman Production company. At the SIGGRAPH conference of 1988, the showed, "Mike the Talking Head" which was an interactive 3D computer animated head. Using special controls, they were able to make it interact with the conference participants. Later DeGraf would leave Wahrman and go to work for Colossal Pictures in San Francisco.

The Pixar Animation Group made history on March 29, 1989 by winning an Oscar at the Academy Awards for their animated short film, "Tin Toy." The film was created completely with 3D computer graphics using Pixar's Renderman. John Lasseter directed the film with William Reeves providing technical direction.

At the 1989 SIGGRAPH in Boston, Autodesk unveiled a new PC based animation package called Autodesk Animator. As a full featured 2D animation and painting package, Animator was Autodesk's first step into the multimedia tools realm. The software-only animation playback capabilities achieved very impressive speeds and became a standard for playing animation on PCs.

In 1989 an underwater adventure movie was released called "The Abyss." This movie had a direct impact on the field of CGI for motion pictures. James Cameron, director and screenwriter for Abyss, had a specific idea in mind for a special effect. He wanted a water creature like a fat snake to emerge from a pool of water, extend itself and explore an underwater oil-rig and then to interact with live characters. He felt it couldn't be done with traditional special effects tools and so he put the effect up for bid and both Pixar and ILM bid on it. ILM won the bid and used Pixar's software to create it. Catmull explains, "We really wanted to do this water creature for the Abyss, but ILM got the bid, and they did a great job on it."
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