Moving Innovation

The early days of computer animation
by Tom Sito  posted November 14, 2013
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The following is an excerpt from a chapter from Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation by Tom Sito (The MIT Press, 2013), republished in conjunction with the Museum's series Computer Age: Early Computer Movies, 1952-1987, November 15-17, 2013.

Since Georges Meliès’s Le voyage dans la lune in 1908, optical effects had been done pretty much the same way. Effects were produced by the creative use of an optical printer. Artists painted black mattes on acetate cels. These were placed in exact registration under a downshooter or rostrum animation camera, called an Oxberry in most places, after the designer John Oxberry (1918–1974). Then the film was rewound in the camera and reshot with a bottom-lit second pass, which burned the chemical emulsion on the film. This created the illusion of a glow of energy. Colored gels and diffusion lenses were added to enhance the final look. Then all the separate elements were combined like a sandwich and rephotographed once more in an optical printer. John Whitney invented the concept of a motion-controlled slit-scan—taking the camera and streaking the artwork under its continually open lens. This too was combined on the optical printer. The Star Wars craze made the job of optical VFX cameraman a cool career.
One of these visual effects artists was Robert Abel. He began as a commercial art intern doing pasteups under the legendary movie-title artist Saul Bass. One day in 1958, Bass bade him put down his T-square and sent him out to the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades to check on the progress of one of his subcontractors, John Whitney, Sr. Whitney had been hired to create the special swirling effects for the opening titles of the new Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo. Stepping into Whitney’s machinery-cluttered garage would change Abel’s life.  He was amazed at what Whitney was attempting and quickly struck up a friendship with the veteran filmmaker. Whitney took Abel on as a graphic designer and had him work things like a print job for Foodmaker Company, the parent company of fast-food chain Jack-in-the-Box. Under Whitney’s tutelage Abel learned to use the motion control camera and how to slit-scan, and he made friends with his future industry competitor, John Whitney, Jr.
After getting a degree at UCLA, directing documentaries for David Wolper, and completing a stint in Vietnam as a war photographer, in 1971 Abel with old Kubrick alumni Con Pederson started their own boutique service house, Robert Abel & Associates (RA & A). They began with a six-thousand-square-foot space behind an accountant’s office at 953 North Highland Boulevard (south of Santa Monica Boulevard) in Hollywood. They had no sign on the door, no phone, no receptionist. But they did have a deal with advertising firm Sullivan and Marks to create a new, modern look for the ABC TV network. RA & A had purchased the leftover slit-scan equipment from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and they started by doing traditional optical effects. They won awards for groundbreaking effects in TV spots like the 7UP Bubblicious and Levi’s blue jean campaigns (“We put a Little Levis in everything we do... “). Each spot was increasingly difficult in the complexity of its opticals. Abel’s executive producer Sherry McKenna recalled, “Bob Abel put visual effects for TV commercials on the map. Many think it was George Lucas who did it after Star Wars, but we were doing it years before. “But Abel wanted more. He wanted to create new digital effects on the computer for commercial spots. He spun off an adjunct business called Abel Image Research to sell the software his team perfected.
Stories abound about Abel being a visionary, a charlatan, a consummate artist, and a consummate bullshitter. But all who knew him agreed he was a charismatic leader with rakish charm and wit. He always seemed to be wearing the same beige shirt and shorts. He wore them so often that at one point he felt compelled to send the staff an e-mail explaining that he owned a dozen pair of the same clothes so he didn’t have to decide what to wear each day. Abel was into macrobiotic vitamin diets, and he carried his food around in something resembling a tackle box. RA & A general manager Steve Kasper recalled, “My first production meeting, we had been asked by the client to re-create the type of glowing aliens seen in the Ron Howard movie Cocoon [1985]. But Abel wanted to do something different, not just re-create someone else’s effect. As the discussion drifted against his idea, I could see he was steaming. Finally, he leaped up onto the conference table and pounded his fists, shouting, ’IT’S MY FUCKING COMPANY AND I WANT IT MY WAY!!’”
In a world of inarticulate tech nerds, Abel was a natural salesman. R. T. Taylor recalled, “Bob was a great schmoozer. Even when an effect didn’t come out the way we had hoped, Bob had a way of talking the client into thinking that was the way they wanted it all along. “Designer Allen Battino recalled once going to a big meeting with clients from Chrysler, to launch a campaign for their new car the Laser. When Battino unzipped his portfolio, he realized to his horror that in his haste, he had left behind all the artwork for the campaign. “There was an awkward pause among the execs, as though someone had passed gas and no one wanted to acknowledge it. Then, without missing a beat, Bob Abel turned to the clients and said, ’No matter. Gentlemen, now picture if you will . . .’and he successfully pitched the campaign to them anyway! “
Animation director Tim Johnson recalled, “Carl [Rosendahl, of Pacific Data Images] complained that Bob Abel was always selling jobs on the basis of things he knew computers couldn’t do yet. Carl would be asked by a client about an effect, and he would answer that it really couldn’t be done. To which the client would respond, ’Well, Bob Abel said he could do it . . .’ “ Abel figured his people would rise to the challenge, or they would think of something else when the time came.
RA & A quickly gained a reputation for cutting-edge visual effects that attracted the best and brightest. Abel’s motto was, “If you do the best possible work, they will come." Michael Wahrman remembered, “I think at third of the top people who ever were in VFX went through Bob Abel’s. "Designer Richard Taylor, a University of Utah graduate, had been doing his own laser-light installations with multiple projectors for rock groups like the Grateful Dead. For a time he slept on the floor of the Dead’s house in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. One day, frustrated with his career, he plopped down on a couch and thought to himself, “The next thing I see on TV that moves me, THAT is what I’ll do for a career." And he spotted a Bob Abel commercial. Taylor created a signature look of hot, glowing colors for RA & A, that he labeled “Candy-Apple Neon."
One of Abel’s brightest stars was a former architect named Bill Kovacs. Kovacs had studied at Carnegie Mellon and Yale, and by 1978 he was set for a drafting table at the prestigious firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Then he too spotted what Abel was doing. He became RA & A’s chief technology wrangler as they transitioned from a purely optical effects house to a CG house. 
Kovacs’s protégé Frank Vitz recalled, “Bill was gung-ho about the great potential for CG production. He made everyone read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. He saw us as digital astronauts, probing the frontiers of what was possible with computer graphics. “Kovacs was an expert at writing the ‘glue code’ that connected things together.” As previously stated, a lot of early CG work involved getting a computer to do something it was not created to do. Kovacs began by adapting military flight-simulator hardware from an Evans & Sutherland Picture System II that Abel had purchased. At that time the computer was used as a previewing tool to manipulate wireframe figures. Then that data was used to program the motion-control cameras for a regular optical shoot. “The E & S Fortran code was primitive, but it had good structure and was bug free... so I had a great foundation on which to jam, “Kovacs said. He soon tripled the software’s functionality.
Late one night he had a realization that changed the way everything was being done up to then. Sitting at the E & S alone, Kovacs marveled at how sharp the images were on the screen. “Suddenly I saw it as a piece of high-contrast artwork. We had a camera set up in front of the screen to shoot our motion tests, so all we’d need to create color graphics was a computer-controlled color filter wheel in front of the camera. “Kovacs and Con Pederson pushed the boundaries of vector imaging as far as one could, and then, in 1982, Abel brought in SGI machines and began the transition to raster graphics. “ But we didn’t say we were doing computer graphics because that scared some people [clients], “Abel recalled. “They thought that meant [industrial] CAD/CAM, which looked cold and phony. We’d just say we could make an idea come alive through an ‘animation technique.’ “
One open secret then was that many CG houses kept traditional artists on staff as insurance. Abel had a Disney-trained traditional 2D effects animator named Sari Gennis. The team nicknamed her the Evans & Sari. On certain jobs, if the computer systems failed and the deadline was in doubt, Gennis would jump in and traditionally animate the troubled sections, and the client was none the wiser. Animator Chris Bailey also did this kind of work for Abel.
One thing Abel did not seem to know well was business. Much like his contemporary Richard Williams in traditional animation, Abel created the highest-quality work, even if it meant working at a loss. “Bob brought in huge budgets and cash flow, but he never kept anything for himself. God forbid he’d ever make a dime. That’s because he kept putting it back into the company. “ Once, after they had finished a glitzy commercial for 7UP and showed it to the clients, who were thrilled, Abel had the entire last scene reshot because he thought it could be better. The cost of the retake erased any profit they would have seen for the job. “We dreaded being called into the theater for a staff meeting, because it usually meant we were going on half pay until Bob landed a new contract in to pay the bills, “Ken Mirman recalled. 18 John Hughes, then head of technology, liked to relax by sitting at the company’s switchboard and working the telephones. When asked why he didn’t let the receptionist do that, Hughes answered, “I think she gets paid more than me. “ RA & A could be notorious at times for putting off paying bills from suppliers and subcontractors. One time a small Japanese woman burst into the studio waving a pistol. She demanded the money she claimed they owed her. A failsafe for the company was that the offices of a high-powered patent attorney named Bernie were in another part of the same building. Bernie just happened to be Abel’s stepfather. Whenever RA & A had trouble making its payroll or paying off a bill, Abel would stroll over to ask Bernie to cut him a check. But despite his shortcomings as a businessman, no one disputed Abel’s ability to inspire a creative team. General manager Steve Kasper recalled, “Bob knew how to select people and cultivate talent. His people didn’t just work for him, they loved him.”
In 1979 Abel made a deal with Paramount to do the digital effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture for $6 million. Abel spent the lion’s share of Paramount’s money on updating and developing new graphic computers. They also did lots of predesigns and storyboards. Richard Taylor recalled, “There was a lot of disagreement among the higher-ups about the direction of the movie. How much it should look like the old TV show, or not. I think Ed Verraux and I storyboarded that film completely over three times. “A young Paramount producer named Jeffrey Katzenberg sat on a ladder in their computer room, and kept asking to see “dailies. “ But there weren’t any. In the end RA & A didn’t deliver much more to the final film beyond the Wormhole Sequence. But because of the contract Bob got to keep the six million dollars anyway. Paramount had to finish the VFX for Star Trek under Douglas Trumbull, who quickly pulled back together his crew from the recently completed Close Encounters of the Third Kind and augmented them with a traditional animation crew under veteran Disney animator John Kimball. Abel felt bad about the way that deal went down, because he admired Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. On the other hand, it was said that one sure way you could see Roddenberry lose his temper was to say the name Bob Abel to him. One of Abel’s most famous works was a TV commercial for the Aluminum Board titled “Brilliance, “now known as the Sexy Robot ad. In 1984 the National Canned Food Information Council came to Abel’s CG house in LA with a concept. A lot of beverages and food that used to come in cans were being sold in plastic tubs and liter bottles. The Aluminum Board made it a mission to prove that getting food in aluminum cans was still cool. So they wanted a commercial where a sexy female robot of the future, all plated in chrome and sounding like actress Kathleen Turner, made the case for buying food in cans. Abel had just appeared on a talk show where he declared that we were still a long way from being able to counterfeit a human being: “We haven’t even figured out human motion, which is the basis, and that’s years away. “Now these people wanted a super-realistic chrome-plated woman! Abel, always up for a challenge, told the clients he needed the weekend to plan whether such a project would be feasible with the technology then at hand.
Abel gathered his crew, which included Con Pederson, Bill Kovacs, Roy Hall, Neil Eskuri, and Charlie Gibson, and spent that entire weekend trying to work out how to make this idea work. “Several of us got into our underwear, we got black adhesive dots, and we put them on our bodies and we would photograph each other with Polaroid cameras, and then we would lay out these Polaroids so we could see how they changed from angle to angle, “Abel explained. Finally, by Sunday at 3:00 a.m. they hit on a way to create the desired effect. Abel phoned the canned food reps and told them it could be done.
Randy Roberts directed the spot. They hired a female dancer and covered her with black data points made with Magic Markers. They sat her on a rotating stool and photographed her from multiple points of view, then imported all this data into their SGI Iris 1000 system. It was only the second Iris ever made, Lucasfilm getting the first one. They then were able to analyze one frame at a time, measure the difference between joints for each point of view, and combine them all with a series of algorithms that would be used to animate the digital character. At the same time the wireframe model was built and the motion algorithms were applied to all the moving parts. The entire process took four and a half weeks and was completed two days before its delivery date.
The Sexy Robot ad, aired during the 1985 Super Bowl telecast and was a great success. It has since gone down in the CG annals as one of the landmark achievements in the growth of the medium. PDI’s Carl Rosendahl recalled, “Sexy Robot had a monumental effect for a commercial. Like Jurassic Park in movie effects. “Digital artist Jim Hillin at that time was a kid who wanted to be a jazz musician. He recalled, “I was sitting with my brothers in Texas watching the Super Bowl, when suddenly this ad came on. I thought — What is this? How are they doing it? It’s this girl all made of chrome, and it’s moving beautifully! From then on, I knew I wanted to do that as a living.”
The studio lived and worked on a pressurized schedule, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Animator Steve Segal recalled, “They never wanted to repeat themselves. They were always trying to push a new look. “Matte artist Jesse Silver said, “On my first job, I think I only slept six to seven hours in a week. . . . It was the only studio I ever saw that had telephones in every toilet stall, so you could always be reached. “When Sherry McKenna complained, “Bob, you’re working me hundreds of hours. My husband is going to divorce me, “Abel’s solution was to hire her husband. One artist got so many notes on a scene, he got his coat, walked out of the studio, and went straight to the airport, where he boarded a plane to Hawaii. He never came back.
Some did drugs to keep going, some cracked under the strain. One morning people came in to find a tech director had hanged himself from the ceiling water pipes. Yet despite all this, people kept on because they felt they were on the cutting edge of something important. Sherry McKenna put it bluntly: “Let me be clear on one thing. He [Abel] worked us to the bone; he didn’t pay us well; but we idolized him, because for the first time in our lives, and probably the last, we worked for a man who only cared about doing quality work. Nothing else. No money, no politics, no bullshit. You do the best work. “Director Michael Patterson recalled, “Bob was absolutely fearless. On several occasions he bet the farm and won. “Ken Mirman said, “Bob’s truest gift was as a mentor and muse.”
Meanwhile, across the LA freeways on the other side of town stood Digital Productions Inc. The two principal heads were John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos. Being the son of John Whitney, John Jr. grew up surrounded by abstract art and electronic filmmaking. “As a child, we had private screenings in our home, “he recalled. “I sat in my mother’s lap to watch abstract experimental films. “John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Jordan Belson would come over for dinner. Writer Gene Youngblood called the younger Whitney an electronics genius when he was still in high school, at which time he was already assisting his father in rewiring an analog computer in the family’s garage. “I never went to college. Mom and Dad gave me a year to make my own films using our electronic analog equipment. “His first independent short, Side Phase Drift (1965), was a critical success.
 From 1966 to 1967, while his dad was at IBM, John, with his brothers Michael and Mark, staged multiscreen abstract environmental shows across the country, including at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, a hallmark in rock-and-roll history. At Expo 67 in Montreal he created a computer film of a continuously moving sequential triptych on three screens set to Indian ragas.
Gary Demos became acquainted with the Whitney clan in 1970 while attending classes at Caltech. “John Whitney Sr. as a visiting teacher presented amazing 16 mm movies of dots and lines, moving in time to music. His enthusiasm for experimental filmmaking was contagious, and I began to explore the intricate visual patterns that could be created by computer. “He became an apprentice intern at Evans & Sutherland in 1973. There he worked on Ivan Sutherland’s hidden-surface algorithm and some of the first commercial frame buffers. He was also permitted to attend talks at the University of Utah’s famed computer graphics department. “Through the work with Ivan, I gained substantial expertise in synthetic image rendering technology, “he said. He left E & S with Sutherland and some partners to try to start up a new company called the Picture/Design Group in 1974. Although the company was unsuccessful in getting funding, one positive result was that Demos met John Whitney Jr. The two became as famous a team in CG as Hanna and Barbera were in traditional animation. 
When the pair first worked for Triple-I, the company had been making equipment for newspaper printers. Whitney and Demos convinced them to convert one of their scanners to motion picture work. They called the process “Digital Scene Simulation. “They branched out as a separate division of the company focused exclusively on making motion picture visual effects. Together they created some of the first CG effects for films, working on Westworld (1974), Futureworld (1976), Looker (1981), and Tron (1982). They created the aforementioned Adam Powers, the Juggler (1980) that was such a landmark in CG.


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2001: A Space Odyssey
Photo Gallery: Moving Innovation


November 15–17, 2013 Computer Age


Tom Sito is a long time animator, filmmaker and teacher.

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