Time-Life Article
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Submitted By: guygg

Very special thanks to Peter "Pedro" Petersen for doing the scanning of this article (the REAL work in posting these articles).  Also, I'd like to point out that I don't agree with portions of this article (bet you can't guess which parts)...

Science and the Silver Screen

Inside the animation building on the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive, Richard Taylor could see that he had a problem. Once a light-show artist for rock bands, Taylor had made a name for himself designing animation for television commercials. Now he was at Disney Studios in Burbank, California, co-supervising the industry’s most exciting special effects project of 1981: the computer movie TRON.

As Taylor and his graphics team sat in the animation building’s darkened screening room viewing unedited scenes from the preceding day’s work, a projector cast the otherworldly image of an actor kneeling beside a crystal pool. Clothed in a luminous, glowing uniform accented by streaks of bright colors, the figure lay down to drink from the pool—and his stomach disappeared. The room dissolved into laughter, Richard Taylor groaned, and the scene was played over and over while he tried to determine what had gone wrong. Finally, he ordered the sequence to be redone, and the screening continued. Minutes later, more giggles rippled through the audience as the screen displayed several actors descending a staircase, alternately walking on thin air or sinking thigh deep into the steps.

In both cases, a common technique from conventional movies —that of superimposing live action over an artificial background—had misfired. The live characters had been photographed descending real stairs or lying down on real ground; stairs and ground were then replaced by imaginary substitutes created in a computer. But when the real and imaginary images were combined, the fit was slightly askew.

Although the computer-generated images for TRON were ambitious, Taylor and his colleagues were by no means the first to adapt computers to the making of movies. The earliest such use of computers was to control the movements of movie cameras. One of the pioneers in this field was inventor John Whitney Sr., whose working studio was the garage at his home in Pacific Palisades, a community approximately 20 miles west of Hollywood. During the 1950s, Whitney had experimented with World War II gun-director mechanisms and analog computers to devise what he called a “technology of the surplus junkyard.”

One of Whitney’s techniques was to create the illusion of motion by photographing a static painting with a camera that he moved in small increments for each frame. Later the technique was applied to models. An aircraft approaching head on, for example, would appear to bank and fly in the opposite direction if the camera was backed away as the model was simultaneously rotated on its horizontal axis. Controlling the camera with a computer made it possible to repeat such movements precisely, so that a background or a second model photographed on a different strip of film could later be made into a composite without encroaching on the image of the original model. As the practice evolved, techniques like these came to provide most of the special effects for television and science fiction movies.

But the idea of creating a special effect by building and manipulating a model wholly within the computer -- —computer-generated imagery, or CGI to its practitioners —did not emerge until the early 1970s, when graphics software acquired the versatility necessary to be of use in film and television production. Shortly after that time, in the mid-1970s, Westworld and Futureworld, two movies about androids escaping from the control of their masters, flirted with computer images to simulate the world as it would be seen through the eyes of a robot.

For Star Wars, released in 1977, director George Lucas had one of his special effects men devote three months to creating a 90-second sequence for a brie
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