In Mountain View, California, a museum aims to offer “unique perspectives” on software, emphasizing the belief that “our computing past informs our digital present” and declaring its goal to “preserve our collective history”.
Or, to put it another way, we can appreciate how far we’ve come by appreciating artifacts from another era – and the people who created them.
The most recent exhibit from the Computer History Museum of Silicon Valley is “Early computer films: 1963-1972.”
From Wednesday – and until September 1 – the museum offers a one-hour program with the dizzying thrill of stepping back in time. It’s a time when computers were “expensive, big, and rare,” according to a blog post on the museum’s website. (Most were from government organizations, universities, corporations, and labs.) Yet a few brave souls found their way to the machines of their time and then used them to create a whole new way of communicating.
And as the museum’s blog post explains, “The decisions and details of their programs often led to surprising results, even problems that turned out to be interesting or beautiful.”
One of the first computer animations of all time was the opening credits of Alfred Hitchock’s 1958 thriller. Vertigo. A spinning spiral in the pupil of an eye leads to a series of other circular shapes…
But that was 64 years ago, when producing even that simple effect proved incredibly difficult, according to an article by Rhizome, a new media arts nonprofit. To create the perfect abstractions, American graphic designer Saul Bass eventually turned to computer graphics pioneer John Whitney, who in turn had to adapt elaborate 850-pound World War II military equipment used to aim anti-aircraft fire.
An unsung ancestor of computer animation, Whitney continued to experiment with digital art, and the museum notes that he would eventually receive an “Artist in Residence” grant from IBM in 1965.
Their film program features another early computer-animated film created by Whitney in 1972 – titled “Matrix III”.
But the museum begins its computer animation story with the three-minute “Simulation of a Dual-Gyro-Gravity Attitude Control System” — a film that, oddly enough, has a listing on IMDB.com. It was created in the legendary Bell Labs by researcher Edward E. Zajac (who also provides the film’s narration), aided by fellow math researcher Frank Sinden.
Their idea was to show how an orbiting satellite could be oriented so that it was always pointed at Earth – a feat they accomplished using only technology available in 1963. According to the description of the video on YouTube, their calculations had to be fed into a central computer. using punched cards, the result being then printed on microfilm. Then a microfilm plotter drew the results onto a cathode ray tube, where the images were photographed sequentially, to create the animated effect.
“Wow…this was made 32 years before Toy Story…” wrote one commenter on YouTube, adding “pretty awesome”.
The Computer History Museum cites Zajac as praising 1963 animation’s “ability to see process evolve over time” – something scientists had never had before in any other medium.
Zajac’s film inspired Ken Knowlton, who was then working in the computer research group at Bell Labs. The Computer History Museum quotes Knowlton as saying he was excited by the prospect of “technically accurate” animations – and Knowlton later explained the technique in detail in “A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies”, a 1964 film (available on YouTube from the AT&T Archive).
It’s a groundbreaking moment in the history of digital cinema, as the 16-minute film was produced entirely with computer animation (and artwork, in the case of its non-animated title cards). So this film ultimately documents its own production process in clear, painstaking detail – with some simple, charming descriptions.
“The instructions for the desired film enter the computer in the form of a deck of punched cards… The work of producing a film thus becomes the work of punching a suitable sequence of instructions on cards .”
Electrical engineer Nestor Burtnyk and physicist Marceli Wein were experimenting with computer graphics — and had heard how Disney animators drew the first and last frame of a sequence, then had assistant animators draw the frames in between. They have developed software to perform the same task
This process has even involved the creation of what is said to be the world’s first domain-specific embedded language: BEFLIX. (The Museum reports that the language’s name was an abbreviated version of the phrase “Bell Flicks.”) And that language is also described in Knowlton’s video. Calling it at one point the “language of film,” another title card explains that “the language speaks of images like mosaics. Each image is made up of small square dots of varying shades of gray…”
It’s an animation technique later used in 1965 by engineer A. Michael Noll, who explains the process in a documentary (also excerpted on YouTube by “The Ultimate History of CGI”).
Within seven years, “the art and technology of computer-animated motion pictures had changed dramatically and were poised to have their future enormous influence on the motion picture industry, the gaming industry, and the fine arts. “, explained the museum blog, arguing that computer animation “has blurred the lines between technologist and artist”.
In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art even presented a first exhibit on computer art, titled “The Machine Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.”) According to a short film from the Computer History Museum, artist Lillian Schwartz had contributed to an interactive multimedia sculpture exhibit – and that led to a collaboration with programmers like Knowlton at Bell Labs. The result were several animated shorts that she eventually turned into “a series of art films” in the 1970s.
“His films have been widely shown in important museums with great success, expanding the aesthetic space of computer films.”
One of Peter Foldes’ most notable films from 1971, “Metadata”, and the museum tells the story of its origins. Electrical engineer Nestor Burtnyk and physicist Marceli Wein were experimenting with computer graphics — and had heard how Disney animators drew the first and last frame of a sequence, then had assistant animators draw the frames in between. They developed software to perform the same task (using keyframes drawn with Douglas Engelbert’s newly invented technological gadget – the mouse.)
A project for the National Film Board of Canada led to their collaboration with Foldes (released in 1971).
nose pencil pusher
Another artist using the BEFLIX language to create computer-animated shorts was Stan VanDerBeek.
The Computer History Museum recalls that VanDerBeek already had experience with hand-drawn (and collage-based) animation, and while visiting Bell Labs he created a series of shorts called Poemfields. One of the challenges was that the artist couldn’t see what his film looked like until it was finished. The museum quotes VanDerBeek as saying that making computer movies “is like learning to draw by pushing a pencil with your nose”.
But the results were freeform visual art marvels, especially when VanDerBeek began to use existing film processing techniques to add color to his films. The Museum points out that for Poemfiled, No. 7, “VanDerBeek commissioned legendary composer John Cage to create the score for the film.
On YouTube, the AT&T Tech channel created a video putting together Poemfield #1 (1965) with Poemfield #8 (likely sometime after 1971).
(Video above: Poemfield 2 (1971) © Stan Vanderbeek Estate courtesy of Re:See.)
Search the web long enough and you’ll find an excerpt from a 1972 documentary (supposedly copied from a VHS tape) showing a candid assessment of VanDerBeek himself. “I’ve been experimenting with the computer since 1965, trying to figure out a way to use this machine,” VanDerBeek told his audience, adding, “Frankly, I don’t understand it, and I’m trying to understand it…
“There are a lot of difficulties about this thing. It is a man-machine relationship, involving new languages, new thought structures and a new approach. What does the artist do to a machine…?
(Video above: © Creative Arts Television, courtesy of Stephan Chodorov.)
It’s funny how compelling those early films can be. On a YouTube channel called “Everything has its first time” there is an archived version of the world’s first 3D rendered film. In 1972, two young computer scientists named Ed Catmull and Frederic Parke created a rendering of Ed’s left hand.
The six-minute film explains how a model was made by hand, specifically with 350 triangles and polygons, drawn in ink, according to the video’s description.
The video shows how polygon lines can be captured and then transformed into a realistic looking hand simply by adding a “smooth shading” effect.
The video also includes an eerie view of the computer-generated hand from on the inside fingers.
As the film continues, the team renders an artificial heart valve, then a face – Parke’s wife – and finally, a pair of faces. Even the film’s opening credits were computer generated. But as simple as that sounds, the film’s official Library of Congress entry notes that in achieving this feat in 1972, “Catmull crafted concepts that became the basis for the computer graphics that followed.”
And the curator of the YouTube channel adds a historical note at the start of the film. “The clip was eventually discovered by a Hollywood producer and incorporated into the 1976 film future world.”
This movie is historic in another way. In 1982, young Ed Catmull had landed a job at Lucasfilm Graphics Group – and Catmull’s story provides the ultimate proof that our past plants the seed of our present. Because in the years to come, Ed Catmull became the co-founder of Pixar – and then later, the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Presentation image: Screenshot of the film from ATT Archives A computer technique for the production of animated films (Bell Labs 1964).