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Hollywood and Computer Animation

IS 490

SPECIAL TOPICS

Computer Graphics

Lance Allen

May 6, 1996

Table of Contents Introduction 3 How It

Was3 How It All

Began4 Times Were Changing

6 Industry’s First Attempts 7

The Second Wave10

How the Magic is Made11 Modeling

12 Animation

13 Rendering

13 Conclusion

15 Bibliography

16

Introduction

Hollywood has gone digital, and the old ways of doing things are dying.

Animation and special effects created with computers have been embraced by

television networks, advertisers, and movie studios alike. Film editors, who

for decades worked by painstakingly cutting and gluing film segments together,

are now sitting in front of computer screens. There, they edit entire features

while adding sound that is not only stored digitally, but also has been created

and manipulated with computers. Viewers are witnessing the results of all this

in the form of stories and experiences that they never dreamed of before.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all this, however, is that the entire

digital effects and animation industry is still in its infancy. The future

looks bright. How It Was

In the beginning, computer graphics were as cumbersome and as hard to control as

dinosaurs must have been in their own time. Like dinosaurs, the hardware

systems, or muscles, of early computer graphics were huge and ungainly. The

machines often filled entire buildings.

Also like dinosaurs, the software programs or brains of computer graphics were

hopelessly underdeveloped. Fortunately for the visual arts, the evolution of

both brains and brawn of computer graphics did not take eons to develop. It has,

instead, taken only three decades to move from science fiction to current

technological trends. With computers out of the stone age, we have moved into

the leading edge of the silicon era. Imagine sitting at a computer without any

visual feedback on a monitor. There would be no spreadsheets, no word

processors, not even simple games like solitaire. This is what it was like in

the early days of computers. The only way to interact with a computer at that

time was through toggle switches, flashing lights, punchcards, and Teletype

printouts. How It All Began

In 1962, all this began to change. In that year, Ivan Sutherland, a Ph.D.

student at (MIT), created the science of computer graphics. For his

dissertation, he wrote a program called Sketchpad that allowed him to draw lines

of light directly on a cathode ray tube (CRT). The results were simple and

primitive. They were a cube, a series of lines, and groups of geometric shapes.

This offered an entirely new vision on how computers could be used. In 1964,

Sutherland teamed up with Dr. David Evans at the University of Utah to develop

the world’s first academic computer graphics department. Their goal was to

attract only the most gifted students from across the country by creating a

unique department that combined hard science with the creative arts. They new

they were starting a brand new industry and wanted people who would be able to

lead that industry out of its infancy. Out of this unique mix of science and art,

a basic understanding of computer graphics began to grow. Algorithms for the

creation of solid objects, their modeling, lighting, and shading were developed.

This is the roots virtually every aspect of today’s computer graphics industry

is based on. Everything from desktop publishing to virtual reality find their

beginnings in the basic research that came out of the University of Utah in the

60’s and 70’s. During this time, Evans and Sutherland also founded the first

computer graphics company. Aptly named Evans & Sutherland (E&S), the company was

established in 1968 and rolled out its first computer graphics systems in 1969.

Up until this time, the only computers available that could create pictures were

custom-designed for the military and prohibitively expensive. E&S’s computer

system could draw wireframe images extremely rapidly, and was the first

commercial “workstation” created for computer-aided design (CAD). It found its

earliest customers in both the automotive and aerospace industries. Times Were

Changing

Throughout its early years, the University of Utah’s Computer Science Department

was generously supported by a series of research grants from the Department of

Defense. The 1970’s, with its anti-war and anti-military protests, brought

increasing restriction to the flows of academic grants, which had a direct

impact on the Utah department’s ability to carry out research. Fortunately, as

the program wound down, Dr. Alexander Schure, founder and president of New York

Institute of Technology (NYIT), stepped forward with his dream of creating

computer-animated feature films. To accomplish this task, Schure hired Edwin

Catmull, a University of Utah Ph.D., to head the NYIT computer graphics lab and

then equipped the lab with the best computer graphics hardware available at that

time. When completed, the lab boasted over $2 million worth of equipment. Many

of the staff came from the University of Utah and were given free reign to

develop both two- and three-dimensional computer graphics tools. Their goal was

to soon produce a full -length computer animated feature film. The effort, which

began in 1973, produced dozens of research papers and hundreds of new

discoveries, but in the end, it was far too early for such a complex undertaking.

The computers of that time were simply too expensive and too under powered, and

the software not nearly developed enough. In fact, the first full length

computer generated feature film was not to be completed until recently in 1995.

By 1978, Schure could no longer justify funding such an expensive effort, and

the lab’s funding was cut back. The ironic thing is that had the Institute

decided to patent many more of its researcher’s discoveries than it did, it

would control much of the technology in use today. Fortunately for the computer

industry as a whole, however, this did not happen. Instead, research was made

available to whomever could make good use of it, thus accelerating the

technologies development. Industry’s First Attempts

As NYIT’s influence started to wane, the first wave of commercial computer

graphics studios began to appear. Film visionary George Lucas (creator of Star

Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies) hired Catmull from NYIT in 1978 to start the

Lucasfilm Computer Development Division, and a group of over half-dozen computer

graphics studios around the country opened for business. While Lucas’s computer

division began researching how to apply digital technology to filmmaking, the

other studios began creating flying logos and broadcast graphics for various

corporations including TRW, Gillette, the National Football League, and

television programs, such as “The NBC Nightly News” and “ABC World News

Tonight.” Although it was a dream of these initial computer graphics companies

to make movies with their computers, virtually all the early commercial computer

graphics were created for television.

It was and still is easier and far more profitable to create graphics for

television commercials than for film. A typical frame of film requires many more

computer calculations than a similar image created for television, while the

per-second film budget is perhaps about one-third as much income. The actual

wake-up call to the entertainment industry was not to come until much later in

1982 with the release of Star-Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. That movie contained a

monumental sixty seconds of the most exciting full-color computer graphics yet

seen. Called the “Genesis Effect,” the sequence starts out with a view of a dead

planet hanging lifeless in space. The camera follows a missiles trail into the

planet that is hit with the Genesis Torpedo. Flames arc outwards and race

across the surface of the planet. The camera zooms in and follows the planets

transformation from molten lava to cool blues of oceans and mountains shooting

out of the ground. The final scene spirals the camera back out into space,

revealing the cloud-covered newly born planet. These sixty seconds may sound

uneventful in light of current digital effects, but this remarkable scene

represents many firsts. It required the development of several radically new

computer graphics algorithms, including one for creating convincing computer

fire and another to produce realistic mountains and shorelines from fractal

equations. This was all created by the team at Lucasfilm’s Computer Division. In

addition, this sequence was the first time computer graphics were used as the

center of attention, instead of being used merely as a prop to support other

action. No one in the entertainment industry had seen anything like it, and it

unleashed a flood of queries from Hollywood directors seeking to find out both

how it was done and whether an entire film could be created in this fashion.

Unfortunately, with the release of TRON later that same year and The Last

Starfighter in 1984, the answer was still a decided no.

Both of these films were touted as a technological tour-de-force, which, in fact,

they were. The films’ graphics were extremely well executed, the best seen up to

that point, but they could not save the film from a weak script. Unfortunately,

the technology was greatly oversold during the film’s promotion and so in the

end it was technology that was blamed for the film’s failure. With the 1980s

came the age of personal computers and dedicated workstations. Workstations are

minicomputers that were cheap enough to buy for one person. Smaller was better,

aster, an much, much cheaper. Advances in silicon chip technologies brought

massive and very rapid increases in power to smaller computers along with

drastic price reductions. The costs of commercial graphics plunged to match, to

the point where the major studios suddenly could no longer cover the mountains

of debt coming due on their overpriced centralized mainframe hardware.

With their expenses mounting, and without the extra capital to upgrade to the

newer cheaper computers, virtually every independent computer graphics studio

went out of business by 1987. All of them, that is, except PDI, which went on to

become the largest commercial computer graphics house in the business and to

serve as a model for the next wave of studios. The Second Wave

Burned twice by TRON and The Last Starfighter, and frightened by the financial

failure of virtually the entire industry, Hollywood steered clear of computer

graphics for several years. Behind the scenes, however, it was building back and

waiting for the next big break. The break materialized in the form of a watery

creation for the James Cameron 1989 film, The Abyss. For this film, the group at

George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) created the first completely

computer-generated entirely organic looking and thoroughly believable creature

to be realistically integrated with live action footage and characters. This was

the watery pseudopod that snaked its way into the underwater research lab to get

a closer look at its human inhabitants. In this stunning effect, ILM overcame

two very difficult problems: producing a soft-edged, bulgy, and irregular shaped

object, and convincingly anchoring that object in a live-action sequence. Just

as the 1982 Genesis sequence served as a wake-up call for early film computer

graphics, this sequence for The Abyss was the announcement that computer

graphics had finally come of age. A massive outpouring of computer-generated

film graphics has since ensued with studios from across the entire spectrum

participating in the action. From that point on, digital technology spread so

rapidly that the movies using digital effects have become too numerous to list

in entirety. However they include the likes of Total Recall, Toys, Terminator

2: Judgment Day, The Babe, In the Line of Fire, Death Becomes Her, and of course,

Jurassic Park.

How the Magic is Made

Creating computer graphics is essentially about three things: Modeling,

Animation, and Rendering. Modeling is the process by which 3-dimensional

objects are built inside the computer; animation is about making those objects

come to life with movement, and rendering is about giving them their ultimate

appearance and looks.

Hardware is the brains and brawn of computer graphics, but it is powerless

without the right software. It is the software that allows the modeler to build

a computer graphic object, that helps the animator bring this object to life,

and that, in the end, gives the image its final look. Sophisticated computer

graphics software for commercial studios is either purchased for $30,000 to

$50,000, or developed in-house by computer programmers. Most studios use a

combination of both, developing new software to meet new project needs.

Modeling

Modeling is the first step in creating any 3D computer graphics. Modeling in

computer graphics is a little like sculpting, a little like building models with

wood, plastic and glue, and a lot like CAD. Its flexibility and potential are

unmatched in any other art form. With computer graphics it is possible to build

entire worlds and entire realities. Each can have its own laws, its own looks,

and its own scale of time and space. Access to these 3-dimensional computer

realities is almost always through the 2-dimensional window of a computer

monitor. This can lead to the misunderstanding that 3-D modeling is merely the

production perspective drawings. This is very far from the truth. All elements

created during any modeling session possess three full dimensions and at any

time can be rotated, turned upside down, and viewed from any angle or

perspective. In addition, they may be re-scaled, reshaped, or resized whenever

the modeler chooses. Modeling is the first step in creating any 3-dimensional

computer animation. It requires the artist’s ability to visualize mentally the

objects being built, and the craftsperson’s painstaking attention to detail to

bring it to completion. To create an object, a modeler starts with a blank

screen an sets the scale of the computer’s coordinate system for that element.

The scale can be anything from microns to light years across in size. It is

important that scale stays consistent with all elements in a project. A chair

built in inches will be lost in a living room built in miles. The model is then

created by building up layers of lines and patches that define the shape of the

object.

Animation

While it is the modeler that contains the power of creation, it is the animator

who provides the illusion of life. The animator uses the tools at his disposal

to make objects move. Every animation process begins essentially the same way,

with a storyboard. A storyboard is a series of still images that shows how the

elements will move and interact with each other. This process is essential so

that the animator knows what movements need to be assigned to objects in the

animation. Using the storyboard, the animator sets up key points of movements

for each object in the scene. The computer then produces motion for each object

on a frame by frame basis. The final result when assembled, gives the form of

fluid movement.

Rendering

The modeler gives form, the animator provides motion, but still the animation

process is not complete. The objects and elements are nothing but empty or

hollow forms without any surface. They are merely outlines until the rendering

process is applied. Rendering is the most computational time demanding aspect of

the entire animation process. During the rendering process, the computer does

virtually all the work using software that has been purchased or written in-

house. It is here that the animation finally achieves its final look. Objects

are given surfaces that make it look like a solid form. Any type of look can be

achieved by varying the looks of the surfaces. The objects finally look concrete.

Next, the objects are lighted. The look of the lighting is affected by the

surfaces of the objects, the types of lights, and the mathematical models used

to calculate the behavior of light. Once the lighting is completed, it is now

time to create what the camera will see. The computer calculates what the

camera can see following the designs of the objects in the scene. Keep in mind

that all the objects have tops, sides, bottoms, and possibly insides. Types of

camera lens, fog, smoke, and other effects all have to be calculated. To create

the final 2-D image, the computer scans the resulting 3D world and pulls out the

pixels that the camera can see. The image is then sent to the monitor, to

videotape, or to a film recorder for display. The multiple 2D still frames,

when all assembled, produce the final animation.

Conclusion

Much has happened in the commercial computer graphics industry since the decline

of the first wave of studios and the rise of the second. Software and hardware

costs have plummeted. The number of well-trained animators and programmers has

increased dramatically. And at last, Hollywood and the advertising community

have acknowledged that the digital age has finally arrived, this time not to

disappear. All these factors have lead to an explosion in both the size of

existing studios and the number of new enterprises opening their doors. As the

digital tide continues to rise, only one thing is certain. We have just begun to

see how computer technology will change the visual arts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

How Did They Do It? Computer Illusion in Film & TV , Alpha Books 1994;

Christopher W. Baker

Computer Graphics World, Volume 19, Number 3; March 1996;

Evan Hirsch, “Beyond Reality”

Computer Graphics World, Volume 19, Number 4; April 1996;

Evan Marc Hirsch, “A Changing Landscape”

Windows NT Magazine, Issue #7, March 1996;

Joel Sloss, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”

Cinescape, Volume 1, Number 5; February 1995;

Beth Laski, “Ocean of Dreams”


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