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The Importance of Special Effects

2001 A Space Oddesey

When I first heard of the movie Toy Story in early 1996 at the age of 11, I instantly had to tell all my friends how this movie will be different, how it would be the first feature length fully computer animated movie ever and how I saw it all coming.

I already had seen some pre-rendered computer animations in various PC games and was fascinated by the thought of how much time has gone into just one image – not the time artists took to construct it, but the time the computer took to render it. None of my friends seemed to care. They just wanted to skip the rendered opening sequence and play the game already.

Toy Story was the proof – my proof – that all this technical stuff really mattered and I wasn't shy of telling my friends that I was right.

So when the day came and Toy Story finally opened in cinemas, my father took my best friend and me to the biggest big screen we could find. My father was as eager as I was to finally see a fully computer animated movie and so we chatted the whole drive to the cinema about how awesome and technically advanced it will be. How huge and expensive the computers were on which it was rendered and how every frame still took about 8 hours to process.

On the way home we chatted about how funny and exciting the story was, how good the character of Buzz Lightyear was portrayed and how silly all the toy soldiers acted. What had just happened? Wasn't the the computer animation the important part about a computer animated movie?

Lets rewind 28 years when Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey opened to a baffled public. Not only did it feature HAL 9000, a super computer with a childish attitude, as one of the main character of the story, but it also had dozens of special effect shots. Yet, none of these special effects was produced digitally. Even the countless computer monitors in the spaceships and pods, which showed hundreds of lines of blinking program code, circuitry and wireframe animations of approach sequences, were tediously constructed by hand. Matte paintings and actual wire models, filmed in stop-motion, established a look that no computer at that time was able to. Still, Kubricks prediction of the state of realtime computer graphics in 2001 was too conservative.

Just three years later The Andromeda Strain featured a computer animation of an underground laboratory, that actually was rendered with a computer. Curiously enough, Douglas Trumbull, who was responsible for a large number of effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, also worked on this effect in The Andromeda Strain. Far ahead of it's time, it showed semi transparent surfaces and not just a wireframe model. However, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this animation was done for a computer screen. It should indeed look like it was computer animated and made no attempt fooling the viewer into believing that it was real. The sequence was just shy of 10 seconds long and therefore mostly ignored by the public at that time.

It took George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977 to show the world a computer animated sequence that was a crucial part of the plot. All space scenes were still shot with traditional models, however the briefing scene for the final assault on the Death Star simulated a first person approach and flight through a trench with CG graphics.

Larry Cuba was contracted to work on this sequence after he visited the still under construction Industrial Light and Magic and showed George Lucas his CG art film First Fig. He previously came to fame for programming the film Arabesque, which is nowadays often quoted as the most important pioneering computer animation.

Cuba constructed and rendered this wireframe animation for Lucas on a PDP-11 minicomputer with a price tag of just about $20.000 and the size of a large refrigerator. He had to literally program the sequence with a specially crafted scripting language. A section of the computer model of the trench was digitized from several photographs of the actual model using a light pen and a software that Cuba wrote for this task. In the end, he had constructed 50 of these sections which he then combined to build the final trench.

The 2000 images that formed the animation were rendered and immediately captured with a film camera – there simply was no room to store those images digitally. Despite the fact, that only very crude wireframe graphics were used, the computer still took about three days to finish the complete animation.

Several similar scenes could be seen in Alien or The Black Hole in the following years. Yet, none of these actually immersed the viewer into a computer generated world. They only showed CG as what is was – graphics on a computer screen.

Tron was different. Steven Lisberger's 1982 fantasy movie, that takes place inside a computer, heavily used CGI to bring a complete world to life. Not only did it feature more than 20 minutes of computer animated images, but it also seamlessly combined CGI with live action screenplay.

Dozens of people worked on these computer animations. The overall look was defined by concept artist Syd Mead, who previously worked on Star Trek and Blade Runner. Almost all 3D models were created by two different companies, either by combinations of primitive shapes or polygon by polygon. Animation was done on a frame by frame basis – the position of an object had to defined by hand with 6 columns of numbers (X, Y and Z position and pitch, yaw and roll rotation). That is 144 numbers to animate a single object for just one second – an awful lot of work, yet Steven Lisberger likes to tell the story of how an Academy Awards nomination for special effects was denied to Tron, because they cheated by using computers.

When I watched Tron for the first time, which was long after I've seen Toy Story in theaters, I was quickly immersed in the story. Even though I bought the DVD out of curiosity of what computer animation of that time looked like, I forgot after a while why I was watching this movie in the first place. Yes, the story is cheap and the characters shallow, yet even the simple computer animated character, the BIT, had my sympathy. The movie just worked. I do now realize that I felt right with Toy Story for the wrong reasons.

As one may notice, I am still very fascinated by all the technical facts related to these movies, but the computer is just another tool we can use to create imagery. It is like a blank canvas – it can inspire you, but it doesn't necessarily make you a great artist. Or as Harrison Ellenshaw, the Visual Effects Supervisor of Tron, put it: "Shakespeare didn't have a word processor. When we got word processors, we didn't get Shakespeares."

Saturday, July 12th 2008
— Dominic Szablewski, @phoboslab