Computer Graphics


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.
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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