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Thought Leadership

How Programmers Freed Hollywood

Written By Ritika Trikha | June 29, 2015

In Disney’s 1982 film Tron, software engineer Kevin Flynn is teleported inside a computer by the evil supercomputer Master Control Program. The camera pans over an endless arena with geometric 3-dimensional floating objects above a white grid. Surrounded by a neon-etched digital world, Flynn looks around and whispers in disbelief: “Wow.”  At the push of a button, a laser rod appears in front of Flynn and he grabs the ends like handle bars. Within a split second, he’s propelled forward and inside a digitized Tron Lightcycle, battling two warriors in an endless maze. Voracious sounds of zooming cars are blaring.
This classic Tron Lightcycle scene was a phenomenal technological achievement in cinema. It marked the first extensive use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) illustrating the background, objects and movement in a feature film. For at least 15 minutes, Tron offered a glimpse into an unnatural world of boundless imagination and altered the way we visualized the world forever.
But who was the first to envision this new world and how did he push the limits that bring mind-bending innovations that pioneered the way to our favorite Hollywood films today, like Avatar, Transformers, Interstellar and countless other computer-generated masterpieces?

Coaxing Magic from a Machine

Before CGI made its debut in Hollywood, the first use of computer graphics was flight simulation technology at the tail end of WWII to track enemy aircraft in the 1950s. The government needed graphics on a radar screen to identify incoming aircraft into US airspace for the first time.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.17.09 PM
The CGI technology first came from early tech company Mathematical Applications Group Inc. (MAGI), which developed software, called SynthaVision, to evaluate nuclear radiation exposure. It used ray-casting to trace the source of the radiation, but folks at the company realized they could use the same process to trace light and create images.
When 26-year-old director Steven Lisberger saw a sample reel of MAGI’s CGI, he saw an opportunity to bring video game characters to life on the silver screen, inspiring the animated film, Tron.

“I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind,” Lisberger says.

But in the early 1980s, animators couldn’t just obtain CGI software off-the-shelf. They had to approach software engineers to write CGI programs from scratch. Most all studios were extremely hesitant about the futuristic idea. Warner Bros, MGM and Columbia all turned down the production of Tron largely because of the enormous cost and time for an uncertain outcome. But Disney, which was historically more inclined to experimentation, saw one demo of the CGI and took a leap of faith by investing $20 million into the creation of Tron.
And so, Lisberger, who was decades ahead of his time, set out to find the right programmers to bring his vision to life with technology that was yet to be created. It took a technological village. Four different computer companies banded together to create the visuals behind the 15-minute CGI scene over the course of a year. Lisberger recruited folks from early tech companies that specialize in graphics:

  • MAGI
  • Triple-I
  • Robert Abel & Associates
  • Digital Effects of NY

Since there really was no “computer graphics specialist” job at the time, a combination of physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and electrical engineers practiced the discipline at these early computer graphic companies. Each of the 4 groups had their own proprietary software for different aspects of CGI and worked in silos. While MAGI specialized in computer simulation of Light Cycles, Robert Abel & Associates did the color vector animation, for instance. Robert Abel & Associates’ Richard Taylor was the visual effects supervisor and pulled the strings to help everyone get on the same page and speak the same language.
Tron’s CGI was largely created using the vector graphics machine Evans & Sutherland Picture System on a PDP-11 computer with 2MB of memory and a disc holding not more than 330 MB.
It took hours to render each frame. And they wrote many brand new CGI programs specifically for each animation task. For example, the creative team really wanted Tron to look like the arena was a massively wide. Computer image choreographer Bill Kroye explains how they companies made it happen:

In real life you do that by softening the focus, and kind of dimming the colors. We came up with something that is very simple and I think is standard technique now in computer graphics which is called depth glowing. You assign a mathematical progression to the light of the points, depending how far away they are from the camera source. The farther away they are the less distinct they are, and that makes them look farther away. It’s something you automatically get in live-action photography. It’s something you have to mathematically apply to a computer image.

Creating Tron helped create the future of CGI in Hollywood. In fact, many of the programmers who worked at Robert Abel & Associates eventually went on to create Wavefront Inc., the first company to sell off-the-shelf CGI software.

A Giant Leap Forward & Three Steps Backwards for CGI Cinema

Although Tron was a huge technological achievement in cinema, it tanked in the box office, which prompted Hollywood to generally close its doors to CGI. In fact, the Academy eliminated Tron from the Visual Effects Award that year because they said it was “cheating. That’s how fearful people were of computers in the 80s.

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At the time of its inception and several years afterward, Hollywood producers were leery of going into a deficit financing for expensive computer generated graphics. In 1988, director of Outland Peter Hyams explains the sheer risk of using CGIs at the time:

“The thing that everybody detests about special effects is the amount of time, whether they’re done with computers or models or zebras, they’re terribly expensive and terribly slow…Ultimately someone goes and takes this very expensive piece of motion control equipment and it does what it does and the model flies just that way and you say ‘I don’t like it,’ and the guy says: ‘Well, that’s what was on the board, and that’ll be $35,000 please and it’s too late.”

Plus, as innovative and spectacular as Tron was, many directors felt that CGI could never completely replicate the essence of being human, which is the foundation of storytelling. It just looked…fake, many said. At the time, CGI technology wasn’t advanced enough to mimic the motions of a real person, like the way your elbows and hips move in concert when you walk. Or the different shades of your skin because of the warm blood running behind your skin. There was a long way to go in creating a truly digital alternate world and very few visionaries were willing to keep taking risks to continue trailblazing CGI on the silver screen.

‘George [Lucas] Doesn’t Know What He Has’

 In the early 80s, even the legendary director George Lucas wasn’t a full believer of CGI in his forthcoming Star Wars sequels. Alvay Ray Smith, the head of the newly built computer graphics branch of LucasFilm studio, explains how the Hollywood head honcho didn’t really have a clear vision for the potential of CGI. But, Lucas asked Smith to assemble a team of the best computer graphics visionaries of the time. Excited to be part of Lucas’ vision, Smith pulled in colleagues from the New York Tech, tech companies like Boeing, new grads from Cornell University and the Jet Propulsion laboratory. Curiously enough, Lucas didn’t ask them to work on CGI for his film. Instead, he gave them tasks that fulfilled not nearly half of their potential, like creating a digital film printer, audio synthesizer and controlled video editor.

“There were no requests from Lucas to do what we were really good at,” Smith says. “By this time, it dawned on me that he did not understand raster graphics. George doesn’t know what he has. Although Lucas was clearly a visionary in digitalizing Hollywood, the best I can say about his computer graphics vision at that time was that he allowed me to assemble the best team of computer graphics wizards in the world.” 

But it makes sense. The best directors’ number one priority is to create an enthralling story that makes you forget about any fancy technology at play. Lucas paid close attention to direction, not novelty graphics, Smith explains.
LucasFilm might have never delved into CGI if it wasn’t for Paramount Pictures, which contracted the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) division of LucusFilm to create a digitized genesis scene in the upcoming film Star Trek II. At this time, ILM only worked with physical models, not CGI. Two lucky things helped propel a series of fortunate events that eventually led LucasFilm into the world of CGI. One, ILM just so happened to work in the building next to the LucasFilm’s computer department. Two, an ILM team member happened to be familiar with the computer folks next door.
And so the challenge was on. LucasFilm’s computer department would take on the contract work to create the genesis scene in StarTrek in which they bring a planet back to life.
But the real mission of the project was to, as Smith put it, “Knock george’s socks off.” The computer graphics team wanted to essentially create a “60-second long commercial to Lucas” by directing a move that Lucas would know could have only been created by a computer. Then, he’d fully realize what kind of talent he has at his disposal.

We proceeded to design a move [building emotional force] based on the idea of a spacecraft flying by a dead, moon-like planet with a camera attached to the craft..It is a twisting, spiraling, accelerating, decelerating, sweeping, reversing, minute-long, continuous camera move.

The plan worked. At the premier, Lucas was impressed and praised that particular camera shot and called on his computer graphics department to create 3D CGI in his next film, Return of the Jedi. You might say that Lucas was among the best Hollywood tech recruiters of all time! He built a team of some of the best CGI dreamers and stepped out of the way long enough for them to create something brilliant. Something he might have never imagined.

Cultivating a Generation of Dreamers

But it’d still be a couple more decades until CGI boomed as an independent industry. CGI grew in parallel to the widespread acceptance and popularity of personal computers, like the Apple computer. Still, Tron planted the seed for the next generation of dreamers to evolve what Lisberger started.

“At a certain point in time, the gears really lined up with the original Tron. And it turns out they didn’t forget that. And after 28 years, those kids are now producers, and studio executives, and they were now 35 and 40, and in a position to make the film and take their own kids.”

Forward-thinking programmers in Hollywood inspired a new generation of innovators through both the actual technology and the films. Today there are almost 70,000 multimedia artists and animators creating CGI magic for film and TV in just the US alone. The majority of top highest-grossing films since the late 90’s have all been shot with computer-animated effects.

  • Avatar (2009) – $2.8 billion
  • Titanic (1997) – $1.8 billion
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011) – $1.3 billion
  • Jurassic Park (1993) $357 million
  • Terminator 2 (1991) $519.8 million

Just think, without programmers, we might have never seen the ill-fated Titanic sink. We might have never stepped into the alternate universe of Avatar. Or we might have never met Wall-E, Gollum or Woody! In the words of Robert Abel, a pioneer in computer graphics: “Technology just frees us to realize what we can imagine. It’s like being given the power to do magic.”

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