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Moving Innovation

Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation

Tom Sito
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Moving Innovation
    Book Description:

    Computer graphics (or CG) has changed the way we experience the art of moving images. Computer graphics is the difference between Steamboat Willie and Buzz Lightyear, between ping pong and PONG. It began in 1963 when an MIT graduate student named Ivan Sutherland created the first true computer animation program. Instead of presenting a series of numbers, Sutherland's Sketchpad program drew lines that created recognizable images. Sutherland noted: "Since motion can be put into Sketchpad drawings, it might be exciting to try making cartoons." This book, the first full-length history of CG, shows us how Sutherland's seemingly offhand idea grew into a multibillion dollar industry. In Moving Innovation, Tom Sito -- himself an animator and industry insider for more than thirty years -- describes the evolution of CG. The history of traditional cinema technology is a fairly straight path from Lumière to MGM. Writing the history of CG, Sito maps simultaneous accomplishments in multiple locales -- academia, the military-industrial complex, movie special effects, video games, experimental film, corporate research, and commercial animation. His story features a memorable cast of characters -- math nerds, avant-garde artists, cold warriors, hippies, video game enthusiasts, and studio executives: disparate types united by a common vision. Computer animation did not begin just with Pixar; Sito shows us how fifty years of work by this motley crew made movies like Toy Story and Avatar possible.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31430-5
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Deep down in the bowels of the museum archives of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), behind gray stone walls and row after row of oak shelves and metal file cabinets, in a box sits an old doctoral thesis bound in dark-brown construction paper. The fading title page reads,

    Technical Report No. 296, 30th January 1963

    Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System

    By Ivan Sutherland

    On page 66 is a small paragraph that ends, “Sketchpad need not be restricted to engineering drawings. Since motion can be put into Sketchpad drawings, it might be exciting to try making cartoons.”

    With this...

  5. 1 Film and Television at the Dawn of the Digital Revolution
    (pp. 5-10)

    Motion pictures are an industrial art form. They are dependent on ever-improving technology. Picasso once said an artist can make art even by licking the dust with his tongue, but you need a little more than that to make a movie.

    At the birth of cinema, pioneers popped up all around the world, more or less at the same time—Thomas Edison in America, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in France, Alexander Drankov in Russia, Kenji Mizoguchi in Japan. But only in America was the production of motion pictures organized along the lines of industrialized mass production and mass...

  6. 2 Analog Dreams: Bohemians, Beatniks, and the Whitneys
    (pp. 11-36)

    Two types of pioneers created the art of computer graphics. One group was the scientist-engineers who longed to be artists. The other group was the artists who yearned to create works that went beyond the traditional medium of paints and pencils. Their muse led them to become inventors in order to realize their vision.

    The artists who created CG dwelled on the peripheries of the mainstream media world. Nonconformists, bohemians, beatniks, and hippies—they toiled away in lofts and garages, often with little funding. Their goal, if they would even deign for it to be labeled so, was a melding...

  7. 3 Spook Work: The Government and the Military
    (pp. 37-52)

    At times the patronage of a government is as vital to the creation of new technology as the vision of a solitary genius. It seems strangely incongruous that the story of how cartoons or widescreen movie fantasies are made can have anything in common with the technology of war. Yet despite a hagiography of counterculture and social freedom, CG is as much a result of government funding as scratch-resistant lenses or Mylar.

    The conflicts of the twentieth century—the world wars of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 and the Cold War of 1945–1991—were wars of technological attrition fought...

  8. 4 Academia
    (pp. 53-72)

    There is a story that once, when Socrates was debating philosophy with his students, his wife, Xanthippe, yelled at him for wasting his time when he should have been at his job as a stonecutter. She completed her scolding from her second-story window by pouring the contents of a pisspot on his head. Soaked, Socrates looked at his followers and said, “After such thunder, one should expect some rain.”

    Society has always profited when it allows a way for great thinkers to work unencumbered by the need to pay bills. Pure research, at times referred to as blue sky research,...

  9. 5 Xerox PARC and Corporate Culture
    (pp. 73-88)

    When we speak of the achievements of American civilization, we don’t speak of pharaohs or dynasties as much as we do of great companies. You could say America from its beginning was a financial venture, set up by corporations like the East India Company. Colonies were financed by shareholders who expected to see dividends from their investment. John Adams’s negotiating a loan for the American rebels from the Dutch was as important as winning on the battlefield. America is the only nation on earth whose very DNA is based on capitalist free enterprise. So it is only natural that in...

  10. 6 Hackers
    (pp. 89-100)

    The world of computers began as a buttoned-down corporate culture of scientists and engineers. Oh sure, on the periphery there were a handful of beatnik artists and nonconformists who experimented with electronics in their basements. But for CG’s first decades, the white lab coat crowd was on the front line of advanced development. Crew-cut hair, horn-rimmed glasses, cherry-wood Billiard pipe clenched firmly in teeth, they clocked in, then worked on huge government contracts and research programs for corporations like IBM, Bell Labs, Boeing, and Honeywell. Then they clocked out and drove home to suburbia for a TV dinner while watching...

  11. 7 Nolan Bushnell and the Games People Play
    (pp. 101-122)

    August 31, 1966. New York City. At the east side bus terminal Ralph Baer, head of the Equipment Design Division of New Hampshire defense contractor Sanders Associates, sat waiting for the express bus to Boston to begin boarding. It was a hot, sticky summer day in New York. Sweaty bus drivers grunted as they pulled hard at the steering wheel of their great, gray behemoths. A dispatcher barked a few indecipherable destinations through a staticky loudspeaker. The air reeked of diesel smoke and the low roar of the engines. People waited patiently, reading newspapers, smoking cigarettes, and periodically dabbing at...

  12. 8 To Dream the Impossible Dream: The New York Institute of Technology, 1974–1986
    (pp. 123-144)

    Westbury, New York. Summer 1974. Take the Long Island Rail Road from Grand Central Station out to Nassau County, Long Island. Soon the heat, bustle, and congestion of the inner city yield to cool green lawns, dotted by white church steeples, woodlands echoing with cuckoos, and the fresh country air of the town of Old Westbury. Since the Gilded Age this suburb had been a bedroom community for the old money of New York City. The Whitneys, Du Ponts, Guggenheims, and Vanderbilts rubbed shoulders on weekends. Even President Teddy Roosevelt and his family were often seen riding by in their...

  13. 9 Motion Picture Visual Effects and Tron
    (pp. 145-170)

    Paris, Saturday night, December 28, 1895. 14 Boulevard des Capucines.

    Parisians scampered quickly through a raw winter rain, dodging the passing horse-drawn carriages and motorcars to gain refuge in the Grande Café des Capucines. They paid one franc, then descended the steps to a smoky basement room decorated in the current fashion as asalon indien. There they saw the first public demonstration of a new invention by two brothers from Lyon named Louis and Auguste Lumière. The brothers had improved on the American inventor Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope by combining it with a magic lantern projector to create a true...

  14. 10 Bob Abel, Whitney-Demos, and the Eighties: The Wild West of CG
    (pp. 171-198)

    Generally speaking, when people think of the beginnings of CG, they think of the 1980s. It was the decade when CG emerged from the lab and went retail. When the 1980s began there were one or two boutique studios doing CG exclusively. But by 1990 the great media centers of the world were peppered with small digital houses providing effects for film and TV: Metrolight, Centropolis, Xaos, Lamb and Associates, Bo Gehring Aviation, deGraf/Wahrman, R. Greenberg, and many more. It was like the Old West, a digital boomtown populated with geniuses, hucksters, artists, craftsmen, and card sharks, all hawking pixilated...

  15. 11 Motion Capture: The Uncanny Hybrid
    (pp. 199-216)

    Since humans first began making images, the source of creative “talent” has always proved elusive. Why can some people create pictures, stories, or music effortlessly, while others lack such skills? Why can some conceive of things in the abstract while others cannot? In looking for a biomechanical answer, some scientists have gone so far as to attribute creative talent in an individual to an aberrant gene in their DNA. But in general, the root cause remains inexplicable.

    Because CG is at base a means to generate graphic images that speak to our common capacity to communicate via symbols, at a...

  16. 12 The Cartoon Animation Industry
    (pp. 217-238)

    Burbank, late summer, 1983. “Ron will see you now.” The sandy-haired young man shuffled into the office of the president of the Walt Disney Company. Ever since Walt Disney started the practice, it had been company policy to use first names only. So it was not Mr. Miller, or Pres. Ronald Miller, it had to be simply Ron.¹

    As the young man walked through the office, the length of a small bowling alley, he glanced up at the walls, festooned with reminders of the rich legacy left by the Disney artists of the golden age of Hollywood. Framed animation drawings...

  17. 13 Pixar
    (pp. 239-252)

    Palo Alto, summer 1985. After a convivial vegetarian lunch, two men strolled along a path thickly overgrown with weeds by the Cal Trans commuter rail tracks that snaked down from San Francisco. Hard to believe this lush vegetation was a short distance from the gleaming glass megaoffices of Silicon Valley, the front lines of the information revolution.¹

    One of the men was Steve Jobs. In a few short years the young college dropout had built Apple Computer from a small hobby-kit business to a global empire. He had made himself a millionaire by bringing high-end computing to the masses. He...

  18. 14 The Conquest of Hollywood
    (pp. 253-266)

    When George Washington defeated Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, everyone understood that the United States was now an independent nation. When Robert E. Lee was turned back at Gettysburg, everyone understood the North would win the Civil War. When Al Jolson sang in the filmThe Jazz Singer(1927), all could see that silent movies were finished. These were key points of transition, events that compelled conventional wisdom to change.

    Ever since the 1960s, when pioneers like John Whitney, Ivan Sutherland, Ken Knowlton, and Charles Csuri set out the basic principles, CG technology had been slowly building. The...

  19. Conclusion
    (pp. 267-270)

    It’s been twenty years now since the key events of the CG revolution rocked Hollywood. Many of the pioneers have been replaced by businessmen. Innovators by artisans. The workforce currently includes generations who never knew an age without computers, who don’t know what it was like to not be able to communicate with anyone around the world instantly or make a phone call from something in your pocket. As Jim Hillin noted, “When motion pictures first embraced sound technology, every movie had a big credit like ‘This is an RCA Radio-PhotoPhone Sound Process Movie’ or something similar. Then after awhile...

  20. Appendix 1: Dramatis Personae
    (pp. 271-282)
  21. Appendix 2: Glossary
    (pp. 283-286)
  22. Appendix 3: Alphabet Soup: CG Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. 287-290)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 291-318)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 319-326)
  25. Index
    (pp. 327-362)