June 27th, 2017

On Ed Catmull and the dawn of 3D computer animation

I am forever fascinated by films from the dawn of the motion picture, from a time when there was no such thing as a “movie”, and the creative and technologically-minded were dabbling in pure experimentation with no concept of film grammar, no standard framework on which to build their own stories, no such thing as narrative structure, special effects, editing, or any of the building blocks of visual storytelling we have taken for granted for over 100 years.

People like the Lumiere brothers, Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter had to come up with these things for themselves. Méliès invented the stop trick, in which the camera is stopped half way through a scene, something is changed (an object is removed, for example), and the camera is restarted making it seem as if the change had occurred in the scene instantaneously. That’s a fundamental technique in film special effects which people still use in their home movies, and he invented it. He decided it was something he’d like to try, and simply gave it a go.

Cross-cutting, multiple exposure and forced perspective were all invented and developed by these early geniuses who had to possess not only the technical knowledge to devise these special effects, but also the creative impulse to make the effects necessary to their storytelling. I have such respect and admiration for their ingenuity which still underpins the multi-billion dollar film industry in the 21st century.

The same can be said about animation pioneers like Emile Cohl, Earl Hurd, Winsor McCay and the Fleischer brothers, who within a decade during the 20s and 30s developed hand-drawn animation into the form which would thrive for over 60 years before being overtaken by computer generated graphics.

Computer generated graphics, of course, had to be invented too, and the towering figure in early digital animation is Ed Catmull, founder of the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm which later became Pixar, and now president of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

Where animation could draw from earlier motion devices like the spinning wheel and flip book and combine them with existing camera technology to make animated films, computer animation is based upon mathematical algorithms and modeling software that had to be developed entirely from scratch, usually in universities by PhD students like Catmull, Henri Gouraud and Fred Parke, who all studied under Ivan Sutherland. (If you want to have your mind blown by the power of computers in the early 1960s, watch this video of Sutherland’s program Sketchpad).

John Lasseter is often credited as the father of Pixar, and his influence is certainly monumental in evolving Pixar from an industrial hardware company into the production studio we know today, but Catmull’s work on texture mapping, polygon smoothing and Z-buffering are as fundamental to computer animation as Méliès and Porter’s advances are to film more generally.

Lasseter has been Pixar’s creative visionary and human marketing machine for decades, while Catmull has stayed mostly in the background, but if you’d like to discover more about Catmull’s early work have a look at this post by Robby Ingebretsen, whose father worked with Catmull on what is believed to be the earliest 3D rendered short film, a model of his own left hand. It’s an amazing look into just how difficult it was to animate anything with computers at the time, and what a giant series of leaps it took to get to the first fully computer-animated feature film, 1995’s Toy Story.

40 Year Old 3D Computer Graphics (Pixar, 1972) from Robby Ingebretsen on Vimeo.

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.

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