Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

1980’s Ingenuity Yields Mechanical Intervalometer

DIY Intervalometer

Let’s go back in time to the 1980’s, when shoulder pads were in vogue and the flux capacitor was first invented. New apartment housing was being built in [Vince’s] neighborhood, and he wanted some time-lapse footage of the construction. He had recently inherited an Elmo Super-8mm film camera that featured a remote control port and a speed selector. [Vince] figured he might be able to build his own intervalometer get some time-lapse footage of the construction. He was right.

An intervalometer is a device which counts intervals of time. These are commonly used in photography for taking time-lapse photos. You can configure the intervalometer to take a photo every few seconds, minutes, hours, etc. This photographic technique is great when you want see changes in a process that would normally be very subtle to the human eye. In this case, construction.

[Vince] started out by building his own remote control switch for the camera. A simple paddle-style momentary micro switch worked perfectly. After configuring the camera speed setting to “1”, he found that by pressing the remote button he could capture one single frame. Now all he needed was a way to press the button automatically every so often.

Being mechanically minded, [Vince] opted to build a mechanical solution rather than an electronic circuit. He first purchased a grandfather clock mechanism that had the biggest motor he could find. He then purchased a flange that allowed him to mount a custom-made wooden disk to the end of the minute hand’s axle. This resulted in a wheel that would spin exactly once per hour.

He then screwed 15 wood screws around the edge of the wheel, placed exactly 24 degrees apart. The custom paddle switch and motor assembly were mounted to each other in such a way that the wood screws would press the micro switch as they went by. The end result was a device that would automatically press the micro switch 15 times per hour. Continue reading “1980’s Ingenuity Yields Mechanical Intervalometer”