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.
In the 1982 BBC clip, the host of the show demonstrates how far CGI had come just nine years after Westworld was made. [Kieran] starts by showing how the BBC One logo was originally filmed. Someone had to build a physical model of the Earth and place it on a miniature set. This was then filmed with a standard television camera. If BBC ever decided to change the logo, someone would have to re-build or otherwise alter the model in order to show the change.
[Kieran] then demonstrates a top of the line device in the world of computer effects called the Quantel DVM 8000 Digital Video Mirage. This specialized computer was capable of several pre-programmed digital video effects. Not only that, but the system could alter live video images in real-time. That’s a heck of a lot faster than eight hours of processing for ten seconds of footage. [Kieran] demonstrates by pointing a camera at a flat image of the Earth. After simply flipping a switch on the device, the computer warps the flat image into a spherical shape, matching the physical model that was previously shown.
The DVM 8000 worked by breaking the image in to 625,000 points. These points could then be rearranged into many different shapes. Examples include a sphere, cube, cylinder, and even a Möbius strip. The system was also capable of several animations including a page-turning effect. The user could also zoom and rotate the objects in real-time. This device was considered the first real-time 3D effects processor, and knowing some of the history behind CGI really helps appreciate how remarkable it must have been in its day.
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