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.

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.

[Thanks Morris]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

39 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days Of CGI

  1. I heard 625 lines and thought WTF before I realized it would be PAL. Again, a better standard (compared to NTSC) that the north Americas haven’t been able to enjoy. Ahh the wonders of Beta Max.

    1. I was watching an episode of Horizon last night. It was about the search for gravitational waves by observing b-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background and how this provides evidence for inflationary theory.

      Without actually getting the audience to do the maths behind this I’m not sure how much less “dumbed down” the BBC could be.

    1. It was upwards of £100K in 1982 money. About $250K if my memory serves. The company I worked for at the time had a Japanese?American equivalent which had NEC digital vidoe processors and could handle 4 live images at once. It cost about £250K!

      1. The articles I have read on the BBC HGTTG production said all of the “graphics” were done old-school cell animation. Which specific digital effects are you referring to? Aside from the Book graphics, all of the other special effects were done Dr-Who-old-school style. You can even see the strings in some of the space scenes.

    2. You have no idea. A while back someone took apart a similar box made later on by Sony, and you have no idea how amazing the engineering is on them. The actual effects box was basically a very large crate of PCBs (the Sony model had 8 IIRC), each of them responsible for different things. Each board was dedicated to a specific function or set of related effects including boards dedicated to holding the frame in memory, video compositing, raster and I think by then they even had fancy polygon rendering techniques.

      It could be likened to those big expensive SGI boxes back in the day, except they were designed solely for realtime effects and only output live video instead of individual frames.

      1. Yep, I installed an Ampex DVE box in the 80’s that was full of thousands? of hand wire-wrapped interconnects in a box the size of a small refrigerator, think it cost around half a million$ or so. My $50 off brand tablet probably has more processing power and I bet there is also an app for that as well!

  2. That’s not Kieran Prendiville, it’s Peter Macann. (Lovely chap, set up his first PC for him, dontcha know.)
    He got all the fun jobs… including crossing the Atlantic in the extremely-not-comfortable-in-any-way Virgin Atlantic Challenger (I & II)

  3. The vertical linearity looks a bit off on that screen. The world is egg shaped. There was a pot for that.
    PAL might have better resolution, but NTSC had the best time resolution. Super compared to the two full frames per second on MPEG.

  4. The movie ‘The Last Starfighter” was the first to give screen credit to a computer – the Cray XMP. From

    (Quote) The computer graphics for the film were rendered by Digital Productions on a Cray X-MP supercomputer. The company created 27 minutes of effects for the film. This was considered an enormous amount of computer generated imagery at the time.[4] For the 300 scenes containing computer graphics in the film, each frame of the animation contained an average of 250,000 polygons, and had a resolution of 3000 × 5000 36-bit pixels. Digital Productions estimated that using computer animation required only half the time, and one half to one third the cost of traditional special effects. The result was a cost of $14 million for a film that made about $21 million at the box office. (/quote)

    My understanding is it took the Cray 3 months of steady rendering for those 27 minutes of film.

  5. I worked on the only one in our country. It cost > 1million dollars. Programmed in pascal on an HP terminal. Used a grid of blocks with breaks between them – which you could transform in 3D using standard routines. Wrote some transitions on it to do weird 3D wipe style effects. Each point on corner of a block was splined to the next – hence the curvature effects.
    Eventually leveraged the knowledge to get a job in the UK… So long ago now.

  6. Did I imagine it, or is there some transparency effect during the final cylindrical soda can animation? Is that an artefact or a deliberate effect?

    Whatever the case, I remember watching Tomorrow’s World avidly when I was a youngster. I miss the honesty of such programmes.

    1. I can’t remeber why. but yes there was a transparency. I don’t know if it was a problem, but I know a couple of guys who would know and will ask.

      In 1984 I worked on a set of titles for TF1 in Paris and we used a Mirage to turn a globe into the Iffel tower and then land it on a Quatel Paintbox image of a birthday cake. Very, very expensive. Took about a week including the programming of the 3D move, and then rendering the composits to a Quantel frames store. The facility we were using were charging about £1.5K per day in 1984 money. As the Video Editor my rate was about £250 plus expenses.

      We had a programmer called David Nadel (I think) who had worked on Last Starfighter and got a credit. I believe he ended up as a professor at Cal Tech.

      PS Why doesn’t the Firefox spell checker work on this site? And if this is powered by WordPress, how come there spell checker is not enabled?

  7. The Quantel was what is called a DVE device, a digital video effect generator, hence not technically CGI – computer GENERATED image. And lets not forget Larry Cuba and the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at UIC who provided computer graphics for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977 – his animation of the Death Star is shown to pilots in the Rebel Alliance.

  8. For those who remember that far back, if you look here at Photos > Molinare, you will see the Dubner which was used to make the original Channel $ animated logo. The racks hold 4 PDP 11 as a bonus! I’m going to redo the site in WordPress so it is easier to find things, plus I have recently found a lot of photos I took in the 70’s, and hope there are some with interesting retro tech.

    1. Good post Sadiq and interesting link.

      It never occurred to me that Digital Video Editing was done in the early 1980s. It looks like all the pdp-11s were pdp-11/34s – did they have 48K words or 48Kbytes of core? Given the amount of RAM and floppy storage, it has to be a linear video editing suite: the pdp-11 controls at least two time-coded video reel (source+destination); the editor person scans through for the footage s/he’s interested in ( and feeds the time codes to the pdp-11 to generate an edit decision list). Then the pdp-11 is told to edit the video: it reselects the edit points according to the sequence; copying a source video clip from each one in turn to the destination reel and prompting for new source reels if needed. If the video contained mistakes you’d have to go back to modifying the EDL.

      Given the amount of computing power available, it’s pretty amazing how they edited video then; but the storage for this will be tiny. An Edit decision only needs Tape#, HH:MM:SS:FF * 2 for the end point, which could easily fit in 6 bytes. So, a one hour video with an edit every 2s only needs 10.5Kb of storage, stunning! Given this, what’s equally surprising is that early video cassette units didn’t have, say, proper SMPTE coding and a simple serial port for selecting and playing sequences. Then, similar low-budget editing could have been supported on humble 8-bit micros.

      Here’s a quick question. Could the pdp-11s only support one editing session at a time, or could each one serve multiple editing terminals each with their own pair of VTRs?

  9. In the same year – 1982 – the BBC produced a Doctor Who story called “Castrovalva” inspired by the work of M C Escher which used effects like this at the end. I remember the screen divided into halves horizontally, the bottom half being upside-down: characters ran across the top half left to right, and immediately reappeared in the bottom half the wrong way up and ran back across the screen from right to left.

  10. Interesting aspect of the video: 20 seconds in, Peter Macann says “This system does away with Christopher Columbus and goes for a flat world.” That’s because up until fairly recently, it was taught in UK schools that Christopher Columbus was the guy who rebelled against the medieval church’s flat world dogma and proved the earth was round. I was taught it in school too.

    However, it turns out that everyone in Christopher Columbus’s day already knew the earth was round and knew how big it was too; which is why they weren’t crazy enough to sponsor an impossible 30,000Km sea-voyage. They just didn’t reckon with a handy continent in the middle just where Columbus’s terrible geography said India ought to be ;-)

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