Pixar before Pixar

Anyone interested in the history of computer animation and the roots of Pixar is in for a treat. Headlining this post is a forty-year-old video created by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and classmate Fred Parke at the University of Utah. The animation of the hand, which is among the earliest examples of rendered 3D animation, was reused in the 1976 feature Futureworld. It was the first use of computer modeled animation in a feature film. The backstory of who had a copy of the entire film and why it’s posted on Vimeo is also fascinating and worth a read.

Next up is Vol Libre by Loren Carpenter. The film is considered a classic of early computer graphics and caused a huge stir when it debuted at SIGGRAPH in 1980. In fact, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith walked up to Carpenter after the screening and offered him a job on the spot in George Lucas’s Computer Division, which eventually became Pixar. Carpenter has been with the studio ever since. Here’s what he wrote about Vol Libre in the video description on Vimeo:

I made this film in 1979-80 to accompany a SIGGRAPH paper on how to synthesize fractal geometry with a computer. It is the world’s first fractal movie. It utilizes 8-10 different fractal generating algorithms. I used an antialiased version of this software to create the fractal planet in the Genesis Sequence of Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan. These frames were computed on a VAX-11/780 at about 20-40 minutes each.

I didn’t interview Catmull or Carpenter when I wrote The Art of Pixar Short Films, but I did speak to three of their colleagues on the technology side–Alvy Ray Smith, Eben Ostby and Bill Reeves. Of the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted over the years, I’ll admit that these were the only times I’d ever felt intimidated. These folks are brilliant minds who are smarter than I could ever hope to be. I have a layman’s understanding of how computer animation works, but I can’t pretend to grasp the nuances of how they write code that translates ones and zeros into fantastic computer animated imagery. I’d be willing to wager that very few of the artists who work in computer animation have any clue either. The technology is taken for granted; we simply accept that these programs enable the creation of wonderful images.

The software didn’t exist four decades ago though. Watching these early pieces of computer animation only heightens my sense of awe and admiration for the scientists and technologists who have made computer animation possible. In a mere blip of time, they’ve built the technological platform that makes possible every one of today’s computer-animated and effects-laden films. Not to mention that their discoveries have led to the development of entirely new forms of entertainment like video games. They are some very smart people indeed.

(Thanks, Brian Hoary, for the Ed Catmull link)