Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation
October 10, 2013

Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation

There are a lot of books about computer graphics, but some demand more attention than others. One of those is a book by Tom Sito called Moving Innovation, published a few months ago.

The book offers a behind-the-scenes history of computer graphics, featuring a cast of math nerds, avant-garde artists, cold warriors, hippies, video game players, and studio executives.

Computer graphics has changed the way we experience the art of moving images. Computer graphics are the difference between Steamboat Willie and Buzz Lightyear, between Ping-Pong and PONG. It began in 1963 when an MIT graduate student named Ivan Sutherland created the first true computer animation program. Instead of presenting a series of numbers, Sutherland's Sketchpad program drew lines that created recognizable images. Sutherland noted: "Since motion can be put into Sketchpad drawings, it might be exciting to try making cartoons." This book, the first full-length history of CG, shows us how Sutherland's seemingly offhand idea grew into a multibillion-dollar industry.

In Moving Innovation (MIT Press / MAY 2013 / $29.95), Tom Sito-himself an animator and industry insider for more than 30 years-describes the evolution of CG. The history of traditional cinema technology is a fairly straight path, from Lumière to MGM. Writing the history of CG, Sito maps simultaneous accomplishments in multiple locales-academia, the military-industrial complex, movie special effects, video games, experimental film, corporate research, and commercial animation. His story features a memorable cast of characters-math nerds, avant-garde artists, cold warriors, hippies, video game enthusiasts, and studio executives: disparate types united by a common vision. Computer animation did not begin just with Pixar; Sito shows us how 50 years of work by this motley crew made movies like Toy Story and Avatar possible.

Tom Sito has been a professional animator since 1975. One of the key players in Disney's animation revival of the 1980s and 1990s, he worked on such classic Disney films as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and The Lion King (1994). He left Disney to help set up the DreamWorks Animation Unit in 1995. He is Professor of Cinema Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Below, Sito details the book and provides a glimpse at the industry in an interview with Karen Moltenbrey, chief editor of Computer Graphics World.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a veteran Hollywood animator. My movie credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Shrek. I am currently a full-time professor of animation at the USC Film School. Other books I have written include Drawing the Line, the Untold Story of the Animation Unions and Timing for Animation (Second Edition).

What made you decide to write this book?

In 2006, when I was completing my book on unions, I felt I needed to explain the origins of the digital revolution in Hollywood. How the new influx of technologies and people changed the century-old studio culture. When that particular chapter grew too big, my editor cut it by two thirds and proposed: 'You have another book here.' I thought, 'I can do this….' I was present at many of CG's landmark steps and knew many of the pioneers. I looked around for comparable books on computer graphics history and found to my surprise that there really weren't any, other than some websites. Editor's note: This past summer, Jon Peddie released The History of Visual Magic in Computers , prior to the interview with Sito.

What does the book cover?

Moving Innovation is the first complete history of computer graphics in hard-cover book form. It took seven years, and I interviewed 75 of the top people in CGI to get the story firsthand. I go back to the first experiments by scientists and experimental filmmakers with analog devices in the 1930s to the present. Moving Innovation covers avant-garde film, interactive games, military sponsored projects, motion picture VFX, cartoon animation. I trace the slow evolution of these categories along their separate paths, until in the late 1980s they all merge to create our modern digital media.

Tell us about a few things that you were surprised by when researching the book.

That many things we think of as recent innovations can be traced back much further than we previously thought. For instance, the motion-capture suits that created films like Avatar can be traced back to the Walt Disney audio-animatronics of the 1960s, like Ask Mr. Lincoln. And I was surprised to learn much of early CGI was developed under-the-table guerrilla style. That there was never a master plan or corporate strategy to develop CG. All these artists, nerds, beatniks, hippies, military men and women, non-conformists and engineers worked together and shared their ideas under a common dream. Where there were no organizations for them to share their discoveries, they created their own, like SIGGRAPH.

CGI was something nobody asked for, and nobody really wanted, but these people invented it anyway and conquered Hollywood with it. Now no one can conceive of our modern media without it.

What events do you recall most fondly?

I remember watching Peter Foldes' Hunger in 1974, Tron in 1982, Tony de Peltrie in 1985 and Luxo Jr in 1986. I was working in the Walt Disney Animation development department when the Toy Story team from Pixar would come out of meetings with Disney management rubbing their butts in anguish. Later [we saw] their film and Jurassic Park triumph and change the way we make film forever. I was working on the Disney film Dinosaurs, where the software program Maya was perfected. I recall going to SIGGRAPH's Electronic Theater presentation and watching the crowd go into wild cheers over something as simple as a digital portrayal of a glass of milk.

What events in the history of CG do you wish didn't occur?

The digital revolution was a revolution in every sense, and revolutions have casualties. I wish the coming of CG didn't have to displace so many fine traditional animators and crafts people. I miss the smell of animation cels, pencil sharpenings, hot-splice and reversal film stock. Just like photography didn't kill off painting, I hope there is still room for more traditionally made animated films.

Finally, I mourn the recent fall of some the important CG production houses like Rhythm & Hues, Pacific Art & Title and Digital Domain. Great studios, and great places to work.

Which developments had the most impact across the industries?

The subject is so large, there were many developments that had an impact on the industry. Interactivity, inverse kinematics, raster graphics, etc. The government's need for rapid data retrieval gave us the earliest computer screens and pen stylus. The military's need for improved virtual reality for jet flight simulators provided us with some of our earliest interactive games.

Tell us about some of the people you encountered while writing the book that impressed you the most, and why.

In writing Moving Innovation, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of a number of fascinating people. Ed Catmull, the current head of Walt Disney Animation and Pixar. Catmull began studying CGI in the early 1970s and went from being a research scientist, to an animation producer to studio leader. Charles Csuri, who created the CG short Hummingbird in 1967 (one of the earliest attempts to animate an organic being). He was also a decorated veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, a fine artist who posed for sculptor George Segal and designer of the Ohio State University CGI program that produced such talents as Chris Wedge, the creator of the Ice Age movies. Also Rebecca Allen who at NYIT worked on some of the earliest TV opening titles to doing breakthrough graphics for David Byrne and Kraftwerk. Jim Blinn the creator of the NASA Voyager Flyby films and Carl Sagan's COSMOS. And Dr Richard Weinberg, who went from working on the flight simulator for the first space shuttle, to Hollywood to provide tech-support for the Cray Supercomputer used to create the effects for the 1984 film The Last Starfighter, the first film with all-CG VFX.

At what period did development accelerate beyond the norm?

Many of the basic tools of CGI were developed between 1975 and 1983. The next few years were more about increasing the computing power and making the systems user-friendly enough to be utilized by artists and filmmakers were weren't PhDs in computer science. The development of the silicon chip and the personal workstation enabled the retail boom in CG production houses in the 1980s.

Why is this book a must-read for the industry?

There have been books about key individuals like Steve Jobs or studios like Pixar, as well as how-to books with some nods to the history. I tried to grasp the vast panoply of CGI development over the decades and weave its individual threads into a narrative tapestry. Instead of describing a litany of technological achievement, I focused on the people who made CGI a reality. I delved into the reasons the technology developed the way they did, and placed them in context of the history of their time. I hope Moving Innovation provides a vehicle to our understanding of the origins of our modern digital media.