‘It has become feasible to generate useful movies with the computer’

Ed Catmull, soon to speak at VIEW Conference, saw the potential for computer animation early on. Very, early on.

In 1972, Ed Catmull had a paper published in the Proceedings of the ACM annual conference from that year titled ‘A system for computer generated movies’.

It stemmed, partly, from his University of Utah short made with Fred Parke called ‘A Computer Animated Hand’, in which Catmull’s hand had been digitized, modeled and animated as a 3D object. It blew people away because of its smooth shading, flowing animation and because of the digitization and wireframe process behind making it. Remember, this was 1972, and few people had seen this kind of animation before.

Of course, Catmull would go on to be a major influence in computer graphics and animation via his time at NYIT, Lucasfilm and Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. In that 1972 ACM paper, Catmull wrote, “With the recent developments in fast hidden surface algorithms and a method for smooth shading of half-tone pictures, it has become feasible to generate useful movies with the computer.” Which makes watching and reading about ‘A Computer Animated Hand’ particularly fascinating, given it was done more than two decades before Pixar’s Toy Story.

The hand animation was used in the film 1976 film Futureworld in a monitor display, and it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2011 (I recommend reading this related essay about it).

The digitization of the hand was an interesting process, which Catmull explained a little in this 2013 Computer History Museum oral history interview by John Hollar.

“One of the things I did there was I made a model of my left hand. I digitized it. In fact, the way I made the model was—I put my hand in plaster of Paris, and that’s where I discovered you need to put Vaseline on the back of your hand, which I didn’t know at the time. So, my hand got stuck in the mold. Stuck a knife down in there to cut my hand out of that. And then went through this laborious process of digitizing, and then I wrote a program to animate it, and then that led to getting my first paper published in the ACM in
Boston in 1972.”

A page from Catmull’s ‘A system for computer generated movies’.

He added, in that oral history, that he picked his hand to model and animate “because I wanted something hard. Everything up to that point, if you’re
going to look at it, they were really robotic, simple shapes. And in order to solve any kind of problem you need to take something which is just beyond the reach of what can be done. I just wanted to pick my hand because I knew that the hand was hard in a whole bunch of areas, not just the fact that it’s this complex shape. You’ve even got a hinge here that’s determined or not by the joint at the bottom, but by the flesh around it also.”

Ultimately, Catmull would be involved in several other computer graphics-related developments over the years, texture mapping, z-buffers and rendering curved surfaces, to name a few. For many VFX and animation aficionados, the hand animation stands out as one of his most iconic accomplishments.

You’ll be able to hear more from Ed Catmull in his keynote at VIEW Conference 2020. The conference runs from 18-23 October, in both physical form and online, available globally. Click here to register. Group discounts are available; write to info@viewconference.it for more details.

befores & afters is a VIEW Conference 2020 media partner. Ian Failes will be hosting a number of online sessions at the event.

Get bonus VFX material by becoming a befores & afters Patreon member