Holey moley, Michael Crichton’s ‘Westworld’ is 50 this year

The film celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and included a huge step forward in digital VFX.

In Michael Crichton’s 1973 future dystopia Westworld, the androids of a Western-themed amusement park begin malfunctioning and turn on the park’s human visitors.

The film features one of the first major ‘firsts’ in digital visual effects, where digital image processing was used to represent the android Gunsligher’s POV. A ‘pixelation’ technique broke up the image into large color blocks (mosaic-like) for the POV.

It required two significant leaps. First, a way of scanning and playing back the footage. Remember, this was the film/optical days. The second was the actual image manipulation itself.

Behind the work was John Whitney, Jr., who worked with Information International, Inc (Triple-I) on the process. That company was an innovator in building custom film recorders and scanners, plus custom graphics processors, image accelerators and software.

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To achieve the effect, each desired 70mm film frame was color-sperated and scanned to convert them into rectangular blocks. Color was added according to the tone values developed and the resulting coarse pixel matrix output back to film.

Whitney, Jr. documented the process for American Cinematographer. Here’s a short excerpt:

This testing phase ran for two months, and then the first scenes began to arrive from the film. As they came in, I had the MGM optical department make black-and-white color separations from the camera negative. Each separation was individually scanned, data processed and stored on tape. The next stage was tape playback on a high-resolution oscilloscope, and the resulting image rephotographed. This process was done frame-by-frame, for each color separation, for each scene.

But it was also exciting to be there, especially during the scanning. You would be sitting in this big room with the lights off and all this equipment around you, and there would be several monitors — graphics display terminals — all showing the newly digitized image at the same time so wherever you looked you would see the image. It was quite amazing, going from the analog world of 35mm to this digital, electronic world. We had our usual share of foul-ups and mishaps. Contrast control was very delicate, because it had two phases — contrast was partially determined in scanning, and partially in re-photography of the digitized image. Because we were working with color separations, a shift in contrast altered our final colors. This made it very tricky.

Once I had the re-photographed color separations, I took them to my own optical printer to recombine them. Here I had more testing, and further discussions with the director on how they should be recombined. After a great deal of testing with different filters, and printing the records different colors, we settled on an approach that would give the most natural colors.

The New Yorker also covered the landmark film here, previously. Meanwhile, you can check out befores & afters’ coverage of the HBO Westworld series here.

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