History of Computer Graphics: 1990

HISTORY OF COMPUTER GRAPHICS


1990-99


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In May of 1990, Microsoft shipped Windows 3.0. It followed a GUI structure similar to the Apple Macintosh, and laid the foundation for a future growth in multimedia. While in 1990 only two of the nation's top ten programs ran under Windows, this rose to nine out of ten just a year later in 1991.

Later that year, in October, Alias Research signed a 2.3 million dollar contract with ILM. The deal called for Alias to supply 3D, state of the art computer graphics systems to ILM for future video production. While ILM in turn would test these new systems and provide feedback.

NewTek, a company founded in 1985, released the Video Toaster in October of 1990. The Video Toaster is a video production card for Amiga personal computers that retails for $1,595. The card comes with 3D animation, and 24-bit paint software and offers video capabilities such as a 24-bit frame buffer, switching, digital video effects, and character generation. The practical video editing uses of the Video Toaster made it very popular, and today it is used on broadcast television shows such as Sea Quest and Babylon 5 for 3D computer graphics.

Also in 1990, AutoDesk shipped their first 3D Computer animation product, 3D Studio. Created for AutoDesk by Gary Yost (The Yost Group), 3D Studio has risen over the past four years to the lead position in PC based 3D computer animation software.

Disney and Pixar announced in 1991 an agreement to create the first computer animated full length feature film, called "Toy Story," within two to three years. This project came as a fulfillment to those early NYIT'ers who had the dream of producing a feature length film. Pixar's animation group, with the success of their popular Listerine, Lifesavers and Tropicana commercials, had the confidence that they could pull off the project on time and on budget.

"Terminator 2" (T2) was released in 1991 and set a new standard for CGI special effects. The evil T-1000 robot in T2 was alternated between the actor Robert Patrick and a 3D computer animated version of Patrick. Not only were the graphics photorealistic, but the most impressive thing was that the effects were produced on time and under budget.

The same year another major film was released in which CGI played a large role, "Beauty and the Beast." After previously having one success after another with computer graphics, Disney pulled out all the stops and used computer graphics throughout the movie. In terms of the beauty, color and design Disney did things that they could not possibly have done without computers. Many scenes contained 3D animated objects, yet they were flat shaded with bright colors so as to blend in with the hand-drawn characters. The crowning sequence was a ballroom dance in a photorealistic ballroom complete with a 3D crystal chandelier and 158 individual light sources to simulate candles.

The effect of these two movies in 1991 on Hollywood was remarkable. Catmull explains, "So what happened was in 1991 'Beauty and the Beast' came out, 'Terminator 2' came out and Disney announced that they had entered into a relationship with us to do a feature length film computer animated film for them. Beauty and T2 where phenomenal financial successes and all of a sudden everybody noticed. That was the turning point, for all the ground work that other people had been doing yet hadn't been noticed before. It all turned around in 1991, it was the year when the whole entertainment industry said 'Oh my God!' and it took them by storm. Then they all started forming their groups and their alliances and so forth."

Early in 1991, Steve Jobs gave the ax to all application development at Pixar. Fearing that the selling of application software would discourage other third party software developers from writing software for Job's NeXT computer he halted all application development at Pixar. He gave the employees 30 days to try and spin off a separate company to focus on application software. This of course did not prove to be enough time, so the president of Pixar, Chuck Kolstad, along with about 30 employees (almost half of Pixar's workers) were laid off. Ed Catmull moved back into the position of president. Pixar lost a lot of talent including Alvy Ray Smith who went on to start a new company called Altamira (funded by Autodesk) and created a PC version of his IceMan image editing software he created at Pixar. This product is now commercially available on the market under the name, Altamira Composer.

A Technical Award was given to six developers from Walt Disney's Feature Animation Department and three developers from Pixar for their work on CAPS. CAPS is a 2D animation system owned by Disney that simplifies and automates much of the complex post-production aspects of creating full length cartoon animations.

In 1993, Wavefront acquired Thomson Digital Image (TDI) which increased Wavefront's market share in the high-end computer graphics market. Wavefront immediately begin integrating products from TDI into their own line of computer graphics software.

Early in 1993, IBM, James Cameron (writer/director/producer), Stan Winston (special effects expert) and Scott Ross (visual effects executive from ILM) joined forces to create a new visual effects and digital production studio called Digital Domain. Located in the Los Angeles area, Digital Domain hopes to give ILM a run for its money. Not to be out done, ILM followed with their own announcement in April to form a joint "media lab" with Silicon Graphics Inc. called JEDI (Joint Environment for Digital Imaging). ILM will get the latest and greatest SGI hardware and SGI will get to use ILM as a testing facility.

PDI opened their Digital Opticals Group in Hollywood to create special effects for motion pictures such as "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Batman Returns," and "The Babe." Now, PDI has become one of the leaders in digital cleanup work such as wire removal, for motion pictures. Often wires are used for special effects like people flying or jumping through the air. Sometimes scratches occur on irreplaceable film footage. For "Terminator 2," PDI used image processing to erase the wires that guided Arnold Schwarzenegger and his motorcycle over a perilous jump. PDI uses software to automatically copy pixels from the background and paste them over the pixels that represent the wires.

Another edit for T2 involved a semi truck crashing through a wall and down into a storm ditch. The original shot was made at the wrong angle. So the director wanted the footage flipped left to right, to keep the continuity consistent with surrounding shots. Normally this would not be a problem, yet in this instance a street sign was in the picture, and even the driver could be seen through the windshield of the truck. So these elements prevented the normal flip that any studio could have performed. To solve these problems, PDI first flipped the footage. Then they cut the sign from the unflipped footage and pasted over top of the flipped sign. Then they copied and pasted the driver from the left side of the truck to the right side. The finished sequence looked flawless.

PDI performed many other sleights of hand for the movie "Babe," a documentary about baseball legend Babe Ruth. A number of challenges faced the producers, one of which was that the main actor, John Goodman is right handed, while Babe Ruth was left handed. As you can imagine, this really threw off many scenes where John had to pitch the ball. To resolve this problem, PDI used digital image processing.

To create the effect of a pitch, John Goodman simply mimed it, without using a ball. Then they filmed a left handed pitcher throwing the ball from the same position. Then the baseball from the second shot was composited onto the first shot. However, the actor playing the catcher had to fake it along with John Goodman and the result was he didn't catch the ball at the same time it arrived. To solve this problem, they split the scene down the middle and merged the catcher from the second shot into the first shot. This resulted in a flawless left-handed fastball. "Cleanup" special effects like this have become a mainstay for computer graphics studios in the 80's and 90's.

Nintendo announced an agreement with Silicon Graphics, Inc. (the leader in computer graphics technology) to produce a 64-bit 3D Nintendo platform for home use. Their first product, Ultra64 will be an arcade game to be released in 1994, while a home version will follow in late 1995. The home system's target price will be $250.
[The console was released as the 'Nintendo 64' in 1996.]

In the early 1990's Steven Spielberg was working on a film version of the latest Michael Crichton best seller, "Jurassic Park." Since the movie was basically about dinosaurs chasing (and eating) people, the special effects presented quite a challenge. Originally, Spielberg was going to take the traditional route, hiring Stan Winston to create full scale models/robots of the dinosaurs, and hiring Phil Tippett to create stop-motion animation of the dinosaurs running and movements where their legs would leave the ground.

Tippett is perhaps the foremost expert on stop-motion and inventor of go-motion photography. Go-motion is a method of adding motion blur to stop-motion characters by using computer to move the character slightly while it is being filmed. This new go-motion technique eliminates most of the jerkiness normally associated with stop-motion. As an example, the original King Kong movie simply used stop-motion and was very jerky. ET on the other hand used Tippett's go-motion technique for the flying bicycle scene and the result was very smooth motion. Tippett went to work on Jurassic Park and created a test walk-cycle for a running dinosaur. It came out OK, although not spectacular.

At the same time, however, animators at ILM began experimenting. There was a stampeding herd of Gallimimus dinosaurs in a scene that Spielberg had decided to cut from the movie because it would have been impossible to create an entire herd of go-motion dinosaurs running at the same time. Eric Armstrong, an animator at ILM, however, experimented by creating the skeleton of the dinosaur and then animating a walk cycle. Then after copying that walk cycle and making 10 other dinosaurs running in the same scene, it looked so good that everyone at ILM was stunned. They showed it to Spielberg and he couldn't believe it. So Spielberg put the scene back into the movie.

Next they tackled the Tyrannosaurs Rex. Steve Williams created a walk-cycle and output the animation directly to film. The results were fantastic and the full motion dinosaur shots were switched from Tippett's studio to the computer graphics department at ILM.

This was obviously a tremendous blow to the stop-motion animators. Tippett was later quoted in ON Production and Post-Production magazine as saying, "We were reticent about the computer-graphic animators' ability to create believable creatures, but we thought it might work for long shots like the stampede sequence." However as it progressed to the point where the CGI dinosaurs looked better than the go-motion dinosaurs, it was a different story, he continues, "When it was demonstrated that on a photographic and kinetic level that this technology could work, I felt like my world had disintegrated. I am a practitioner of a traditional craft and I take it very seriously. It looked like the end."

However, Tippett's skills were very much needed by the computer animators. In order to create realistic movement for the dinosaurs, Tippett along with the ILM crew developed the Dinosaur Input Device (DID). The DID is an articulate dinosaur model with motion sensors attached to its limbs. As the traditional stop-motion animators moved the model, the movement was sent to the computer and recorded. This animation was then touched up and refined by the ILM animators until it was perfect. Eventually 15 shots were done with the DID and 35 shots were done using traditional computer graphics methods.

The animators at ILM worked closely with Stan Winston, using his dinosaur designs so the CGI dinosaurs would match the large full-scale models Winston was creating. Alias Power Animator was used to model the dinosaurs, and the animation was created using Softimage software. The dinosaur skins were created using hand-painted texture maps along with custom Renderman surface shaders. The final scene which is a show-down between the T-Rex and the Velociraptors was added at the last minute by Spielberg since he could see that ILM's graphics would produce a realistic sequence. The results were spectacular and earned ILM another Special Effects Oscar in March of 1994.

In February 1994, Microsoft Corporation acquired Softimage for 130 million dollars. Microsoft's initial use of TDI technology will be internal, to enhance their multimedia CD-ROM products and interactive TV programs. Microsoft also plans to port the Softimage software over to its Windows NT operating system. This may be the first move in starting a trend for the shifting of high-end graphics software from workstations to personal computers.
[Microsoft sold Softimage to Avid in June 1998.]

The summer of 1994 featured blockbusters full of computer graphics. Some effects however, were so photorealistic that the computer's role was undetectable. For example in the movie "Forrest Gump," artists at ILM used digital compositing, overlaying different video sequences on top of each other, to give the illusion that the actor Tom Hanks was in the same scene as some famous American politicians like John F. Kennedy. They also used standard image editing techniques to "cut" the legs off of an actor who played the part of a wounded soldier who lost his legs in war. They simply had him wear knee-high blue tube socks. Then after the film was scanned into the computer, the artists used Parallax software to copy portions of the background over the blue tube socks in every frame. The result is that Tom Hanks picks the actor up off a bed and it looks as if the actor really has no legs.

Another major project for ILM was the movie, "The Mask." In this movie, the computer graphics artist at ILM had full creative freedom in producing wild and extravagant personalities for the character of the Mask. In one case, they digitally removed his head and replaced it with the head of a computer generated wolf. In another scene, they animated a massive cartoon style gun that the Mask pulls on a couple of criminals. This gun has multiple barrels, swinging chains of machine gun bullets, even a guided missile with a radar locks on the criminals. All of it was created photorealistically using 3D graphics and then composited onto the live action shot.

[This is as far as the original document goes except the very last paragraph. The text below is written by me.]

1995 saw the release of the first full-length computer 3d animated and rendered motion picture. It came from Pixar and was called Toy Story. It did not feature any revolutionary enhancements, however just by being a full-length motion picture it had a major impact on the way people perceived computer graphics.

By 1995 the audiences worldwide were used to amazing graphics in motion pictures, but there was another graphics revolution, which started that year. Sony released their Playstation (X) game-console worldwide. (It was actually released in December 1994 in Japan) Until then the so-called Video Game consoles only managed to display 2 D graphics, but the Playstation (which was sold all the time for the rest of the decade) actually contained a chip (besides the CPU) for hardware-accelerated 3D capable of drawing 360.000 polygons/sec.

After Toy Story basically all the major milestones were reached. An ever-increasing number of movies released after 1995 featured some kind of digital effect and these days it is more a rule than an exception. The movie 'Independence Day' was released in 1996 and contained massive amounts of computer generated effects.

1996 may have not been the most exciting year for CGI in movies but the gaming industry experienced a breakthrough in 3D graphics with the release of ID Software's Quake. Hardware accelerated 3D was the buzzword and at least two manufacturers released 3D Graphics accelerators for PC's. (Diamond Multimedia's Diamond Edge featuring the nVidia NV1 processor, and S3's Virge.) It has to be said though that this first generation of 3D accelerators were basically useless. Quake did not require one and even when used, the accelerators offered poor performance.

1997 was another important year for CGI in movies. The sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World was released and it contained much improved animation over it's prequel. At this point anything seemed possible. Other movies featuring advanced CGI were Starship Troopers (featuring amazing space scenery and not-so-amazing CG bugs), 5:th element, Men in Black and the classic Titanic. Titanic was an amazing display of discrete CGI. The most impressive thing about Titanic was the number of CGI shots that were so photo realistic that they stayed undetected even to a trained eye (water, sky, ship, animated people etc.). The digital effects in Titanic proved that CGI indeed had evolved since the release of Jurassic Park in 1993.

The gaming industry again experienced a revolution, this time it was the 3DFX Voodoo 3D accelerator. This 3D chip completely smashed the competition with it's impressive and extremely useful 3D performance. This was the turning point for Hardware accelerated 3D. After the Voodoo, there was no looking back. 1997 also saw the release of Quake 2. The benefits of a good 3D accelerator were obvious and the catch-phrase was: If you want to play cool games, you'll have to buy a 3D accelerator (and at the time, preferably a 3DFX Voodoo).

In 1998 the movie Godzilla was released. It featured the huge monster previously known from Japanese low-budget movies. The movie contained a number of difficult shots where the huge Godzilla interacted with real-life environment. It was a high quality production, but at this point the audiences were barely impressed.
Two pairs of suspiciously similar movies were released in 1998. The first pair had the theme 'meteorite hits Earth'. The movies were Armageddon and Deep Impact both featuring some interesting CGI. The second pair were the two computer animated full-length movies Antz and A Bugs Life. Even though the quality was high, none of them was setting any new standards.

The PC gaming industry continued to evolve and 1998 was another good year with the release of the Voodoo 2 accelerator and it's first true rival, the nVidia TNT. The 'quake-killer' Unreal was released as was the revolutionary Half Life.

It took a Star Wars movie to impress the audiences again. The long-awaited prequel to the earlier Star Wars movies was released in May 1999. As expected, it was extremely successful at the box office preceded only by Titanic and the original Star Wars movie. What amazed most was not the quality of the CGI but the sheer amount of it. Some 95% of the imagery was digitally manipulated in one way or another. The movie even featured a CG main character (the infamous Jar Jar Binks). The other big SciFi movie of 1999 was The Matrix also putting CGI to good use. In the very last month of the decade (and yes, century & millennium), December 1999, Toy Story 2 was released.

1999 was probably the most exciting year yet for gamers all over the world. NVidia finally managed to outperform 3DFX in the 3d chip battle with its TNT2 processor. Not even the Voodoo 3 could match the TNT2 (and TNT2 Ultra) chip. nVidia didn't stop there though. In October they released the worlds first consumer-level GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), the GeForce 256. The GeForce (code named nv10) was the first gaming 3D card to feature a Hardware Transform & Lightning-engine. No titles released in 1999 supported this option with the (somewhat reserved) exception of Quake III, which was released in December. Among those who reviewed the 3d cards released in late 1999, the 'holy grail' seemed to be for a chip to run Quake 3 at minimum 30 fps in 1600x1200x32bit. No card managed that (not even the GeForce with DDR RAM) however. That will be 'the score to beat' in the next millennium.
Just so that people won't think that nVidia and 3DFX are the only players I'll mention the rest of the best: Matrox (Matrox G400), ATI (ATI Rage Fury Maxx), S3 (Savage 2000)

[Text written by me ends here. The next paragraph is written by the original author. My text continues in the next section: 2000 and beyond.]

Considering the quality and realism that we see in computer graphics today, it's hard to imagine that the field didn't even exist just 30 years ago. Yet even today the SIGGRAPH, the conference and exposition, continues to excite the computer graphics community with new graphics techniques. And while companies have come and gone over the years, the people haven't. Most of the early pioneers are still active in the industry and just as enthusiastic about the technology as they were when they first started. Many of these pioneers that were discussed can be readily reached on the Internet. This access is similar to being an artist and being able to pick up the phone and call Monet, Michelangelo, Renoir, or Rembrandt.

 

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