Tuesday, June 30, 2015

2010: A PC Odyssey

Special-effects master Robert Hollander and others use the PC and AT to create futuristic graphics for 2010 and other films.

by Barbara Krasnoff

A starship zooms past a distant sun. A 12-foot salamander marches ponderously across a desert in space. A three-dimensional head revolves on a 360-degree axis. In the vast realms of the science fiction film, a great deal, if not most, of the filmmaker's emphasis is on special effects, or SFX - the camera tricks that help the audience suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy world onscreen.

Most of these effects are produced with highly sophisticated, and highly expensive, mainframe computer systems. However, two innovative experts in special effects have now developed PC-based systems that create sophisticated graphics and motion-control effects for the silver screen.

Futuristic Graphics

In 2010, the sequel to the classic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, graphics experts produced background effects using a very down-to-earth IBM PC system.

In 2010, U.S. and Soviet astronauts are sent to investigate the fate of the ship lost in 2001. A multitude of on-board monitors flicker with animated computer graphics that depict segmented spaceships, mysterious black slabs, and human heads being examined (presumably) by the ship's scanners. These computer graphics are the creations of Video Image, a small, Los Angeles-based special-effects company. And, according to one of the general partners, Richard E. Hollander, 35 percent of them were created with a PC.

"Lots of people ask, 'Why did you choose a PC?' " muses Hollander in his Marina del Rey studio. " 'Why didn't you use a VAX?' The obvious reason was money, and the fact was we didn't have to have high-resolution graphics for this production. With the volume of production and the type of contract we were getting into, I felt we needed two machines in case one broke. The PC fit the bill."

Hollander, who has a degree in electrical engineering and computer programming from Berkley, had worked on such movies as The China Syndrome and Star Trek - The Motion Picture. When the bidding for the video effects for MGM's new film came up, he formed Video Image to try for the job. The new company included John C. Walsh, whose background is in art, along with Gregory L McMurry and Rhonda C. Gunner, both video editing and electronics specialists.

Europa on a video monitor on board the Leonov.

"We probably got the contract because we were able to provide all the art direction and the technical support as a single company," Hollander says. "The way it worked was that the director, Peter Hyams, first talked to Gregory, who gave the information to John and myself. We created the imagery back at the office, and Greg and Rhonda went on the set to play back the imagery we had created. That kind of vertical integration in a project, especially on like 2010, makes it go really smoothly for the director." He smiles, "It makes it nice for us, too."

Video Image uses two identical PC-based systems consisting of an IBM PC (one with a 10-megabyte and one with a 15-megabyte Davong hard disk), a floating-point math processor, a Cubicomp CS-5 Solid Modeling System, a backup PC unit with a 15-megabyte hard disk, a GPCO 20-inch by 20-inch digitizing tablet, and a 19-inch monitor.

Originally, Hollander used a Cromemco System 2 CP/M computer system for the less-sophisticated graphics production on 2010. But he found that the CP/M computer had distinct limitations.

"I felt that the PCs gave me a lot more power than I would have had with the cromemco. And the Cubicomp gave me a base of 3-D image creation. The day I got it, I started digitizing some models into the system. That's a lot of work."

"When I bought the Cubicomp, I was not looking for only a piece of hardware. I was looking for a piece of hardware combined with a piece of software. Software costs much more than hardware, especially in the area of 3-D graphics, and if you don't have decent software, you can't do anything when you get a new piece of hardware. It's an old rule for mainframes, and it holds just as well for PCs."

Video Image's PC systems use three basic pieces of software. The first two are Cubicomp's CS-5 Solid Modeling System and Time Arts's Easel. But these two alone didn't fill the studio's needs.

"We needed to move objects around in space, and to do quite a few other things, and we had to write some support programs to interface to those two packages. We call our support software HAL," Hollander says, grinning (HAL is the name of the computer featured in both 2001 and 2010). Hollander wrote HAL using Lattice C. Along with the improved facilities came a few frustrations, Hollander explained. "At that time, HAL didn't support the full address space of the processor, which was a severe nuisance, but using an overlay linker called pLink helped us get around part of that problem. Then Lattice C came out with full point conversion, and we suffered again because the floating-point processor software that we had did not do everything we needed."

"You can't do computer graphics without a floating-point processor," Hollander said. He then paused for a moment before correcting himself. "I should say, you can do anything you want - it just takes a long time."

Hollander's software, a modular overlay, which is structured to line up applications programs as they become necessary, forms the basis of many of the company's animation tools.

"We use a 3-D animation system to give coordinates for axes of movement. Our paint program, which has color map manipulation animation capabilities, is very important too. We also use a typesetting program. And we have programs that smooth out curves, an object interpolator that changes the shapes of objects as well as squeezing, rotating, and distorting them ... It never ends. The program grows every time we do a project because there's just so many different things you can do with computer animation."

Artistic Freedom

The Video Image crew had a lot of artistic freedom over what they could create for 2010's video monitor sequences.

"There was feedback between John Walsh and director Peter Hyams all the time," says Hollander. "We would make a Polaroid off the screen and attach it to the sheet showing the animation sequence. Then John would take that in to Peter, and talk, and Peter would say yes or no."

"Sometimes Peter wouldn't see an image until the day it appeared on the set. That's when Rhonda and Greg would save the day - if something wasn't exactly what Peter wanted, and if it could be manipulated with an effects generator or by editing, they would step in and take care of it."

Once the video animation had been completed, it went through an elaborate sequence of filming and refilming to suit the footage to the motion picture camera.

As Hollander explains, "Everything always went from the video tube to film, back to video tape, back to the monitor, and than finally got shot with camera. Greg made his own box that takes the sync information from the camera and jams the video equipment so that it plays back at the appropriate frequency and the appropriate phase. This rids the films of any of the artifacts (irregularities) that are typically found if you don't synchronize frequencies."

Now that 2010 is a reality, the Video Image crew is using its PCs for other projects, including a 20th Century Fox film called Bio Hazard. Hollander is thinking hard about using the PC AT, but even that will not satisfy his need for fast, sophisticated graphics.

"The AT is a whole new ball game," he says. "And I imagine in another 2 years there will be something to quadruple the capability of the AT."

He smiled. "That'll be nice."

(Originally published in PC Magazine, February 19, 1985. Copyright © 1985 PC Magazine.)

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