Early CGI Animation by Ed Catmull

A friend posted a link to an early 3D animation by Ed Catmull (co/founder of Pixar), and Fredrick Parke from 1972.  The footage was digitized and posted earlier this year by Robby Ingebretsen, whose father was a grad student at the University of Utah along with Catmull and Parke.  He gives more background on his blog.

I did a little digging to try and find information on the “kit” used to produce this footage. Catmull published “A System for Creating Computer Generated Movies,” in the 1972 Proceedings of the ACM that seems to cover this work. It was surprisingly difficult to find a copy of the paper available without traversing a paywall, but I did find it on dockstock. By the time the paper was written, the idea that a computer was a general purpose computational device seems well enshrined, because there are pretty much no specifics on the hardware.

With a little more work though, I found another paper that describes the facial animation work by Fredrick Parke included in the film. That paper describes the hardware used for producing the animations and capturing it to film as:

This system uses two PDP-10 computers. One of these is a dedicated machine that allows only one user at any given time.

This processor is interfaced to the special equipment needed to produce half-tone pictures. The other PDP-10 is time-shared, and runs under the TENEX operating system . There is a link between the machines that allows data to be transfered between them . This system allows us to take advantage of the TENEX operating system, particularly the file system, on one machine and the special half-tone display equipment on the other machine.

According to the paper, it took about 2.5 minutes to render out an individual B&W frame of the facial animation. That’s on hardware that was probably in the ballpark of $400,000 in 1972 dollars.

I grew up in Salt Lake City in the 70s and 80s and I was crazy about computer graphics. I knew about Evans & Sutherland, a pioneering computer graphics company founded by two faculty members at the University of Utah  (I was in heaven when I got a tour and a demo of their systems in the early 80s), but it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized what an important place the U of U was in the early days of computer graphics. A look through some of the earliest PhD students of their School of Computing casts some light. John Warnock, Ed Catmull, Henri Gourard, Bui Tuong Phong, James Clark…  And then there is the famed Utah Teapot!  Warnock, Catmull and others shared some memories of those days in a 1994 session at the Silicon Valley SIGGRAPH chapter.

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