: Computer Graphics

Dec 25, 1998

CG Rendered in Bryce 3.0 1997 or 1998.

I had an odd obsession with computer graphics while growing up. My father had purchased an Apple IIe Macintosh back in the early nineties. I watched as he taught my older sister how to use Logo, a drawing / math / programing software. I was amazed as he used maths to draw lines and geometric patterns on the screen similar to the paper toy Spirograph. The pictures were of course more primitive than other games we played on the computer….but they were fascinating also. My sister, (who was two years older than me to the day) at 12 or 13 was slightly more equipped to handle the loops and simple algorithms needed to draw the spirograph type images on the screen. I was a ‘slow learner’ as my mother put it. By the age of 9, I was still refusing to learn to read or write, and the idea of typing words I couldn’t spell to run math I didn’t know into a magic computer felt like an impossible challenge. I wrote down and memorized a couple of the simple programs my sister would teach me, but never got much further than that.

Later my father’s obsession with technology and it’s ability to help us manage our lives and the promises they held would drive him to upgrade the family to an Apple IIGS. This was a game changer. This computer could show RGB colors (32bit if you can believe it!?), and had a mouse for navigating a GUI. We had a painting program, Deluxe Paint. I remember spending countless hours behind this program in my sister’s room / the ‘computer room’. You could use the mouse to draw which was intuitive, and I could save my drawings on a personal floppy disk. For some reason this was super important to me. Keeping my images secrete. I didn’t think my drawings were very good, and I liked that I could practice and play with out the risk of exposure or ridicule from my parents or siblings. More than anything though, the thing I enjoyed about the program was a ‘color cycle’ feature. At first, it seemed rather silly, almost a gimmick. In the pallet of 16 or 32 unique colors you were allowed per image (you got to choose each), the program would cycle through the list, and replace in colors in the painting, each succeeding the last in order. I realized, that you could limit the pallet to just a couple of colors, and cycle the pattern to display ‘hidden frames’ of animation. So it was possible to create little 16 frame stories and play with the timing for different effects. I LOVED this. My mother tells me I would spend hours and hours playing with this and making little movies to show her.

Somewhere around this time, my father comes home with a video for family movie night. He found it in NYC. I don’t know how he learned about it. but it was a VHS of ‘computer animation’, or CGI, or something of the like. I remember being entranced. I convinced my father to leave the VHS with us for the week (Taking on the late fees he would have to repay because he worked in NYC and would only be able to make it back home to the country on the weekends where we lived). I remember watching the video over and over again. I just couldn’t believe it. While the animation in the VHS was crude compared to the 2D Cell drawn cartoons we watched on Saturday mornings, the CG being simple cones, and abstract shapes bounding and floating about, it seemed unreal to me. How did they make such smooth motion in the computer?! How did they draw those shadows, and perfect smooth shading(I didn’t know the work shading at the time;)?! How did they draw perfect detail of a marble surface frame by frame, when I struggled to get my mouse to draw the same jellyfish just 16 times?! It all seemed so impossible to me. My little mind was blown.

In later years I would come to discover that this video was a compilation of various influential CG research dating from the early to mid 80s. Timeline_of_computer_animation_in_film_and_television

Several years later my father having been heart broken with Apple’s abandonment of each previous (and expensive) line of computers would buy the family a x386 PC running Dos and Windows 311. I managed to convince him to buy me a copy and Wolfenstein 3D shareware (6.99$) for my birthday or somehow. Then when we got our x486, would convince him once again to purchase Doom shareware. My parents were against ‘mindless games’ by nature, but I argued that these were marvels of computer graphics and they sort of got on board. Eventually, the internet sort of manifested itself, and tumbling through IRC channels I found copies of various 3D programs. Bryce and TrueSpace being the only ones I managed to use. I’d found a copy of 3D studio (not yet earning the Max suffix!) hearing it was the ‘professional’ and ‘best’ 3D software…..but 3D Studio was confusing and impossible to use for my 14 year old self in the absence of documentation. I think it took me 3 weeks each to download these programs 1.44megabytes at a time through sketchy IRC channels. All the while trying to convince my Mother and Father why this use of the dial up modem was going to a good cause.

But, after about 6 months of non-stop trying I managed to get ‘demos’ of the software working, and began to play with 3D on our woefully underpowered little PC. Some of the images would take 2 or 3 days to render! Can you imagine trying to convince your parents and siblings why you should be allowed unrestricted and sole usage of the family computer for 3 days? It wasn’t easy and often the nicer pictures would have to be left to render during special occasions like weekends in NYC with the grandparents. Eventually all ‘retired’ family computers sort of became my domain. Mostly because I fixed them, as often as I was the reason for them breaking:)

Below is an image gallery of computer graphics created by my 15-16 year old self using mostly TrueSpace and Bryce.

Fast forward a few years. I moved to NYC to live with my father after the parent’s divorce. It was a heartbreaking move as I’d just completed two years prerequisite work (skiing and first aid) to join the National Ski Patrol. Which was not easy for someone who could barely spell or write! But, on the bright side New York City held some the promise of a different and perhaps just as exciting life as I’d been planning for in the Catskills.

My father sensing that I didn’t have much in the way of academics (compared to my peers?), thought it best to put me to work as soon as possible. So I promptly applied for early graduation from the correspondence school Clonlara that was administrating my high school curriculum, and began working part time as a stage hand with my father. That wound up being the one of the best things that could have happened. As it turned out, Curious Pictures was working on some realtime Computer Graphics for Elmo’s World on Sesame Street. My father convinced me to make him a disk full of my CG pictures and showed it to the VFX supervisor Richard Coder on set who suggested I apply for an internship! Well knock me over with a feather!

For several weeks I attempted to contact Mr.Coder, but he would not take my calls. Eventually, I just visited the studio, and handed in my ‘application package’ to the receptionist who suggested I instead give it to Rae Morris the newly hired producer/recruiter. Later that week I had an interview with Ms.Morris!

For the interview I was so nervous I thought I would die. I dressed up in slacks and put on shirt and tie. When I returned to the studio in the East Village, the air was different that before, I noticed everything. The walls were at odd angles and painted bright exciting colors such as deep reds, yellows and purples. There was playful and wacky modern furniture in the lobby. The cabinets that lined the walls were filled with models and maquettes from commercials and past productions (many of which I had seen!). Not only was this studio amazing and fun, they had created some of the most iconic imagery of my youth! Kraft Dinosaur. Peewee’s Playhouse….Slimmer from Ghost Busters….and more!!!! It was one of the most exciting places I’d ever been. The feeling was exactly the same thrill I had the first time I walked onto the Sesame Street and Cosby Show sets with my father! I could not imagine a better or cooler place to be in the whole wide world!!

The interview was short. Maybe 10-15 min max from my memory. Very informal. We simply sat at Rae’s desk in the populated production office and looked at the images I’d prepared. Rae asked me some questions. I can’t remember anything but the sound of my heart beating in my ears. Then Rae gave me a complete tour of the studio….the way she was talking sort of implied that I already had the internship…..As the interview and tour wrapped up and I was being escorted back to the lobby, I asked when I might hear back about my candidacy? She responded by asking when I could start? “I’m a home-schooler, and not working per/say so I could start tomorrow?” I replied. She smiled, shook my hand and told me to come it at 11am the next day and she’ll greet me in the lobby to get setup.

That was it!? I felt dizzy on my subway ride back home. Is that how the world works? Just show up, be in the right place at the right time, with the right requirements, and get something amazing?! I just didn’t understand.

On the first day of my internship, I was terribly shy. Painfully so. Not that others felt pain, only me at my self consciousness and overwhelming fear I was a fraud and someone might notice I was not good enough to be there. I was seated next to Demon Turelli who after a brief conversation, suggested I start by learning 3D Studio Max. Damon handed me the tutorial book, and informed me to tell him when I’d finished. For the next six months I worked my way through all the tutorials. The Bouncing ball, learning the basics of modifiers and animation concepts like Squash and Stretch. Then moving on to modeling, shading, UVs and texturing via the rocket tutorial. Then Skinning and rigging via the Salty the Seal tutorial. I think there were 6 tutorials in the book overall, but those three were memorable to me.

While that was going on Connie Conrad and Lauren Gold taught me how Cell and Stopmotion animation worked. How Digital Compositing was used to put the final touches. They taught me how to use Adobe Aftereffects (Which was just like Photoshop…but in time!!), and the Ink and Paint Program.

Micheal Distigliano(sp?) was there at the time also. He and I would use Photoshop (my only production ready skill at that point), to touch up artwork at night for the Curious Toy’s division. We scanned artwork on the big blue UMax scanner (it was amazing at the time!!) and then spend days conforming the commissioned pieces to match the changing tech specs from the toy manufactures in china.

I learned how ‘production’ and ‘industry’ art differed from my impression of the solo starving artists in my mind. Here there was a thriving community of people all working together to create ‘art’ for folks to enjoy. Maybe the studio’s work would not find it’s way into museums or galleries, but there seemed a need we were filling. Curious created wonderful and engaging television shows for children….beautiful thought provoking toys…even the advertisements were a hot bed of innovation. There was money and time for teams of people to explore new ideas and push the limits of their art form…..and maybe the medium was new from my point of view, but the talents I witnessed, and the quality of the images being produced were on par with anything in the world. It was amazing to me. I loved that computers and CG were in the middle of this revolution in artistry, allowing all the different creative people who worked in different mediums to create amazing work together at a functional pace. CG seemed to have another level than the surface which entranced me years before.

Below is a video showing some of the early CGI tests I made at the studio.

There were so many new concepts to learn. Geometry being made up of these wire meshes containing vertices and edges, and triangles. Shades that simulated surfacing of materials in the real world and all the terms used to describe the different components. There was animation nomenclature / concepts to understand and internalize, such as ‘key frames’, follow-through, squash and stretch, volume preservation and in-betweens. There were rigging practices to study like weight maps, skinning, or the difference between forward and inverse kinematics. There were exotic phenomena also. Particles, and physical simulations!

Sitting on top of bespoke foundation, where still more technical aspects of generating and working with digital image files to learn. Various formats for still graphics, TGA, JPG, TIFF, SGI, RLA…etc. Once that was learned there was the moving image containers to tackle with their complicated systems of encoding and decoding schemas. Combine all that with the fact that Curious Pictures was a working studio….there was little time except after hours to play and render moving images:) Even that was complicated come to think of it! One needed to understand the concepts of multi-machine computing, task management, and distributed rendering via the ‘farm’. In retrospect it’s a small wonder 16 year old Anthony made these images at all.

I remember keeping these tests to myself. Careful to not share or let anyone see what I was doing. Compared to those around me, both the professionals and the college kids who were also interning….my images were primitive. While I was struggling with the concepts of the ‘Modifier Control Panel’ in 3D Studio max to manipulate geometry through a ‘history’, they were creating artistic projects as part of their fine arts degrees. It seemed everyone was so adept at the tools, they could use 3D like oil paints or pencils, busy only with the process of being creative. As neither a self proclaimed artist or technician, it was overwhelming and I didn’t know where I fit into that world!

Years later I would ask Rea Morris at Siggraph why she gave me the internship, as in my view, I had no business being there compared to the other interns and artists. I had NO formal art training. I was the only one. She smiled, remembering the experience and said. “You were so young, and had made some simple but nice work. There was something there. I wanted to see what would happen if you had access to real powerful tools and was surrounded by talented passionate people. I wondered what you might be like when you get to be our age:)” She told me.

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