Star Wars: Prehistoric Computer Graphics
By James Grahame
A friend and I presented a brief history of computer animation to a second year film class in the mid-1980s. I vividly remember that one of the example sequences was the crude B&W wire frame death star briefing room sequence from Star Wars. The animation looks incredibly crude by today's standards, but it was brilliantly futuristic in 1977.
The wizard behind the early Star Wars CG was Larry Cuba, who worked out of the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois. Legend has it that he was pushing the hardware so hard to create the simple wireframe images that he constantly had to adjust the air conditioning in the computer room to avoid system crashes. Cuba used a vector graphics scripting language called GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System), written by Tom DeFanti at Ohio State in 1974. The system he used incorporated a Vector General CRT, DEC PDP-11 minicomputer, along with various cameras and recorders.
Cuba used the computer-generated film Arabesque - which he programmed in collaboration with John Whitney - as a demo to prove his chops to George Lucas, and I'm sure he had no idea that his work was going to become part of one of the most popular science fiction films of all time.
Cuba recently explained the origins of the vintage footage: "This 'making of' video was originally produced for my personal presentations as I was often asked to explain the process (back in the 70s and 80s when it was still obscure). Lucasfilm was vigilant in protecting its copyrighted material but OK’d this video at the time, since i had no intention of distributing it. (although copies apparently escaped) I wonder what they would say, now that the EVL in Chicago has resurrected it (after 30 years!) and posted it on YouTube.
Some day soon, all of my films will be available on DVD. They should be projected large, if possible as scale is important when you’re dealing with visual perception. Those who are interested, should watch my site for news, or sign my guestbook and I’ll notify you when it’s released." [inspired by Joel at Boing Boing Gadgets]