Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013

The CG Story

How Computer Animation Changed Movies

By David Luhrssen
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Digital technology has changed the way most films are produced and presented, with computer-generated imagery altering expectations over the “look” of cinema. Digital shapes crafted by softwear have supplanted men in rubber monster suits, to cite one example.

Whether or not this actually raises the bar or simply shifts it to one side is not a question pursued in The CG Story: Computer Generated Animation and Special Effects (published by The Monacelli Press). Author Christopher Finch is on the side of technological “progress”; for him, CG has reached “sublime heights.” An artist and prolific writer, Finch hasn’t penned a critical history but a techno-chronicle important for its detailed account of a movie industry revolution that occurred as the 20th century raced into the new millennium.

And there are some fascinating historical connections. Finch draws the line between the punch cards of the old main frame computers and the jacquard loom, an early 19th century invention that produced pictorial fabric designs using a punch-card system. As show in The CG Story, the rather grim portrait of inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard, woven by his own methods, is linked over 150 years of technological development to the harrumphing facial expression of Buzz Lightyear.

The software that made Toy Story possible has its origins in the light pens developed in the 1950s under the auspices of Defense Department-funded research. During the ‘70s, one of the beneficiaries of DOD’s largesse was University of Utah graduate student Ed Catmull, who went on to co-found Pixar, the studio that produced the first fully CG-animated feature, Toy Story, and now heads Walt Disney Animation Studios.

In the years between Catmull’s college days and the release of Toy Story (1995), the computer became a brush in cinema’s paintbox. George Lucas was the key artist. Star Wars (1977) used computer programming to control the complex, groundbreaking photography. As The CG Story points out, many technicians who became prominent in the development of digital filmmaking were in the audience of Star Wars, spellbound yet stimulated to take technology further.

Aside from its narrative of the rise of computer-generated film images, The CG Story is a beautifully designed coffee table book with gorgeous layouts and eye-arresting full-color photo spreads.

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