It is regrettable that aside from eye-catching effects in cartoons, movies and television ads, the general public doesn’t get to witness the incredible progression of computer graphics. Mass-market movies such as Antz and A Bug’s Life, for instance, represent just a small part of the technological and expressive innovation that the technology makes possible.
Every year, computer graphics professionals are treated to a show of cutting-edge work that we civilians seldom glimpse. The venue is an international conference called Siggraph-the Association for Computing Machinery’s special interest group for graphics. At the 1998 gathering in Orlando, the hottest ticket this side of Disney World was for the Electronic Theater. There were only seven showings of this program offering the best of computer graphics: scientific visualizations, technical breakthroughs, artistic statements, commercial appeals, student demos and yes, the latest in Hollywood special effects and animation.
The Electronic Theater was open only for the four days of Siggraph. But not to worry. The conference organizers have made most of its three dozen pieces available on videocassette. To anyone who may have been put off by the sameness of commercially released computer graphics collections in the past, this collection presents the real deal-a taste of explosive originality. The range of expression astonishes: visionary, rational, profound, funny, quirky, awe-inspiring. My nontechie wife, who resisted the idea of watching a computer graphics collection, was mesmerized by the variety and creativity of the productions here.
More than half the pieces depict computer-mediated human gestures, physiognomies and stances, and they convey emotion as effectively as hand-drawn cartoons or live actors. From the goofy penguins sliding down snowy slopes on skis made of floppy fish in Stephen Rawlins’ “The Hungry One” to the final seconds of the surreal “Bingo,” a clown skit gone haywire based on a play staged by Chicago’s Neo-Futurist Theater Company, it’s clear computer graphics have made a great leap forward in their power to show the nuances of personality. Rather than just replicating faces and bodies, the pieces filter and augment human traits, whether the downhill postures in “The Hungry One” or the woodenness and plasticity of “Bingo.” The result is special effects no live-action production could ever afford. Send in the clones!
Since the first Siggraph conference 25 years ago, the quest for greater expressiveness through silicon has eked out incremental triumphs: from spindly wire-frame graphics to form-defining texture mapping of surfaces. Computer graphics artists first captured the subtle ways that light is reflected from surfaces, later perfecting the visual melding of morphing. Along the way have come marvelous breakthroughs in realism, in effects such as the shimmering of water and the behavior of particles in smoke and fire. In the blink of an eye, it seems, computer graphics has arrived at the point of being able to portray body language and facial expressions convincingly.
Realism may be within reach, but virtual personality calls for stylization. Several of the outstanding pieces in this edition of the Electronic Theater incorporate ages-old human stylizations-masks. A Japanese entry, “Noh Mask” from Hitachi, shows in Zen-like elegance how a classic depiction of a face can display a wide range of expressions with slight changes in computer-generated lighting. A preview of an upcoming LucasArts computer game, “Grim Fandango,” is a send-up of a 1940s-style coming attractions trailer for an adventure flick, featuring characters with faces like Mexico’s grim Masks of the Dead. And speaking of noir-ish entertainment, we have “The Smell of Horror”-a chilling, cartoonish encounter in black and white in a strange house being tested for toxic fumes. Accentuating the disturbing weirdness of this piece are the oddball, mask-like grimaces of its two human protagonists.
Because of commercial rights considerations, the video compilation omits about a half-dozen clips that were shown at the Electronic Theater in Orlando. For this reason you won’t see scenes from such big-budget highlights as Titanic, Flubber and Antz. Such footage is scarcely missed, though, thanks to the contribution from smaller and less famous outfits. For example, though it’s on a professional par with any of the big-budget clips, “The Smell of Horror” is just one step away from a garage video. Its creator is Mitch Butler, head of a Boise, Idaho, computer graphics house for corporate presentations who wanted to branch out into entertainment. With the Electronic Theater as his goal, Butler and a friend harnessed a network of Intel processors to produce this short work, which has since its Siggraph debut garnered interest from Disney, Dreamworks and MTV.
There’s more on this tape. Sega’s thrill-ride simulation, “Wild River,” overflows with stunningly realistic renderings of undulating, splashing, bubbling water. On the arty side, the French neo-Chagall “Cloison (Partitions),” with its curving, squirming cubicle dwellers, bursts with spirited originality.
Sure, it’s easy to spot imperfections in some of these pieces, such as the misshapen hands in the knight-in-armor tour-de-force “Eroica,” or the overly rigid body language of the girls turning somersaults on a sunny beach in a French entry, “Dolly la Plage.” But these artifacts pale in comparison with the medium’s potential. One warning: Viewing this sampling of computer graphics at its creative best will make it much harder to be awed by the imagery that fills today’s TV and movie screens. So enjoy at your peril.