Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Early Experiments in Computer-Generated Imagery (1957 – 1975)

by G. Jack Urso
Left: John Whitney Sr.'s computer animation set-up during his artist residency at IBM Labs.
Right: Screenshots of some of Whitney’s work. (AWN.com)
Computer animation pioneer John Whitney Sr. may be little-known outside industry circles, but his work set the very foundation for Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI). Establishing his company Motion Graphics Incorporated in 1960, Whitney initially used mechanical analog computers for his work (and of his own design) before moving on to its digital cousins in the 1970s. Assisted in his work by his sons Mark, John, and Michael, and his brother, James, John Whitney Sr.’s work is one of the evolutionary starting points in CGI history. His son John Jr., worked on the effects in Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976), and, through his company Digital Productions, with Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984).

The Whitney Collection, comprising the Whitney’s early work, is part of The Academy Film Archive. Below are seven short films by John Whitney Sr., and his sons John Jr., and Michael, and brother Jame's, which provide examples of their work. These works include Catalog (1961), Binary Bit Patterns (1969), Permutations (1969), Matrix (1970), Matrix III (1971), and Arabesque (1975). Also included is a short film by his brother James Whitney, Yanta (1957).

Whitney Sr. referred to his work as “visual music” and long-time computer users will recognize similarities in the designs to screensavers and visualizations available with many computer-based music players, like Microsoft Windows Media Player.

Experiments in Motion Graphics (1968) discusses the computer programming, film techniques, and philosophy behind the process and is a good starting point. The other short films combine movement and music to create mesmerizing psychedelic patterns evocative of the countercultural light shows accompanying rock music performances of the era. In a short segment from the documentary Computers: Challenging Man's Supremacy (1976), John Whitney Sr. further discusses the techniques he uses in the animation he creates.

John Whitney Sr. also developed the slit-scan photography process, which was used in the opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo (1958) and later modified by Douglas Trumball for use in the stargate sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 

The animated films by John Whitney Sr. and his sons and brother in this collection run from 1957 through 1975. These films, as well as the interviews, noted above, are provided below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Yantra (1957)

By James Whitney. Yantra is the Sanskrit word for "holy machine." The film was created by creating dot patterns with a pin on thousands of 5x7 cards over a five-year period. With the control of early analog computer technology, the card’s images were assembled in a variety of positions and angles. 

Catalog (1961)

By John Whitney Sr. This is a demo reel for Whitney’s company Motion Graphics, formed in 1960.

Experiments in Motion Graphics (1968)

By John Whitney Sr.  Publisher, IBM Corporation. “John H. Whitney explains the graphic art potential of the computer and the methods and philosophy involved in his computer film making” (Internet Archive).
Binary Bit Patterns (1969)

By Michael Whitney, Pyramid Films, Inc. Publication date 1969.  Displays show a “Persian-like pattern optically printed from digital computer-generated images” (Internet Archive). Scanner: Lasergraphics Scanstation.

Permutations (1969)

By John Whitney Sr. Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). Computer programming by Dr. Jack Citron. Music by Balachander. Publisher, Motion Graphics Inc.

Matrix (1970)

Producer and director John Whitney Sr. Music, Antonio Soler (1729-1783), performed by Delores Stevens. California Institute of Technology; International Business Machines Corporation; Motion Graphics, Inc. Released by International Business Machines Corp. and John H. Whitney. Production funded by a research grant from IBM and Caltech Arts. Filmed at IBM Product Display Center NYC and California Institute of Technology. Scanner: Lasergraphics Scanstation.

Matrix III (1972)

By John Whitney Sr. This short film further develops the ideas from Matrix (1970). Music by Terry Riley and Antonio Soler. Matrix II is considered a lost film.

Arabesque (1975)

By John Whitney Sr. with assistance by John Whitney Jr. Music by Manoochehr Sadeghi on the santour, a struck string instrument belonging to the family zithers on table. This represents the pinnacle of Whitney's work at the dawn of the era of personal computers.

Computers: Challenging Man's Supremacy (1976)

This short segment from the documentary Computers: Challenging Man's Supremacy features John Whitney Sr. explaining the techniques he uses with computer animation.

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  1. Enjoyed the graphics on binary bit and Yantra. Real groovy! Interesting to learn about the early days of computer graphics. The early days of most major social innovations are often overshadowed by later developments. Important to remember the beginnings. Good job.

  2. Love the music. Works perfectly with the graphics.