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Software Development / Tech Culture

How They Made Films with Computers in 1963

The newest exhibit at Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum is "Early computer films: 1963-1972."
Jun 5th, 2022 6:00am by
Featued image for: How They Made Films with Computers in 1963
Feature image: Screenshot from ATT Archives film A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies (Bell Labs 1964).

Computer_history_museum - Creatuve Commons photo by Dzou via Wikipedia

In Mountain View, California there’s a museum that aims to offer “unique perspectives” on software, stressing a belief that “our computational past informs our digital present” and declaring their goal to “preserve our collective history.”

Or, to put it another way, we can appreciate how far we’ve come by appreciating artifacts from another era — and the people who created them.

IBM 1401 - July 25, 2015 at Computer History Museum (photo by David Cassel)

In 2015 the museum restored a 1959 IBM mainframe to working condition.

The newest exhibit at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum is “Early computer films: 1963-1972.”

Starting Wednesday — and continuing until September 1 — the museum is offering an hour-long program with the giddy thrill of looking back in time. It’s an era when computers were “expensive, large, and rare,” according to a blog post on the museum’s website. (Most were owned by government organizations, universities, businesses, and labs.) Yet a few brave souls found their way to the machines of their time — and then used them to pioneer an entirely new way of communicating.

And as the museum’s blog post explains, “Decisions and details in their programs frequently led to surprising results, even glitches that proved interesting or beautiful.”

Beyond Vertigo

One of the earliest computer animations ever was the opening credits to Alfred Hitchock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo. A spinning spiral in the pupil of an eye leads to a series of other circular shapes…

But this was 64 years ago, when producing even that simple effect proved incredibly difficult, according to an article from new-media arts nonprofit Rhizome. To create the perfect abstractions, American graphic designer Saul Bass eventually brought in computer graphics pioneer John Whitney, who in turn had to adapt an elaborate 850-pound piece of World War II military equipment used to aim anti-aircraft fire.

An unsung forefather of computer animation, Whitney continued experimenting with digital art, and the museum notes he’d eventually receive an “Artist in Residence” grant from IBM in 1965.

Their program of films showcases another early computer-animated film Whitney created in 1972 — titled “Matrix III.”

But the museum starts its history of computer animation with the three-minute “Simulation of a Two Gyro-Gravity Gradient Attitude Control System” — a film which, strangely, has a listing on It was created at the legendary Bell Labs by researcher Edward E. Zajac (who also supplies the film’s narration), aided by his colleague Frank Sinden, a mathematics researcher.

Their idea was to show how a satellite in orbit could be oriented so it’s always pointing toward earth — a feat they accomplished using only the technology available in 1963. According to the video’s description on YouTube, their calculations had to be fed into a mainframe computer using punchcards, with the output then printed onto microfilm. Then a microfilm plotter drew the results on a cathode-ray tube, where the images were photographed sequentially, to create the animated effect.

“Woow…this was made 32 years before Toy Story…” wrote one commenter on YouTube, adding “quite impressive.”

The Computer History Museum quotes Zajac as lauding the 1963 animation’s “ability to see a process evolve in time” — something which scientists had never before had in any other medium.

Zajac’s film inspired Ken Knowlton, who was then working in Bell Labs’ computer research group. The Computer History Museum quotes Knowlton as saying he was excited by the prospect of “technically accurate” animations — and Knowlton went on to thoroughly explain the technique in “A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies” a 1964 film (available on YouTube from the AT&T Archives).

It’s a groundbreaking moment in the history of digital cinema, since the 16-minute film was produced entirely with computer animation (and illustrations, in the case of its non-animated title cards). So this film ultimately documents its own production process in clear and careful detail — with some charmingly simple descriptions.

“Instructions for the desired movie enter the computer as a deck of punched cards… The job of producing a movie thus becomes the job of punching an appropriate sequence of instructions onto cards.”

Electrical engineer Nestor Burtnyk and physicist Marceli Wein were experimenting with computer graphics — and had heard how Disney animators would draw the first and last frame of a sequence, and then have assistant animators draw the frames in between. They developed software to perform the same task

This process even involved the creation of what’s said to be the world’s first embedded domain-specific language: BEFLIX. (The Museum reports that the language’s name was a shortened version of the phrase “Bell Flicks.”) And that language is also described in Knowlton’s video. Calling it at one point the “movie language,” another title card explains that “The language speaks of pictures as mosaics. Each picture is made up of small square dots of various shades of grey…”

It’s an animation technique later used in 1965 by engineer A. Michael Noll, who explains the process in a documentary (also excerpted on YouTube by “The Ultimate History of CGI.”)

Within seven years, “both the art and the technology of computer-animated films had changed dramatically, and were poised to have their future tremendous influence on the movie industry, the gaming industry, and fine art,” explained the museum’s blog post, arguing that computer animation “blurred the lines between technologist and artist.”

In 1968 the Museum of Modern Art even featured an early exhibit on computer art, entitled “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.”) According to a short film by the Computer History Museum, artist Lillian Schwartz had contributed an interactive multimedia sculpture — and this led to a collaboration with programmers like Knowlton at Bell Labs. The result was several short animated films which she eventually transformed into “a series of art films” in the 1970s.

“Her films were shown widely at important museums to great acclaim, extending the aesthetic space for computer films.”

One of the most remarkable Peter Foldes’ 1971 film “Metadata” — and the museum tells the story of its origins. Electrical engineer Nestor Burtnyk and physicist Marceli Wein were experimenting with computer graphics — and had heard how Disney animators would draw the first and last frame of a sequence, and then have assistant animators draw the frames in between. They developed software to perform the same task (using keyframes drawn with Douglas Engelbert’s newly-invented technological gizmo — the mouse.)

A project for Canada’s National Film Board led to their collaboration with Foldes (released in 1971).

Pencil-Pushing Noses

Another artist using the BEFLIX language to create computer-animated shorts was Stan VanDerBeek.

The Computer History Museum remembers that VanDerBeek already had experience with hand-drawn (and collage-based) animation, and while visiting Bell Labs he created a series of short films called Poemfields. One challenge was the artist couldn’t see how their film looked until it was complete. The museum quotes VanDerBeek as saying that making computer films “is like learning to draw by pushing a pencil around with your nose.”

But the results were marvels of freeform visual art — especially when VanDerBeek began using existing film-processing techniques to add color to his films. The Museum points out that for Poemfiled, No. 7,” VanDerBeek had legendary composer John Cage create the film’s score.

On YouTube, the AT&T Tech Channel has created a video collecting Poemfield No. 1 (1965) through Poemfield No. 8 (presumably sometime after 1971).


(Above video: Poemfield 2 (1971) © Stan Vanderbeek Estate courtesy of Re:Voir.)

Search the web long enough, and you’ll find an excerpt from a 1972 documentary (said to be copied from a VHS tape) showing a candid appraisal from VanDerBeek himself. “I’ve been experimenting with the computer since 1965, trying to figure out a way how to use this machine,” VanDerBeek tells his audience, adding “I frankly don’t understand it, and I’m trying to understand it…

“There’s a lot of difficulties about this thing. It’s a man-machine relationship, involving new languages, new structures of thought, and a new approach. What does the artist do to a machine…?

(Above video: © Creative Arts Television, courtesy of Stephan Chodorov.)

Historic Hand

It’s funny how compelling these early films can be. On a YouTube channel called “Everything has its first time,” there’s an archived version of the world’s very first 3D-rendered movie. In 1972, two young computer scientists named Ed Catmull and Frederic Parke created a rendering of Ed’s left hand.

The six-minute film explains how a model was made of the hand, specifically with 350 triangles and polygons, drawn in ink, according to the video’s description.

Screenshot from Ed Catmull Frederic Parke 1972 movie Halftone Animation

The video shows how the lines of the polygons can be captured and then transformed into a realistic-looking hand just by adding a “smooth shading” effect.

The video also includes an eerie view of the computer-generated hand from inside the fingers.

As the film continues, the team renders an artificial heart valve, then a face — Parke’s wife — and then finally, a pair of faces. Even the film’s opening credit titles were generated by computer. But as simple as it may seem, the film’s official entry in the Library of Congress notes that in performing this feat back in 1972, “Catmull worked out concepts that become the foundation for computer graphics that followed.”

And the YouTube channel’s curator adds a historical note to the beginning of the film. “The clip was eventually discovered by a Hollywood producer and incorporated into the 1976 movie Futureworld.”

This film is historic in another way. By 1982 young Ed Catmull had landed a job at Lucasfilm Graphics Group — and Catmull’s story provides the ultimate proof that our past plants the seed for our present. Because in the years to come, Ed Catmull went on to become the co-founder of Pixar — and then later, the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Book cover for Creativity_inc

In 2014 Catmull reflected on a lifetime spent transforming technology into art

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