Wild things, part 1

Seeing Spike Jonze’s excellent film version of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” got me thinking back to the time that I helped get John Lasseter started in computer graphics.

I know that sounds completely weird, little old me helping to get the director of “Luxo Jr” and “Toy Story” into computer graphics, but it turns out to be true. It all happened in the months after Disney’s release of TRON, which unfortunately had not been a raging box office success. Nonetheless, since I was the young “coming up with crazy new ways to do things” guy at MAGI SynthaVision – the Westchester based computer graphics production house where we did the cool light cycles, game grid and more for TRON – I was flown out to Buena Vista, California to meet with Disney’s brilliant young animation director John Lasseter, where the two of us brainstormed ideas.

I was itching to try out some new techniques for making flat-shaded characters look rounded and 3D, and other techniques for making 3D graphics look more like hand illustrated storybooks. Meanwhile John wanted to do something that combined hand-drawn characters with the sorts of 3D worlds he’d seen in TRON. Together we came up with a suitably harebrained scheme.

I would lead a team at MAGI back in New York, where we would create a shaded 3D background animation, while John supervised a team over in California – with the great Glen Keane doing the character animation – to create hand-drawn animated characters that the MAGI team would magically integrate into the 3D backgrounds, with matching lighting, shadows and camera moves. None of the commercial 3D graphics software everyone now takes for granted existed back then, so we pretty much had to come up with new and sometimes unexpected ways to do everything.

Fortunately, I was working with an incredible group of fellow young turks, including Josh Pines, Christine Chang, Chris Wedge, Jan Carlée and Carl Ludwig. Every one of these people went on to amazing careers. Josh ended up going to ILM, where he revolutionized the process whereby film and computer graphics are combined together, so that you can’t tell which is which (for which he won a Technical Academy Award). Christine ended up at Don Bluth Studios in Ireland, and Chris, Jan and Carl went on to co-found Blue Sky Productions, makers of “Ice Age”, “Robots” and other visually stunning films.

Our Wild Things test was delightfully successful, and John became completely smitten with the possibilities of computer graphics. There is a video of our little test up on YouTube. Unfortunately, soon after the test was finished there was a political regime change at Disney headquarters, and John Lasseter – the fair-haired boy of the outgoing regime – ended up getting fired, for the crime of continuing to push this weird new computer graphics stuff (hard to believe now but true). Fortunately, John was able to take our little “Where the Wild Things Are” test over to Ed Catmull at LucasFilm as a calling card, where Ed (who may be the smartest guy I know) immediately brought him on as creative director of what would soon become Pixar. The rest, as they say, is – well, you know.

Some of the techniques we came up with in doing that test were extremely cool, and I don’t think they’ve been properly described anywhere. So I’m going to take the next few days to describe them here. Think of it as a rare window into the old “wild west” days of computer graphics, when computers ran slow, programmers ran fast, and we all just made it up as we went along, with nothing to go on but some pixels and a dream.

7 thoughts on “Wild things, part 1”

  1. What a story wow… now I’m eagerly awaiting the next posts.

    Oh, and that test looks amazing, very impressive, especially when looking at the time it was created.

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