Wild things, part 4

Today a friend – and reader of this blog – told me that when I describe how we did the Wild Things test, I should go into more detail about the technology. I objected that many people who read this are not technical in that way. But he pointed out that it would be a shame to water it down, when there are a number of people out there who really want to know the techniques. So I’m going to go for it, but before I do that I’m going to make sure you get the background, so that everything is sufficiently motivated.

First, a little history – let’s go back in time a bit, to the making of TRON. There were a lot of brilliant people behind the visual ideas in TRON. One of them was the art director, Richard Taylor. Richard was coming to TRON fresh from having worked for the legendary production company Robert Abel and Associates. While at Abel, Richard had perfected a technique he called the “candy apple glow” – which became a kind of signature look for the many award winning commercial spots created by Abel and Associates through the years.

The basic idea of the candy apple glow was to take a white silhouette image of an object, blur the hell out of it, and then slap the image of the original object on top. The result looked like a kind of corona surrounding the object. Edges remained crisp and well defined, but the entire object would seem bathed in an unearthly angelic halo.

It was a very successful look, much sought after by ad agencies, but rather difficult and expensive to achieve. In those days, the only way to composite images together was to run them through an optical printer – a big, cumbersome and expensive machine that reprinted film from one reel onto another, allowing you to apply a simple special effect each time you ran the film through the printer. In order to make the candy apple glow, quite a few steps through the optical printer were required, each one requiring another run of film through the optical printer.

First you needed to make a silhouette image of the object, white against black, then you needed to print a blurred version of that white against black silhouette. Then you needed to subtract the original silhouette from the blurry one – which required another run through the optical printer. Then you had to print the original image, adding it to the glowing white outline – yet another run through the optical printer.

The results looked great, but all those multiple passes through the optical printer were slow and expensive, and film costs ended up being very high – especially if you made a mistake anywhere in the process and had to do it all over.

So one day Richard said to those of us at MAGI, “Could you create the candy apple glow look in computer software?”

That turned out to be a fateful question…

3 Responses to “Wild things, part 4”

  1. Li-Yi Wei says:

    Ken, I actually think what you have posted in this “Wild Things” series could be turned into an excellent SIGGRAPH course, titled “how things worked in the past” or something like that.

    Graphics field has been advancing so fast that many folks might not know how things worked in the past before the availability of current technologies (like what you described in this blog series). But these past generation techniques might provide very interesting insights, e.g. how people used smart tricks to bypass the previous technological limitations, and the notion of “wheel reincarnation” (e.g. vector graphics -> raster graphics -> vector graphics, or special purpose hardware -> general purpose hardware -> special purpose hardware -> general purpose hardware). Part of the course could also cover “a brief history of computer graphics” or something for pure historical/anecdotal fun (I remember there was a video made for this a few SIGGRAPHs ago but that probably didn’t go into technical details).

    This, along with another course on “how/what things DON’T work” (most papers talk about what work but I am always more interested to know what don’t), are the two courses on my wish list that haven’t been offered yet (as far as I am aware of).


  2. Michael says:

    @Li-Yi Wei:Yup, good idea. And a lot can be learnt from both.
    How to re-use new techniques and give them a twist with modern tech – and mistakes that should either not be repeated, or worked around (like doing days of futile r&d for a “one button” solution to a problem where a couple hours of manual labour would’ve just done).

    I’d love to see something like that. And everybody in the field loves war time stories 😉

  3. admin says:

    Maybe everyone in the field should just start a blog (seriously) and write about their experiences. I suspect, with all that great material, the book would start to take shape organically.

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