Email from New Zealand: Animation ‘60s Style

By Frank I. Sillay

The grand plan was to outline the science-fiction-tinted future that lay before

 New Zealand under the elegant technical husbandry of the Ministry of Works. 

I had been in New Zealand for something  over a year, in the middle ‘60s, before falling under the spell of the girl who was fated to become Mrs. Sillay.  In the interval, I participated energetically in the social life of Wellington, which offered rich pickings, with a university, a teachers’ training college and a couple of poly techs, as well as being the locus of junior employees of government departments and their training. My evenings were  spent going from pub to party, party to pub, concert to party, and so forth, seeking the company of young women I probably wouldn’t introduce to my mother. One of my companions in this quest was a young fellow by the name of Hugh Macdonald, who worked for the National Film Unit, making (unlikely though it seems) films.

Hugh and I shared many hilarious adventures, ranging from falling off a stationary motorbike to inventing the Chinese take-away meal by the simple expedient of holding open a stout plastic bag while placing our order. (No separate containers, everything just ladled into the bag.) As is usual with such friendships, we also solved a number of the world’s problems, and pushed forward the frontiers of human knowledge in the beer-sodden small hours of the night. If only The Encyclopedia Britannica had been listening.

It was on one such night I explained to Hugh that any old digital computer could be used to produce many kinds of special effects for film purposes. This was decades before Star Wars, not to mention green screens or the wonders of The Lord of the Rings

Computers in those days had an entry price somewhere well beyond a million and could only be found in places like government departments and multi-national corporations, even machines with computing power now surpassed by a $100 cell phone.

While drawing this fantastic looking picture, (all of which was true) I may have neglected to mention that the client for such services would need to be entirely disdainful of petty considerations like cost.

Several years rolled by, and I had completely forgotten my sales pitch for computer animation when my employers, the New Zealand Ministry of Works, decided that they should avail themselves of some publicity through the National Film Unit, a fellow government department. The newly promoted Commissioner of Works approached the film unit and Hugh was sent to negotiate a plan. I have no idea what kind of cock-and-bull story Hugh put across, but I suspect I was quoted as an expert witness, and he came away with a blank check in terms of use of the Ministry of Works computer, at that time a fairly basic IBM 360.  The grand plan was to outline the science-fiction-tinted future that lay before New Zealand, under the elegant technical husbandry of the Ministry of Works. 

A proposed computer-generated animation 

The Government Architect had a rough plan for a proposed group of buildings that he fondly hoped might one day form a “Government Center,” in downtown Wellington, and it was proposed that a computer-animated view of this group of buildings should form the title sequence of  the film.

It is worth reminding readers that at the time we are talking about, screens associated with computer terminals were green cathode-ray tubes with white lettering projected on to them. The graphic displays that are now taken for granted were not even dreamed of. 

The way we drew pictures like engineering drawings in those days was on a large (approximately 1.0 meter x 1.2 meter) flatbed Calcomp Plotter, which moved a pen across a stationary sheet of paper in conformation with instructions fed to it via magnetic tape. Or maybe the pen moved in one dimension, and the paper moved back and forth in the other. It’s a long time ago, and I have difficulty remembering any detail that doesn’t directly shine glory on my younger self.  Pictures drawn in this way could then be set up in an animation frame and photographed, exactly like an individual drawing of Steamboat Willie, the progenitor of the Disney studio.

That’s fairly straightforward; nothing new, but the title sequence was to run about 45 seconds, and a second of screen time required 24 such photographs. Call it 1,080 individual drawings.  It was decided to simulate flying a camera around the proposed government center a couple of times, as if in a helicopter, or a cruise missile, and then swoop into a central courtyard before passing on to the main part of the movie. This meant that each drawing showed the cluster of buildings from a slightly different viewpoint and required a separate tape of pen movements to be generated by the computer program.

If you will indulge me a bit of the computer jargon from those early days: The first computer program I ever wrote, as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (using 650 Fortransit, a subset of Fortran) took three dimensional coordinates of the vertices of a wire-frame layout (a display method that shows solid objects as outline drawings).  These coordinates were then put together with viewpoint and interocular separation and used to produce two dimensional coordinates on a stereo pair. In order to produce animation cells of a wire-frame object, as viewed from a moving viewpoint, all that was required was one half of the stereo pair algorithm.

The perspective was precisely correct, but the “hidden line problem” was not fully sorted out.  For computer-drawn solids there is the problem of determining which edges, or parts of edges, are visible from a given vantage point.  So, we had to do manual corrections to several of the drawings. We never did identify the problem, or else I would have earned a small measure of fame, as the hidden line problem has really only been put to bed in the last 20 years or so.

It’s a long time ago, and I can’t remember the exact timings, but using the computer to produce the tapes was reasonably quick, not a major problem, and the Christmas holiday break was devoted to this task, but my recollection is that each drawing required over an hour on the plotter, and this monopolized that equipment for weeks after the holidays.  People with “serious” work waiting to be done on the plotter were howling for my blood.

And so, it came to pass in 1971, that the long-suffering New Zealand taxpayer financed a significant step in the progress of computerized animation.  As a matter of fact, this was the first use of a computer to produce animated film in New Zealand, and surely one of the very first examples on planet earth. I’m not aware of an earlier instance, but that doesn’t prove there wasn’t one. Decades would pass before New Zealand film director Peter Jackson and Weta Workshops, the special effects and prop company based in Miramar, New Zealand, would bring this infant artform to maturity in their movies of the Tolkien books.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed