Magazine article American Cinematographer

Computer Graphics for SUPERMAN III

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Computer Graphics for SUPERMAN III

Article excerpt

The folks at Atari are doing more than just designing great games. The Special Programs Department helmed by Steve Wright worked 14 weeks creating a sequence for Superman III. What they did, was stopframe computer animation, and according to Wright, "have helped push ahead the frontiers a little in this burgeoning state-of-the-art technology."

The sequence involved the portion of the movie where the man of steel does battle with the ultimate computer, or as envisioned by computerwiz Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor): "The world's first stone killer-diller get-down, get-it-on and twice-on-Sunday super computer." The footage Atari provided shows monitor images of Superman flying through a canyon as rockets explode all around him. Everything on the monitor, including the caped wonder himself, was entirely computer-generated by Atari.

Why was Atari Corporation chosen for the job, with so many established computer animation production companies surrounding tinsel town? Well, if your $35 million production happens to be part of the same company, in this case Warner Communications, then you might ask your sister company to help out, especially if it's within a field they specialize.

"Warner Brothers wanted the sequence to convey the spirit of a super videogame of the future," explained Wright, "so they asked us to provide graphics that would resemble closely how a coin-op game might look several years from now. It was really a blind guess on their part. They had no idea we'd accidentally have the equipment in-house to make the sequence work."

Added Software Manager of Special Programs, Pat Cole (one of several who designed the spectacular computerized Genesis sequence for Lucasfilm on STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), "I suspect they thought we'd be able to produce it on the same kind of machines we use for games. They really lucked out, because our special programs department has been developing a number of tools using more sophisticated computers. We were able to use those tools with some additional software to produce the sequence."

Compared with the recent computer generated footage for TRON, Atari's computer footage is a totally different style. The Disney film used three-dimensional computer animation-images that had volume and shadow characteristics-to try and emulate real life. SUPERMAN III intentionally carried the look of low resolution graphics, called 2Vz-D in the computer animation vernacular. This means flat xy-type images were preferred, combined with a few visual tricks to make them look as though they retained a sense of depth. "The extra dept is where the "Vz" comes in," added Cole. "We had a different set of challenges than the work on STAR TREK II. If it looked too real we'd have failed. Our effort was to firmly establish a look of videogames, but not any game you'd see on earth today."

These added "visual tricks" cost Warner Brothers roughly $95,000 in equipment and nearly four months of production time. It took ten weeks to actually prepare the program, and four weeks to shoot the mere 26 seconds that end up on the film. (Atari actually provided Warner Brothers with 60 seconds of final footage. But true to a big-budgeted picture's form, over half of it was cut out.)

Special programs used an lkonas Frame Buffer computer to create the sequence, under much lower resolution than the system was capable. The first step was to build a software program permitting them to visualize how their animation would look. This came in two parts: 1) a paint and animation program to physically create the visual image, 2) a script and sequence controller enabling them to write a script for what the objects were to do. For example, a shot was scripted then recorded with an elaborate stop-frame video unit called a Lyon-Lamb Animation Controller. This device allowed them to accurately record the sequence one frame at a time onto a Sony % inch broadcast quality tapedeck, serving as a video previewing tool of the computerized action. …

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