How do you make a computer-animated sequence of 3D wireframe visuals of fancy, Empire-built battle stations — in 1977? Very, very slowly. Our friend James at Retro Thing, aside from being a electronic-sonic inventor, is a fan of vintage visuals and was already teaching the history of computer animation in the mid 80s. (Hint: prepping that class didn’t take quite as long then as it would now.)

James explains the origins of the famous Death Star briefing room sequence:

The wizard behind the early Star Wars CG was Larry Cuba, who worked out of the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois. Legend has it that he was pushing the hardware so hard to create the simple wireframe images that he constantly had to adjust the air conditioning in the computer room to avoid system crashes. Cuba used a vector graphics scripting language called GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System), written by Tom DeFanti at Ohio State in 1974. The system he used incorporated a Vector General CRT, DEC PDP-11 minicomputer, along with various cameras and recorders.

Star Wars: Prehistoric Computer Graphics [Retro Thing, via Boing Boing Gadgets]

I have a special place in my heart for the original film Star Wars because — James will appreciate this — I initially experienced it as a kid only on sound Super 8 film, cut down to a svelte 17 minutes. (My understanding of narrative was never quite the same.)

But to me, these graphics don’t look primitive; they look elemental, much in the same way that you don’t get tired of ancient Egyptian art. (And in the timeline of computer graphics, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine thousands of years of art history happening in a few decades.)

The real star, though, is the film Cuba used to pitch computer graphics to George Lucas, Arabesque, made with John Whitney. If this 1975 film doesn’t inspire you as a visualist, nothing will. Correction: Evidently it wasn’t Arabesque, but the movie First Fig. Larry Cuba himself writes in comments:

Thank you for the appreciation of “Arabesque.” The film I screened for Lucas was actually my first CG film, “First Fig.”

(And you can connect the historical dots here, too: without Arabesque First Fig, no CG in Star Wars, no ILM CG, no Pixar.)

Well, George Lucas may or may not have seen Arabesque, but you can, below, and it’s still inspiring:

And for another Larry Cuba film, here’s the 1985 Calculated Movements:

For Whitney’s 1960s work, see previously:

Videos from the Dawn of Video: Mechanical Effects and Oscilloscope Games

And for more on Larry Cuba, see:

Larry’s personal site

Larry Cuba on the Star Wars “Wookipedia”

Maybe it’s time to re-write that history of computer animation.