While you justify that new Mac or NVIDIA, here’s graphics animation legend Larry Cuba talking about how he used 1970s tech to make a Death Star animation that still looks stylish today.

Cuba reveals some fascinating nuggets:

  • He worked directly from matte paintings and concept art and full-scale models (traditions that have come back into vogue lately on productions like The Mandalorian)
  • Drawing might have been a bit more work, but he’s actually able to animate and rotate the resulting model in real time – stunning stuff for the 70s (with knobs and dials – hey MIDI fans!)
  • There’s an extensive, elaborate digitization process translating physical models to digital ones – here with a pen, though see also the recent advances like Apple’s AR tools on iOS (which let you scan, though… this manual approach is cleaner and still sometimes better)
  • To translate to film, they had to manually expose each frame. There were no after-the-fact animations on the film.

(The credits at the end are I think all animators. For instance, Barbara Sykes worked on the famous EVE series of films. Raul Zaritsky produced the ground-breaking Digital TV Dinner with Jamie Fenton – Jamie joined us for a talk Olivia Jack and I put on last year at CTM Festival.

There’s an elegance to some of these interfaces – enough so that I hope an iOS dev or two is watching. Also, function key shortcuts for the win. And dials are still a fantastic way to handle rotation. You’ll also see some code typed in – so hello, live coders and Hydra. But it’s great that there is a direct analog of the model building in physical form to the one constructed digitally.

All of this took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL). At the time, it was dubbed more playfully the Circle Graphics Habitat (you can’t have that ambient project name; it’s mine). The machine performing all the heavy-duty calculations (by 70s standards) was the DEC PDP-11/45 – a 1972 16-bit beast that would go on to inspire the Intel x86 and Motorola 68000 architectures that launched the personal computer revolution.

The UI is so great, it’s weirdly just fun watching this video – it’s almost animation art in itself.

I realize this is almost certainly the first piece of computer animation I ever saw, projected on my parents’ sound super 8 projector! Says a lot about how fast tech has changed in our lives.

If only that the technology to decide how to pronounce “Leia.” How we’ve advanced since then.

More classic ILM documentary ephemera:

Some later work from Cuba, also produced at the EVL:

And here’s that scene in HD:

Honestly, this is what all meetings with me are like, down to people rolling their eyes, me suggesting overly complicated and difficult things, and me mispronouncing everything.