While we’re talking retro, here’s a full hour of the work of Robert Abel, the innovative computer animator who worked on projects like the 1982 Tron.

In an age of accelerating generative AI sameness, early computer animation techniques seem ripe for rediscovery and reimagining. If you only ever saw these productions I on degraded VHS, you might even miss how good this stuff actually looked in its original film prints. Mixing basic computer-generated 3D with hand-drawn cell techniques, it has a crafted unreality to it that is organic and personal in a way that’s largely lost today. Then again, it was also a complete nightmare to produce; trying this sort of hybrid approach now with modern technology by contrast starts to become more practical – and might yield new results.

I stumbled down this rabbit hole because I saw this eye-popping 1982 Trans Am ad – basically everything awesome about 80s Pontiac ads plus everything awesome about Knight Rider plus everything awesome about Tron:

“Gosh, that sure looks like the animation work of Robert Abel and Associates,” went my brain. Sure enough, that’s exactly what it is – and there’s plenty more where that came from:

It is possible this looks more futuristic now than it did then? Maybe that’s because our eyes have been tuned on so much CGI that we actually watch the details and art direction in a way we missed the first time around. Maybe it’s also because our TVs and recording devices and signal mostly sucked then, too.

It’s just stunning – with or without nostalgia. And AI is unlikely to look like this because there isn’t enough training data – the cost-prohibitive nature of this kind of animation means a big chunk of the body of work is contained in this one reel from Abel. It’s a unique combination of conventional lighting know-how, cinematography, costume and makeup design, hand-drawn animation, and early computer tech.

And it didn’t always go well – Abel and Associates ultimately failed following a merger, and this approach nearly killed 82’s Tron – and did get Abel fired from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

By the way, as far as I know a lot of the computer work on this was done on Evans & Sutherland computer hardware, like the Line Drawing System-1. Some of you might know better than me.

But truly, here’s my prediction: as VFX becomes commodity, as AI generates content easily, I’ll bet you people rediscover some of these early animation approaches much like film photography, vinyl DJing, and Polaroid pics all made a resurgence.

Also, eat your heart out, Tesla:

I’m literally working on a write-up and workshop in the latest Unreal Engine, so don’t think I’m just on some 80s nostalgia slide. I guarantee you if you’re staring into design in Unreal, you will totally find it useful to watch this whole video.