Review: ‘The Story of Computer Graphics’

Part informative history and part industrial film, "The Story of Computer Graphics" is a useful overview of the technology that is rapidly overtaking the world of mainstream visual entertainment, among other things.

Part informative history and part industrial film, “The Story of Computer Graphics” is a useful overview of the technology that is rapidly overtaking the world of mainstream visual entertainment, among other things. Despite its hot subject matter and the parade of striking visuals, pic is too academic and talking-headsy to cut it theatrically, but is a natural for TV, cable, video and educational venues after specialized site and event screenings. Hi-Def-shot feature will preem at a free public screening at 8:30pm Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium as part of the Siggraph ’99 conference, with more showings to follow through Aug. 13.

This accessible “Story” begins by laying out the Cold War-inspired political and military motivations behind the technology race and development of computers. The birth of interactive computer design around 1960 initially led to applications in aircraft and auto design, but it wasn’t long before artists, invariably of the avant-garde variety, began to tinker with this esoteric new means of expression.

For a lay audience unacquainted with the origins of the computer revolution, this early material, which is illustrated by archival footage as well as many original computer-spawned images, mostly proves fascinating. Pioneers of the movement recall the general incomprehension of what they were doing, the few universities and companies (Bell Labs in particular) that were receptive to them, and how they often had to sneak in work on their seemingly far-out projects.

After an appreciative look at the work of trailblazing computer animators John Whitney Sr., Whitney Jr. and others, pic turns to the challenges involved in attempting to replicate reality visually, the breakthrough of computer graphics into the mainstream via TV commercials and the setback the 1982 Disney feature “Tron” represented to the field’s practitioners.

Subsequent coverage of the advent of personal computers, laser prints, advanced space and medical technology, virtual reality representations and the milestones repped by such pictures as “Toy Story,” “T2” and “Jurassic Park” are not uninteresting, but far too much of the film by this point consists of one expert after another (54 interviewees appear in all) sitting in mostly bland settings intoning dryly about relatively technical matters. Although the sense of exploration and discovery is conveyed (3-D virtual reality reps the next frontier), it’s no thanks to the approach of the film itself, which ultimately proves prosaic and earthbound.

A fascinating area for inquiry that is present here only implicitly is the personal-cultural makeup of the community responsible for the computer revolution. Nearly all those who appear on-camera are mild-mannered, articulate middle-aged men, but archival footage reveals them almost uniformly to have once been freaks, geeks and misfits of the first order. At least a few words might have been devoted to the nature of these people of skill, vision and insight, who started on the far fringes but are now in the forefront of society both financially and culturally.

As directed by Frank Foster and written by Judson Rosebush, pic is appreciative of the accomplishments in the field and fastidious in covering all the bases, but its straightforward nature starts working against it by the final half-hour. Nonetheless, this is a good primer for those who may have noticed that the world has recently changed and are curious how it happened.

The Story of Computer Graphics


An ACM/Siggraph presentation in association with Computer Graphics World Magazine, Intel Corp., Silas Entertainment and Sony Pictures Entertainment Digital Studios Division. Produced by Steven M. Silas. Executive producers, John Hart, Carl Machover. Co-producer, Joan Collins Carey. Directed by Frank Foster. Written by Judson Rosebush. Additional writing by Foster, Steve Komen, Steven M. Silas. Original concept, Walt Bransford.


Camera (color, Hi-Def video), Robert Carr, Tony Foresta, Andrew Sobkovich; editor, Allan Spencer Wall; music, Paul Haslinger; sound designer/mixer, Steven Ticknor. Reviewed at Sony studios, Culver City, Aug. 4, 1999. Running time: 93 MIN.


Narrator: Leonard Nimoy.
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