The special effects you see in films today are the result of a collaboration between sometimes hundreds of different artist, animators, and engineers. It's a team-effort, and no one person gets all the credit. But in the very early days of computer animation, being a pioneer in the field could make you a star in your own right, at least in the eyes of directors. While John Whitney’s name may not be as recognizable as, say, John Lasseter, but among computer animation artists he is a legendary figure who paved the way for modern special effects.
Before we all had home computers, Whitney was a pioneer in the art of CGI, a medium he naturally moved into as an experimental filmmaker. His son, John Whitney Jr., tells us that his father was “never married to any particular methodology or technology. His interest was always on the filmmaking. He followed a never-ending search for an instrument, a technology, or a methodology to getting his ideas on the screen.”
Whitney Sr. created slit scan, a split-screen effect with cascading images on both sides of the screen, which made its way into 2001. The Whitneys also got two minutes of computer animation into Westworld, going all the way back to 1973. Years later, Whitney Jr. was responsible over twenty minutes of computer animation in The Last Starfighter.
Whitney had been making animated experimental films since the ‘40’s. He started the company Motion Graphics in 1960, and created his own analog computer. Whitey Sr. invented motion control camera work, and he turned military equipment, like anti-aircraft gun directors, which utilized analog computers, into filmmaking gear. (Whitney first utilized motion control in the spiraling open credits sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)
Whitney’s experimental films include Catalog (1961), Matrix III (1972), and Arabesque (1975), which all showed his artistry with computer generated animation. His work would prove very inspiring to a generation of future animators, as well as his immediate family.
Where a lot of children rebel against following in the footsteps of their parents, Whitney Jr. knew that experimental filmmaking was in his blood. “There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had already made a career choice by the time I got out of high school, which was make abstract films.”
Some engineers would see this would be the way of the future, and they hooked up with the Whitneys because they were the leaders in the field before anyone even knew a field existed. “John had a great vision,” says Larry Cuba, an animation artist who was first inspired to go digital by Whitney. “He could see all the way into today. It was pretty clear what was coming.”
But at the time, getting access to a computer was very difficult. The Cray mainframe computers were the fastest for the time, but it would still take all night to get the work done. Even if a company would let you use their computer for a movie, you had to sneak in and do it on the nights and weekends so you wouldn’t disrupt the company’s business.