1970s Digital: How Westworld Invented Digital Effects

By Wesley Fenlon

Before the Terminator, there was the Gunslinger.

FIlm buffs thinking back on the history of digital effects will probably bring up 80s classics like Tron or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which featured cinema's first entirely computer-generated sequence, courtesy of ILM. But if you want to get picky, the use of digital effects in film goes back further than that. All the way to 1973, in fact. Today's CG space battles and green screens galore owe it all to Westworld, written and directed by Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton.

The New Yorker has a fun profile on Westworld's effects, which were, of course, archaic by today's standards. The film was shot on a skimpy $1.25 million budget--small money, even at the time--and only a couple minutes of the film required digital effects. Westworld is set in a sci-fi resort, where visitors can spend $1000 a day to hang out in Medieval World, Roman World, and Westworld, which recreate classic time periods with robots serving as stand-ins for real people. Before the Star Trek holodeck came around, this was sci-fi's best take on recreating a paradise version of the past.

Things go wrong, of course--the robots go haywire, and cowboy Yul Brenner hunts star James Brolin across the resort. He is, in every respect, the proto-Terminator--including his "computer" vision, which is muddy and pixelated. Enter the first digital effect.

Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic wasn't around to whip up snazzy digital effects yet, so "Crichton got a quote for generating the computer imagery from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena," writes The New Yorker. "He was told that the two minutes of footage would cost two hundred thousand dollars and require nine months—both prohibitive. He turned to a maker of abstract films, John Whitney, Sr., famed in art and film circles for his work creating animation with military-surplus analog electronics and motor assemblies. Whitney referred Crichton to his son, John Whitney, Jr., who was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps as an experimental filmmaker, but using computers. He agreed to do the effects in four months for twenty thousand dollars."

Whitney's idea was to divide the film into squares and calculate the average color in each one, blurring them together into what we would now immediately call a pixelated look. But there was another problem: scanning the film back then was no easy task. Whitney found a company that could help him, and spent two months testing out how to play with color and contrast to make the effect work projected on a screen.

The New Yorker writes: "Because Whitney didn’t have a color scanner, the workload was tripled: M.G.M.’s optical department made color separations of the film—one set of black-and-white footage for each of the three primary colors—that he needed to process separately, image by image. The computer processing itself took about eight hours per ten-second sequence."

Today, Pixar's render farm could do that work in a fraction of a second, but it was perhaps a bit miraculous that Westworld made its planned release date. The rest of the New Yorker's article discusses how Whitney's effect changed how a few scenes in the film were shot, and goes on to touch on some other computer-generated effects of the 1970s. It's stuff we take for granted, now, but it took a whole lot of work not so long ago.