The Whitney Family: Pioneers in Computer Animation

By David Konow

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.

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.

Gary Demos was fascinated by what Whitney was doing, and he would eventually become partners with Whitney Jr. “If you look at page one of the very first business plan I made with Gary, it corrected predicted the trajectory of digital effects in the motion picture industry,” John Jr. tells us. “I had to fight the battle with hundreds of business people who thought it was interesting, but they didn’t know how to use it.” One time, John Jr. had a meeting at Disney, where he tried to explain the possibilities of digital animated characters, that they could be compelling and deliver a story. “Literally two guys grabbed my arms and escorted me off the lot!”

The first big mainstream breakthrough for digital animation would be thanks to Michael Crichton’s sleeper sci-fi hit, Westworld. Producer Paul Lazarus III first met Crichton when he was head of production for ABC Pictures. Crichton wrote a script for a movie over a weekend, Extreme Close-Up, and Lazarus was able to get the movie made on a miniscule budget.

Then Crichton wrote the script for Westworld, an adult theme park of the future that was inspired by Disneyland. The robots of Westworld were also inspired by the Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln exhibit, and like a lot of great genre stories, it was clearly a classic what if scenario? What if a group of automations in an adult amusement park went haywire and started killing people? Kind of like Jurassic Park.

According to an article in the New Yorker, Crichton originally went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena about doing the computer footage for Westworld, and he was told that two minutes of animation would take nine months and cost $200,000. Crichton then sought out John Whitney Sr., who recommended his son John Jr.

Whitney Jr. was determined to do the effects in four months for $20,000. He went to a company named Information International, who had a mainframe computer, and who also had a device that could digitize frames. Like Tron years later, Westworld was able to get its computer work done at night when they could sneak it in. “I can only imagine how lucky we were to have access to that particular set up,” says Brent Sellstrom, who was the film’s visual effects coordinator.

They decided to pixelate the robot’s POV, a technique which is commonplace today. (We see it all the time on the news where someone’s face is pixeled out to protect their identity.) As Sellstrom points out, pixelization was done in pictures before, like a well-known picture of Lincoln that was broken down into pixels, and this was the first time it was done in a movie.

At the time, Lazarus didn’t see computer animation as the way of the future. Doing computer animation to show the robot’s point of view just seemed like a cool idea to try. Yet Sellstrom says, “It just seemed too logical that it had to happen. It was apparent then that using digital was going to have a long-term use in motion pictures, and obviously animation was one of the first things that was going to be done with it. The only apprehension anyone had then is it wouldn’t be realistic enough, but that was just a matter of time and computing power.”

“It was always a successful picture, and as it turns out, it was the only picture of that studio regime that was in profit,” Lazarus says.

Demos and Whitney would also work on the 1976 sequel to Westworld, Futureworld, where they created a computer-animated version of Peter Fonda that appeared in the movie for about a minute. Futureworld also featured “A Computer Animated Hand,” a one-minute piece of CGI that was created by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull.

In the early eighties, Whitney and Demos solidified their partnership, Digital Productions, and they had their own Cray computer to create effects for commercials and features. “We figured if we hit the problem with a big hammer, we might be able to get critical mass,” Demos says. “The Cray computer we had was really expensive, so we had to have a lot of high-end projects and commercials. We had a pretty good run, but the burden of the cost of that computer was pretty high, and it ended up weakening the company.”

Years after Westworld, the next film that broke major ground for computer animation was Tron, which had about twenty minutes of computer animation in it. While it was a major step forward for visual effects, Tron wasn’t a hit, and the same can be said for 1984’s The Last Starfighter, which was another under-rated landmark for CGI. The movie’s wiki page claims that there were scenes in Starfighter that had 250,000 polygons on average, with a resolution of 3000 x 5000 36-bit pixels. Unlike Star Wars, which used physical models for the spaceships, Starfighter created its spaceships completely with CGI.

One reason the film didn’t live up to expectations might have been that the computer innovations of the movie weren’t featured in the advertising. “That was done intentionally, we didn’t have any control over that,” Demos says. “The studio (Lorimar) was looking at the whole package, if you will. I would have preferred if they emphasized the computer graphics, This is new, this interesting, but the studio wanted to emphasize it as This is a story, and you’ll enjoy it, kind of thing.”

Yet as far as the disappointment that Starfighter wasn’t a hit, Demos says, “I didn’t look at it as not making it. I viewed it as not being a blockbuster. It certainly had respectable box office. I wasn’t looking at it from the point of view of, ‘Can we make a blockbuster?’ I looked at it from the point of view of, ‘Can we get in the game?’ And we got in the game.”

“At that early point, you have to remember that equation of computing power, resolution and detail,” Whitney says. “The excitement we felt, the people writing the software, the ability to write the code to mimic how light works in the real world, the shadows, texture, and luminosity. When we did The Last Starfighter, I guess we went pretty high budget for computer graphics relatively speaking, and we were just so excited about that. It was a great moment, a real milestone, and it’s never stopped.”