Archive for February, 2010


Pixels…people pushing pixels…

OK, so where was I?

Ah, yes. I’d done my first storyboard in roughly 1982. I’d done my first rudimentary computer graphic and animation  in 1983. That year I started working in data entry for a mining company field office.

The next step, now that I was semi-flush with cash, was to buy—you guessed it—an electronic typewriter.

Surprised? Don’t be. I was still fancying myself becoming a novelist, and at the time I wanted something that I could write on that didn’t print in dot-matrix, ergo I bought a daisy-wheel Brother electronic typewriter that had the same overall shape as my Atari 5200 game system: a TR-7 wedge.

But I wasn’t stupid. The model I got could be connected to a computer and act as a letter-quality printer via an interface box.

By late 1984 the video game crash had decimated lots of companies and Atari was one of them. In a desperate bid to get market share from the much more successful Commodore (whose C-64 totally outsold the Atari models), they dropped the price on their Atari 800XL line of computers to something like $199 (minus disc drive). I went for the Atari because, frankly, I’d used them before, my brother and sister had them, and I had some misguided brand loyalty. Okay, that and the C-64’s 1541 disc drive was 1/10th the speed of the Atari 1050 drive (without a disc speedup add-on).  I bought the computer from my friend Gary’s Chip & Digit computer store, and I believe the disc drive as well. I also got a nice composite monitor (oooh, no TV RF adapter for me!). I quickly added to this machine, buying an Atari Touch Tablet (similar to the KoalaPad I mentioned previously, but with a much larger drawing surface) that came with the AtariArtist software on a cartridge. This means the software loaded instantly (ahh, the days when you could boot your computer cold in 5 seconds).

At some point I also got an Atari Light Pen and its software with which I could draw directly on the screen. Quite the novelty in 1985!

Ok, techy-ness aside, here are some of the earliest graphics I have from that era.

Early pixels. 160x192 in 4 colors.

This Klingon ship and the V’ger weapon behind it (“Is that what it is?” you say) is a really early image…maybe one of the first I drew. One thing that strikes me about this image right off is that the composition is all wrong. Everything’s in the left 2/3rds of the screen, leaving the right side empty. I can tell I did it with the Touch Tablet and AtariArtist because the energy bolt was drawn with its “rays” tool, which let you draw a whole series of radiating lines from one central point.

As I think back, I don’t recall using the light-pen very much. It was touchy and twitchy and difficult to do fine detail work with. It was also a strain to hold your arm up to the monitor for extended periods.  I think I ended up using it when I wanted to draw something freehand, like mountains, where getting the shape right was difficult using the tablet. (Click here for a contemporary review of the Touch Tablet and Light Pen.)

Again, I want to stress how low-resolution this was. The Atari’s best bitmapped graphics mode in terms of color v. resolution was something called Graphics 7½, which used two bits for each pixel, so each pixel was effectively twice the width of the highest resolution mode (and thus twice as wide as it was tall). This meant instead of two colors on the screen you could have four (ain’t binary fun?). The working resolution for this mode was 160×192 pixels. Now, as to the colors, the Atari XLs had a total palette of 256 colors (16 hues and 16 luminance levels), but for backwards compatibility the number of luminance levels was halved, so there were 128 colors supported by the software I could pick any four of those 128 for any given image.

Still with me?

The 4 color limit was, er... limiting. Lots of dithers!Here’s Milo Bloom from Bloom County. With only four colors to work with, I resorted to dithering (alternating pixels of two colors) to create some tones. This worked so-so, but actually looked better on a composite monitor or TV because of the way the phosphors would bleed, thus making the dithering not so evident.

Another issue is that by duplicating a comic character as drawn in the comic I had to devote 25% of my available colors to the outline color. Outlines soon became my pet peeve and I worked hard to lose them entirely.

Logo for the High Sierra Users' Group

These low-color graphics worked best when you could work with bold color and simplified design, like this logo. No outlines. Still a bit of dithering here, but it works OK.

My first CGI Enterprise

This image is somewhat contemporary to the Klingon ship, and may possibly pre-date it. Like the Milo Bloom drawing it suffers from outline-itis. In this case, I used the black color for space to outline the ship and its details. This might seem vaguely logical (Spock puns aside) but for the fact that it meant I was using hard black outlines in place of highlights and shadows that could have served the same purpose. That I wasted another color for a few patches of blue makes me cringe when I look at this now. A complete waste colors resulting in a really uninteresting image. I’d learn better very quickly.

In fact, looking at the image above made the think about how I’d do it now, so I opened the image and reworked it, sticking strictly to the original hardware/software limitations. I switched the palette to monochrome and went to work “painting” over the original. I even used anti-aliasing (putting pixels of an intermediate shade in between two stronger contrasting colors) to smooth it out, something I had no concept of in early 1985.

2009 edition: what I could have done with more experience!

The next step was making stuff move!


My Digital Age

In my first few years out of high school I had no idea and no real thoughts about getting into any aspect of the computer industry.

Oh, I had some interest in computers, having done some simple (programmed) graphics work on my brother’s Atari 600KL, played around with my sister’s Atari 800. I also had a friend named Gary Click whose Apple ][+ was probably the first computer I ever used (outside of playing Star Raiders in a store). Gary opened a computer store called Chip & Digit in the teeny and remote community of Hawthorne, Nevada where I was living. I spent a fair amount of time hanging out at the store, talking to Gary, and playing with various pieces of software.

Logo I did for Gary's store

One notable thing about Gary was that he has writing an animation system for the Apple ][ which he—unfortunately—never published, but it was an intriguing concept, one that I saw done on the Atari ST some years later. Gary coulda been a first! Anyway, the system was similar to what had been tried for videophones: instead of sending full frames the computer would compare each subsequent frame to the previous one and store only the bits that changed (the difference between frames/logical XOR). This meant the computer didn’t have to store and redraw each and every frame, just store and draw the changes.

I forget if Gary asked me or if I begged him to let me, but I did a simple animation for him to try on his system. I had a cartoon character called The House Mouse (that I’d used in a comic strip I’d drawn in high school…a Batman send up called Catman), which I drew in an Apple “hi-res” mode (280×160 with 6 colors…sort of…effectively 140×160). I believe I drew this with a Koala Pad, which was a bit twitchy, but sure beat the joystick approach! The animation was pretty rudimentary: as I recall—it was just a series of frames of the character rubbing his hands together—but it worked! I’d done my first real animation outside of stop-motion, and my first computer animation!

[ screen: these are the pixels I was working with.”]

An example of Apple II graphics resolution: Not that you couldn't draw better pictures than this!

Unfortunately, in an era where modems were not so common and file-conversion not the norm, this animation nor even one frame of it ended up in my hands, and I must assume it is lost to the ages.

Anyway, around this time I was thinking of bumming a couch off a friend of mine in Carosn City to look for a job, when a guy came into Gary’s computer store looking for someone to do a contract job of data entry for a mining company for 3-weeks. Gary suggested me, and arranged for me to meet the guy. I had a miniscule amount of experience with a word processor, so Gary hooked me up with a guy who had the same kind of computer the mining company had on site—a Kaypro II—and I learned my way around WordStar and dBase enough to land the gig.

The first computer I got paid to use!

Well, the three-week gig ended up being a full-time job, as the company was impressed enough by my work to keep me on. In fact, they got work from one of the other field offices and gave it to me so I was busy all the time. Now mind you, this was not creative work at all…it was mechanical data entry and report writing, but it was stuff I was good at and I could do easily, and, hey, it paid bills. There were several upshots:

  1. In this pre-Mac era there were no mice and no GUIs, so the most efficient way to work was by memorizing scads of keyboard shortcuts, something I still do to this day, which makes me much faster at most software than most people I know.
  2. It gave me my first experience going on-line, using a then blindingly fast 1200  baud modem to log into the company’s mainframe: a Univac!
  3. It got me a professional credential using a computer, in an era where that wasn’t yet quite so common.

And, best of all, it paid for me to buy my first computer…okay, my first three computers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

UPDATE 2/22/2010: I spoke to Gary today and he said he actually booted up his old Apple and was able to run his old software…so maybe there’s hope of finding that House Mouse animation after all!


My First Storyboard

Film’s been an interest of mine since I read a preview article on Star Wars back in 1977. I got involved with a schoolmate who also had an interest in film, and together we made a bunch of bad 8mm mini-epics like “Attack of the Killer Basketball” and the stop motion “Adventures of Mr. Blue”. But the costs of making films on film were high, given that film was expensive and lab costs added to it. So, I gravitated away from filmmaking and focused on writing: taking stories I wanted to make movies and writing them, first as scripts, then novels which I never published.

One other thing I was interested in was animation, and, while the details are fuzzy decades on, I recall being quite taken with Warner Bros. cartoons in High School, and going out to see animated films like American Pop, Heavy Metal, and the like.

In 1982 I made friends with a guy named Vince, who was a self-styled artist of sorts. He hold me he had this idea of doing an animation to the Rush song Cygnus X-1, and showed me a few drawings he’d done of a spaceship and these trippy 60s-poster-esque “laser rocker” characters. I was quite taken by the idea (and was too naive to realize the licensing rights issues), and got involved with it. Essentially, I took over the idea and drew out a fairly extensive storyboard for this proposed animated music epic. It remains the largest storyboard I’ve ever drawn, and consisted of probably hundreds of panels, only a percentage of which I still have (foolish me).

© 1983 Maurice Molyneaux

At some point I actually started to calculate how much it would cost to make this epic, and, film negative costs aside, it was staggering to see how much acetate animation cels alone would cost (we’re talking something like 7,400 frames if we shot “on twos”, and many shots would require multiple cel layers, so I we’re talking probably 20,000 acetate sheets).

© 1983 Maurice Molyneaux

Then there was the issue of actually animating the thing. Neither my friend or I had ever done animation. The idea of drawing and then painting 20,000 cels plus backgrounds was staggering. In my enthusiasm, my reach escaped my grasp. This wouldn’t be the first time this happened to me in the 80s.

So, the storyboard got shelved and I went on to other things. But the animation bug had bitten me, even if I hadn’t actually animated anything yet. It wouldn’t be long until technology would come to rescue and allow me to try my hand at making things move without the costs of cels and film.


PLOT 92,83:DRAWTO 121,83

My First (computer) Drawing?

Above is one of the first computer graphic images I ever created…if not the first. It also represents the first piece of computer coding I ever did. I created it on my brother’s Atari 600XL computer sometime around 1983 (I think). The machine had 16K of RAM. I created it by writing (with my brother’s help) a BASIC program full of PLOT and DRAWTO statements. The map itself was created first on graph paper, and I then translated the grid into data that the program would read and the draw on the screen.

And you thought drawing with a mouse was bad!

I recall drawing a cartoon mouse on my friend Gary’s Apple ][+ somewhere in this same era using a Koala Pad. I suspect it was after this map, but it’s been so long that I really can’t remember which came first!

Once I got my own computer I got paint and animation software that allowed drawing with a joystick (!) and later a touch tablet and light pen. As such, the map represents, really, one of only two code-generated projects of my career (the other I’ll discuss another time).


Where the heck have I been?

Just noticed my last post was back in October of 2009. That’s what happens when your newfound daily routine gets turned upside-down by travel, political protests, a long-distance relationship, and working on a film.

Anyway, despite a promising start I let this lie fallow. I’ll try to correct that.