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!


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