The Latest Starfighter: A Paradox

One very hot new hobby seems to be 3-D printing. There are machines which, starting with a mathematical model of an object, can create arbitrary shapes by gradually building up layers of material.

Recently during Musecon, near Chicago, I encountered James Brown demonstrating a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic machine. It was busy manufacturing little keychain gewgaws, and the smell of hot plastic was in the air. He handed me a little toy spaceship. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a ship from The Last Starfighter.” It pleased him that I recognized it.

A kind soul known as “7777773” had uploaded a design for this spacecraft to an online library of objects. With the Thing-O-Matic, James had manufactured a copy.

The Gunstar fighter sent my mind voyaging back to the early 1980s.

At that time, I was enthralled by the possibilities of computer graphics. All through the ’70s, researchers, in the field known today as computer-generated imagery (CGI), had been finding ways to persuade computers to represent lines, colors, surfaces, lighting, movement, and so forth. Soon computerized animation was showing up occasionally in TV and films. For example, there’s a CGI scene in Star Wars where the rebels, planning their attack, display an animated 3-D diagram of the Death Star. Every year at graphics conferences, as very smart people came up with new hardware and new algorithms, showing them off to fellow practitioners, the animation got better and better.

In 1981, two programmers with experience in making graphics for films, Gary Demos and John Whitney, Jr., started their own company.

They had a radical idea: Computers were now fully capable of providing a feature film with its special-effects shots.

While their new company, Digital Productions, earned income by producing animation for TV commercials, Demos and Whitney knocked on the doors of movie studios, making their pitch for “digital scene simulation.” Eventually they landed an assignment on The Last Starfighter.

It had a simple science fiction premise: A trailer-park teenager gets very good at a space-shooter video game. The game is secretly a recruiting tool for an alien army, desperate for skilled pilots, so the kid finds himself flying a heavily-armed Gunstar against the sinister space fleets of an evil tyrant.

A space opera like this should feature plenty of shiny spaceships, exotic planets, vast hangar sets, and fantastic weapons. Traditionally, Hollywood would handle this with miniature models and matte paintings, using techniques highly developed over the previous eight decades of filmmaking.

Digital Productions had a new approach: Create the models inside a computer. Animate their motion mathematically. Manipulate lighting, color, texture, and camera angle in software. Render the computed frame on a high-resolution raster display and print it to film. Compute the changes necessary to move everything into the next frame Render. Print. Repeat.

As Larry Yeager, a DP programmer, told an interviewer, “There were earlier films that used computer graphics, but computer graphics was always used to portray… computer graphics!” Thus The Last Starfighter “was the first film that used computer graphics to portray what used to be portrayed with models and miniatures.”

Generating realistic scenes on this unprecedented scale required a staggering amount of computation. This was new. It was difficult. Even with the most powerful computer money could buy, it would be only barely possible.

Enter the Cray XM-P.

Scientists were then using the blazing vector processors of the glamorous XM-P to study such things as “a finite-volume Euler solver,” “binding and unbinding of lipid membranes,” “the interlaminar shear strength of unidirectional composite materials,” “scattering of helium atoms from rare-gas-plated graphite,” “weakly nonlinear shear waves in channel flow,” and, no doubt, a few topics that the government preferred not to publish.

Digital Productions signed an expensive lease agreement. One Cray XM-P began a career in showbiz.

When The Last Starfighter opened in theaters in July 1984, it included 25 minutes of effects footage created within DP’s Cray. The Gunstar (designed by artist Ron Cobb, a veteran of Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark) featured prominently. The film was fairly entertaining, and a modest success at the box office. Digital Productions had succeeded in bringing the visual elements of an interstellar adventure to the screen — all without building a single miniature model.

I suppose the CGI scenes look primitive to modern eyes, but to those of us who had been watching the discipline of computer graphics grow and mature, The Last Starfighter seemed revolutionary. It wouldn’t be long, we were sure, before an entire feature film would be synthesized by computer. (It took nine years — Toy Story premiered in 1995.)

So in 2011, as I held the little Gunstar in my hand, I realized I was looking at a delicious paradox. This spaceship was born in software, and the entire point of its existence was to avoid the need to build a plastic model of it. Yet here it was. Created by one exciting new technology, computer graphics, it had been yanked from cyberspace and given physical form by another exciting new technology, 3-D printing.

CGI seems to be everywhere now: games, TV, film, the Web. It’s come a long way. I wonder what the 3-D printing people will accomplish in the years ahead.

Bill Higgins writes and speaks about science, technology, and history. He is a radiation safety physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.


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