Sep 28 2011 7:00pm

The Latest Starfighter: A Paradox

Model of Gunstar spaceship

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.

Ian Johnson
1. IanPJohnson
My guess? We're going to be making organs with 3D printers soon. (Need a new liver or pancreas? Well, it turns out that down at your local doctor's office there's a printer that can make one for you from the latest downloads from the medical nets. You'll be secreting insulin and filtering toxins again within a week.)
2. AlBrown
The last time I had a crown put in, the doctor designed it on a computer in the office, and then let me watch in his back room as a milling machine manufactured my new tooth on the spot. It was one of the most jaw dropping surprises in my life, and he was so excited that he was like a kid in a candy store.
A new world is coming!
3. Joe the Wizard
Just a niggle, the difference between 1984 and 1995 is not 9 years. It's 11 years. Not that it matters much.

My friend has been bothering me to split a 3D printer with him for about a year, but, as neat as it sounds, it seems like an expensive toy right now and not something that has much practical application. Particularly at the level he wants to invest. Oh well. Soon enough, I suppose.
4. Kip W
That was an enjoyable movie, and not just because Gordon Garb worked on the digital scene simulations.
5. Misha
If a computer can be programmed to make the parts to another computer via a 3d printer, then you have the first Von Neumann machine, don't you?
M Linden
6. mlinden
@Misha, Almost. The 3d printer would have to be programmed to manufacture the parts to another 3d printer. Which would have to be functional, so that it could produce more 3d printers. But, essentially, yeah...Von Neumann Printers. This thought makes me smile.
7. a1ay
Also, you'd still need to supply it with feedstock.
This is why the definition of a von Neumann machine is so slippery. You could build a robot that came in two bits, head and body, and program it to go around connecting heads and bodies, and that would be a von Neumann machine as long as you left it in a room with a lot of heads and bodies. But it would be a great stunt to pull this off!
Iain Scott
8. iopgod
Has anyone (@3?) had a go with the RepRap(.org/wiki) project? It can apparently make substantial amounts of itself, and the non-replicated parts are cheap(ish!) metal struts and electronics / motors.
9. Dan Someone
Nothing to do with 3D printing, but... We just introduced our kids to The Last Starfighter. The 10-year-old was not much impressed - not her thing - but the 8-year-old? He's watched it about 5 times in the space of a week. We watched it with them the first time, and found that it desperately deserves a Rifftrax... but I can see the appeal to a kid.
10. Matthias55
3D printers have been around for years. But they are just now becoming economically available to individuals (well that and the availablility to share pattern libraries)
But to my mind the most interesting aspect of them is not the ability to work in plastic and metal, but in organic substances. I don't think we will get to organs in the near future, but they do work in chocholet, so why not food. Replicator anyone?
11. Misha
Ok, I'll grant you that it would have to be able to print the printer as well as the computer. It would also be good if it could hunt down its own feedstocks. If the computer were on the internet, perhaps it could generate orders to have the feedstocks delivered to it. But then, how does the computer, by itself convince someone to load the feedstocks. Well, if it could act like one person to order feedstocks, maybe it could act like a business and have at least one employee whose job was to load the feedstocks. But if the computer is smart enough to do that, why doesn't it just order parts to be assembled instead of going through all the hassle of printing itself? A geek computer more interested in showing off the shiny new technology than doing something practical?
12. starbasec3
weve been selling and making 3d cgi/ real models of starfighters for a decade..
13. nigel d woodward
Gooday all how much are this 3D printers cost from down under

keep thous dayzy wheels comming

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