On Knowlton & VanDerBeek's Computer Animations
story © Michael Betancourt, August 21, 2011 all rights reserved.
Kenneth C. Knowlton (1931 – ) worked in the Computer Techniques Research Department at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey starting in 1962; he collaborated with experimental animator Stan VanDerBeek (1927 –1984) on film experiments done in the artist-in-residency program. This was concerned with the use of computers to create graphics, and while there he produced twelve films between 1963 and 1967. He developed the first programming language specifically meant for animation: BEFLIX, a portmanteau of “bell flicks.” The animations this language created used a limited number of pixels arranged into a grid 252 by 184 in size, with seven shades of grey. Finished films had color added through optical printing.
During Knowlton's time at Bell Labs, he collaborated with fellow researcher Leon Harmon, who became the “artist” by a flip of a coin, followed by collaborations with artists-in-residence: Stan VanDerBeek, Lillian Schwartz, Laurie Spiegel, ending with Emmanuel Ghent. He described their collaborations, retrospectively, as being an undirected exploration:
During that period, I was developing experimental programming languages and methods — terms loosely defined, in those golden days of Bell Labs, and thus “artistic applications” was a plausible use of part of my time. I did not have to defend that interpretation in detail to my superiors, which was fortunate because I'm not sure that any of us really knew what we were doing, or why.
[Kenneth Knowlton, contribution to Carl Machover, “Computer Graphics Pioneers,” (SIGGRAPH) Computer Graphics vol. 35, no. 3, August 2001, pp. 20-22.]
Knowlton’s work inventing computer animation developed through the collaboration process: it was an exploration of technical and aesthetic potentials within an unknown field—the digital production of motion graphics. His comments reflect the ambiguity about what were and were not appropriate areas for research into the applications for computers during the 1960s. New developments were understood to be significant simply for the fact of being new, even if those developments did not have any immediately obvious commercial applications—these collaborative projects developed for their own sake, as research into the potentials of a fundamentally new technology.
In his work with computer animation, Knowlton recognized the potential of computer animation to change the production process, allowing the production of new kinds of film that would be impossible without the computer. Writing in 1976, after working on computer films for more than ten years, Knowlton recognized the limitations that were preventing computer animation from quickly advancing:
There are a large number of educational and research activities which could use computer-animated movies in a creative and productive way—movies which, without the computer, would be too intricate, time-consuming and expensive to draw and film. But if each potential animator attempts to write his own programs and movie systems from scratch, his accomplishments will be of little use to anyone else and no one movie maker will advance very far.
[Kenneth C Knowlton and W H Higgins, "Programming Languages for Computer Animation" in John Halas, ed. Computer Animation (New York: Focal Press, 1974) p. 47]
Knowlton, one of the main pioneers of computer animation, recognized that the animation of computer films as programs limited the aesthetic and technical range of what was possible within any particular program: early computer animated films were made individually, not as products done by a particular software application or program (as became increasingly common after the 1980s). Instead, they were written in specialized programming languages created to produce digital animations; the programming language functioned in the same way that later applications would—as a platform enabling the design and production of animations.
These languages offered the first possibilities for digital, computer generated films, but required the use of programming each individual film as a unique piece of software—a limitation common to early computer animations—each was a singular production rendered by custom written, unique programs. Each new film required, in effect, a re-invention of the basic techniques and procedures that create the imagery on screen, preventing different artists from being able to build upon the work of other, earlier, artists. Knowlton’s work with computer films focused on the creation and elaboration of field-based imagery—forms that filled the entire screen, occupying the entire graphic space of the screen. It is a formal element uniting his collaborative projects that were otherwise distinct from one another; he termed these fields of imagery “mosaics,” a name that is occasionally used to identify the BEFLIX programming language that produced them.
VanDerBeek and Knowlton's work was not concerned with the development of a visual music or a general purpose instrument for creating a visual analogue to music; instead, the computer films done at Bell Labs engaged with written, kinetic typography as a graphic material capable of complex manipulations while at the same time remaining legible as language: he called these works “Poemfields.” Their collaboration was difficult, and not all of the films they planned were actually completed. Of the series of Poemfield films starting in 1966; only numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 were actually finished (between 1966 and 1971). The repeating graphic elements used in the Poemfields films fragmented and replicated parts of the text and background around the screen, but did not use symmetry. Instead, blocks of image would appear at different scales, producing graphic patterns thorough their interaction as they accumulated on screen. The animation of was less one of movement between different positions—it was an intermittent accumulation of elements, suggesting a collage of different parts over time.
All of these films were programmed in FORTRAN language (to control the microfilm recorder, combined with the BEFLIX language to generate the imagery. VanDerBeek explained the graphic potentials used to make the imagery of these films in an article published by Art in America in 1970:
Pictures can be thought of as an array of spots of different shades of gray. The computer keeps a complete “map” of the picture as the spots are turned on and off. The programmer instructs the system to “draw” lines, arcs, lettering. He can also invoke operations on entire areas with instructions for copying, shifting, transliterating, zooming, and dissolving and filling areas.
[Stan VanDerBeek. “New Talent—The Computer” in Art in America, vol. 58 (1970) p. 91.]
The visual reproduction of different parts of the same image on screen creates the mosaic patterns and graphic effects that disperse the text into a field of graphic elements some of which resemble language. The result is a visual form that moves the central content of the frame—the computer generated lettering—outwards towards the edges of the screen, in the process dispersing it into a series of blocky, component elements.
The Poemfields present a flow of language where individual words flow into each other, alternating between being an individual statement and the background for the next in a continuous progression that included the titles and credits. The organization of these films was around a sequence of words that appeared centered, on screen, and gradually transformed from text into a mosaic that filled the screen; there is a constant balance between being readable and being illegible in these films. The Poemfield films were not completed in the order they were planned; this difference between their planning and actual completion is a reflection of the costs and difficultly involved in creating computer films (costing approximately $500/minute in the 1960s). The ‘poem’ part of the Poemfield is concerned with the elaboration of meaning within language, an appropriate subject given the graphic dissolution of words into mosaics of graphic form.
The repeating graphic elements used in the Poemfields films fragmented and replicated parts of the text and background around the screen, but did not use symmetry. Instead, blocks of image would appear at different scales, producing graphic patterns thorough their interaction as they accumulated on screen. The animation of was less one of movement between different positions—it was an intermittent accumulation of elements, suggesting a collage of different parts over time. The ‘animation’ of these films was primitive as a result; Collideoscope (1968) was a more complex animation than the earlier Poemfields. In this film symmetrical patterns work to create kaleidoscopic effects, but are often contained by other, geometric forms that do not move so much as replace one another, forming graphic containers for a more complex, and continuous animation. Triangles, circles and squares constrain and hold these kinetic networks of lines that symmetrically converge on the center of the screen.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt August 21, 2011 all rights reserved.
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