Computer as ‘Artist’ Captures the Imagination

Associated Press

Mick Jagger dances and sings through a Southwestern adobe house in the music video, “Hard Woman,” while a whimsical duo made of line images swirl about him.

The house was created by a computer and detailed right down to the wood grain in the doorposts. The line figures who act out the song are also the computer’s designs.

In the movie “2010,” the same computer created the multicolored surging clouds of the planet Jupiter. Art mimicked life in images drawn from the detailed pictures of Jovian whorls sent back to Earth by the Voyager spacecraft.

Most Powerful Computer


These effects are some of the creations of Digital Productions, the brainchild of John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos, who manage a team of 80 computer image specialists, film makers and technicians and the world’s most powerful computer, a Cray X-MP that can make 1 billion computations a second.

Digital Productions won an Academy Award for science and engineering in 1985 for the “2010" clouds of Jupiter and for computer simulation of outer space dogfights in “The Last Starfighter.”

Of the six Cray X-MPs employed, the computer operated by Digital is the only one not being used by the government or the defense industry, Whitney said.

The $12-million Cray has 3,400 circuit boards containing 200,000 microchips, with 67 miles of wire connecting the circuits. The cylindrical computer is about 6 1/2 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter, but weighs almost six tons because of the copper tubing snaking through the system to carry coolant for the circuit boards.


An average home computer has about four circuit boards and 80 microchips.

Details, Fluid Motion

The Cray is backed up by six other computers to provide the details and fluid motion to images that include the AT&T; logo, the CBS Morning News logo (with a grid peeling away from the golden letters) and a series of commercials for Rockwell Inc.

So far, Digital Productions has been producing its fanciful and detailed images for commercials, corporate logos and scenes from movies.

Whitney said his tool soon will have the power to put together any image, although creating a lifelike human face capable of showing the full range of emotions still eludes the computer.

“The computer ultimately will be able to show itself as a camera,” he said in a recent interview.

“It will mean there’s no subject matter that can’t be put into the computer and there’s no story that could not be told and there’s no fantasy that can’t be put onto the screen with a degree of truthfulness that would be awesome.”

Key to Sharp Images


The key to such sharper images are the polygons, or many-sided figures, that are combined to make the larger image. Whitney and Demos’ first program, developed before they created Digital, was 50,000 polygons per image.

At Digital, they have stepped up the polygons from 400,000 to 1.5 million polygons per image.

Each point of a polygon is coded into the computer. That information is used to build the model of an object, such as a face, that can be manipulated.

The more information that can be delivered in the shortest amount of time will produce the sharpest and most believable image, hence the need for the Cray super-computer.

Unrestrained movie making is part of Whitney’s life. The son of abstract film maker John Whitney Sr. and artist Jacqueline Blum, he made a point of avoiding college to learn the practical aspects of film making.

Exhibited at Art Museum

At his father’s Motion Graphics Inc., he made a multiscreen, 17-minute film performance and light show in 1967 that was eventually shown at the Museum of Modern Art.

Whitney first became interested in computer graphics using electronic, rather than mechanical, methods to project images in 1972 when he saw the technique employed in a film produced by the University of Utah.


Digital Productions was founded in 1981 by Whitney and Demos, who had worked together at Information International Inc. They acquired the Cray X-MP and began producing award-winning graphics. In 1984, they won a Clio award, the advertising industry’s top prize, for a commercial that took television viewers inside the workings of a Sony Walkman tape player.