Robert Abel, 64; Computer Animation, Graphics Pioneer


Robert Abel, the computer animation and graphics guru who used multimedia to create award-winning commercials, films and classroom educational materials, has died. He was 64.

Abel, credited with spearheading a transition in network television advertising, died Sunday in Los Angeles of complications following a heart attack five weeks ago.

"Very few people on this planet have as much knowledge as Bob when it comes to visual technology," Peter Bergmann, president of Odyssey Filmmakers, said in 1988, when Abel joined that company as creative director.

The visionary and versatile Abel earned 33 Clio awards--the Oscar of the advertising industry--for his multimedia spots that, for example, depicted a man in denims walking the Levi's label as if it were a dog; brought life to M.C. Escher's interlocking birds and fish as "Changing Pictures" for TRW; and induced a piece of paper to fold itself into an airplane and fly out the window to promote a Japanese 3-D television system.

Abel also used his techniques to create special effects for motion pictures, including Disney's "Tron," and notably for educational CD-ROMs when computers were newcomers in the classroom.

Sparked by the 1992 quincentenary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, Abel produced the innovative "Columbus: Discovery and Beyond," providing up to 280 hours of interactive classroom instruction on art, music, politics, and attitudes of various people from the 1400s to the present day.

Abel himself touted the production with his usual verve, telling The Times in 1991: "This is the beginning of a new form of education and entertainment. We have new ways, new delivery systems, new theaters. It's CD with visuals. . . . It's Nintendo with a purpose.

"Right now we're drowning in information and don't know how to think," he added. "Multimedia allows us to choose what we want to see and what we want to learn."

Abel was no less enthusiastic about applying every new technique he could conjure to films or commercials.

"I think our future--and the future of filmmaking in general--will involve a tremendous diversification of techniques," he told The Times in 1983. "It won't matter if you use miniatures or live action or computer animation. It's how you combine them that will be important. . . . It's a marriage of technology and art."

Abel spent his life joining technology with art. Born in Cleveland and reared in Los Angeles, he entered UCLA as an engineering student. But within two weeks he had found the art department, and went on to earn a fine arts degree. He added another in design from the prestigious Bauhaus in Ulm.

Informally, Abel learned from two mentors he worked for in his youth--brothers James and John Whitney Sr., American pioneers in computer and abstract animation and creators of the landmark book "Digital Harmony."

Abel taught at UCLA and USC and briefly at the University of Minnesota before returning to Hollywood to work for David Wolper Productions making documentaries. He picked up a couple of Emmys, working on such fare as "A Nation of Immigrants" in 1966 and "The Making of the President" in 1968.

A year later, he formed Cinema Associates, producing and directing "rock-umentaries," including "Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "Elvis On Tour."

But his heart was still in computer graphics and animation. So in 1971, he founded Robert Abel & Associates and set about changing the look of television advertising. As head of a succession of companies, including Synapse Technologies, he trained scores of computer special effects producers, directors, designers, artists and technicians, and became something of a godfather in the genre.

"To me, using the computer as an artistic tool is part of the natural evolution of 30,000 years of human creativity," he said nearly 20 years ago.

His work is represented in the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum, and featured in such national publications as Time and Esquire.

Abel is survived by a son, Josh; a daughter, Marah Abel; and a sister, Judi Nussbaum.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the American Heart Assn., the American Cancer Society, or to the American Red Cross to aid families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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