Cinefantastique January 1985

Volume 15 number 1

Article on The Last Starfighter

 

Striking visual effects for THE LAST STARFIGHTER represent a coming-of-age for held of computer animation. In the biggest breakthrough yet for the technique, Digital Productions, founded by John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos, has produced sonic seamless visual effects for the film that approximate photo realism. Images of such subtlety and clarity that the only way to tell they are special effects is the sure knowledge that they can't be anything else.

While TRON'S computer animation received a far bigger trumpeting, the effects of THE LAST STARFIGHTER, are a far more significant achievement. Gone are the candy-apple bright colors and the simplified, unreal look of most computer images. THE LAST STARFIGHTER's effects can hold their own against the highest quality state-of-the-art motion control photography without using miniatures or models.

The new technique embodies many advantages and disadvantages. Because the technology is new, its full potential has yet to be explored. For THE LAST STARFIGHTER, Digital Productions took drawings created by artists and draftsmen and gave them three-dimensional shape in the "mind" of a computer. Objects are given movement, weight, color, lighting, and substance. With sufficient lead time any image an artist conceives can be recreated and manipulated by the computer in a way that is almost indistinguishable from the image that would be achieved by actually building, manipulating, and photographing the design.

The goal of Digital Productions was to create a perfectly a perfectly realistic computer image. Once this level of image complexity was achieved then any image, no matter how fantastic could be made to look genuine. Digital is the first and so far only computer simulation effects house to have a super computer dedicated to creating computer graphics. Having been in business since June of 1981, the company leads the field because it has both the machinery and the required software needed to achieve this high-level of image manufacturing.

Article by Dennis K. Fisher

The company dedicated itself to effects work on THE LASTSTARFIGHTER from January of 1982 to April of 1984. There were about three months of pre-production work, and the effects themselves were created over a 15-16 month period. Computer simulation proved to be ideal for creating images of spaceship battles and the process held many advantages. For one thing, gravity has no effect on how a spaceship can be manipulated unlike the use of miniatures where it is a necessary concern. For another, once having created the shape and configuration for one vessel, that ship can easily be duplicated numerous times in the computer with a few simple instructions. The computer can make all adjustments in size, perspective, angle, location, etc., that are involved in scenes requiring a squadron of spaceships to maneuver and attack.

In addition to creating spaceships, computer simulation also provides advantages in realizing exciting backgrounds for the action. The picture takes place in two key locations-earth and outer space; the space sequences are entirely produced by computer simulation. The process allows for vast starscapes with richly detailed, revolving planets of amazing colors, and spaceships that can move along and rotate on three different axes, all without resorting to mattes or optical printers.
From the very beginning, Digital wanted the production design of the film to showcase the possibilities of computer simulation in a creative way. For their production designer they selected the highly talented Ron Cobb who has designed such films as ALIEN, and CONAN THE BARBARIAN. The Gunstar ship seen in the film is an example of how Cobb designed for computer animation. The Ship is conceived with none of the constraints that set construction or gravity would impose. The gimbal system of gun turrets featured on the ship could not have been built in miniature and been made to work, according to Whitney. In 


this way, the film was designed to exceed the capabilities of conventional model-making and effects photography.

"When I was working on ALIEN, I was very interested in the emerging imaging technology coming out of computer graphics," Cobb recalled. "I'd been reading a bit about it when we were doing some tentative designs for the Nostromo. I was storyboarding all sorts of computer graphics instrumentation and decided I really wanted to look into companies that do this sort of thing and talk about the possibilities. Someone recommended Triple-I (Information International Incorporated), so Ridley Scott, myself, and a number of other people from the production went over to Triple-I.

"I met John Whitney Jr. for the first time, and he showed us their sample reel when they were first getting started. I was very impressed by the state things had reached then, pre-TRON. Then really had some amazing images, and I was very enthusiastic about using them if we possibly could. But then ALIEN switched to England, and we ended up using computer companies in London to do the stuff we needed, so it was never quite finished the way we wanted it to be.

"John always remembered me and my enthusiasm for his work so a few years after I'd finished CONAN, I got a call from him; he was forming Digital Productions and installing a powerful computer. He wondered if I wanted to be involved as art director for the company. I said I would be thrilled." I postponed a number of projects and started in on that in the very early days.

"The aspect that most interested me was the general opportunity to learn how it all worked. I found that essentially, the encoding process-the way in which the computer could grasp an object by the methods that John was using-involved fairly conventional mechanical drafting with an emphasis on contour and a mapping of the three-dimensional surfaces. I was very much at home doing that."

The computer simulation process basically entails three major steps. The first is that of drafting and encoding. The second is called technical directing, which involves refinements and programming the exact movement, speed, and direction of objects within a scene. The final step of the process is, of course, the final filming. Along the way, certain problems had to be licked such as that of transparency. Certain portions of the required images needed to reflect light or be transparent and reveal inner workings. This is no mean feat when it has to be worked out on the computer, but Digital managed to achieve highly effective results.

Cobb started learning how to design for the computer by doing detailed outlines or wire-frame drawings of three-dimensional objects. In these kinds of drawings, there are no hard surfaces or hidden lines. It's as if the object were made of glass and you could see all the outlines of the object's many features.

After mastering this technique, Cobb trained a small staff in using encoders while continuing to learn how to design for them effectively. THE LAST STARFIGHTER was originally to have been a Lorimar film, and Lorimar required that a design be presented to them for the Starfighter, the main spaceship in the film, which was later, renamed the Gunstar.

"In the early stages, we were kind of handicapped in that I had to use geometric primitives to a certain extent," said Cobb. "We don't necessarily have to nest geometric primitives one along side another using this process, a polygonal mesh process where we contour map and create wire-cages. We can do continuous and complex surfaces. To help the encoders, however, I built the ship out of a series of cones and cylinders all intersecting so that mathematically it would be relatively easy to put together so we could do a dry run on the ship."

"I settled on a final design for its initial run-through, making very careful drawings, and then working with encoders we blew up each part finding all the reference points and the number of degrees around each circle and the levels of complexity, keeping the polygon configuration, the bounded flat planes, and the facets as low as possible in number

"Slowly, over a long period of
time as the computer was running up to speed and the programs were refined, we were able to start building the first starfighter. We did wire-cage versions of it and finally raster scan shadings (the final stage of the drafting process) and color versions of it. I was beginning to learn each phase as we went through it: how to break down an object in order to give each part different colors, how to color it, and how to devise points of origin for objects which had to rotate. We had to design everything very carefully so that the turrets would rotate in the proper attitude, and so on.

"Slowly, the first version of the ship emerged with some modifications. We shot a few tests of it to show Lorimar. It still had bugs, and it really was a long process - many, many months. It took forever for everyone to become aware of the technical directing and the encoders so that the many bugs could be isolated and chased out of the computer."

Ron Cobb was a trifle disappointed that he could not do a more sophisticated design for the Gunstar, but because of the time involved in preparing the first test and the deadline for completion of the film's effects, it was decided that the initial design would be used. Thus, the Gunstar remained a ship built around a lot of cones and cylinders and strange shapes. However, as details were added, the goal of photo-realism became more obtainable. The Gunstar remains the most complex and fully realized object in the film.

The three dimensional aspects of an object must be translated into the computer's language. Once the computer has "conceived" an object it is capable of displaying it as viewed from any angle or whatever position the operator wishes. The image is initially defined in wire-cage form and can be displayed on a vector screen. The computer affords the designer tremendous accuracy and realism in positioning the ship with a good understanding of what it is going to look like from basically any viewer orientation -head-on, receding, high angle, low angle, or from either side. These images can then be stored and played back. The initial animation or movement is done at this technical directing stage. Science fiction artist Rick Sternbach worked closely with Cobb (without credit) in storyboarding most of the action in the simulated scenes to aid in the directing.

Explains Cobb, "Various key positions for the ship in an animated sequence are determined as reference points for the computer. The computer can then calculate all the in-between positions and play them back in sequence as animation. The interesting part is that we're able to modify the initial key frames we've selected. I can push them forward or back, I can add the effect of a curve so that the animation is not particularly linear, I can also accelerate or decelerate in and out of these positions, all automatically computed and played back.

"You end up with a tremendous amount of very accurate control of the movement of the ship or the movement of any object you care to display on the vector screen. It's very exciting and an extremely creative form of animation. You have tremendous control in a scene. The technology intervenes or interferes very little. Instead it's extremely helpful. There's no end of subtlety; you can add to the action because you have full control over the movement of the object. You can make it sing; you can make it act. It's really interesting."

Adjustments of the movement of any object can be made very easily. Thus, if director Nick Castle didn't like the movement of a particular ship in a particular scene, he simply lists the changes to be made and in a relatively short time he is viewing the revised version. There is no need to complete the shot and have it developed before it can be viewed. This allows for extensive previewing of the action scenes and allows them to be honed to the director's concept of perfection.

The previewing system uses a slightly abbreviated wire-frame version of each ship to provide a rough idea of each ship's orientation. The technical directors decide upon the final key frames, then instruct the computer to generate all the in-between frames, and the scene is played back in fractions of a minute as an effective silhouette.

Only the outline of the object is displayed, the details have been removed to enhance the speed of computation. When it is played back, it's in real time. Considering that some of the objects moved are of a very complex nature incorporating up to three-quarters of a million polygons with an extraordinary number of facets to define each surface, the speed of the computer becomes truly amazing.

When color, lighting, and shadow effects are added the computer takes up two and a half minutes per frame. (When Digital first started working with their computer, the most powerful available, it took up to 40 minutes per frame to generate a fully colored scene: Digital has been able to speed up the process further by modifying and refining their programming over the course of working on THE LAST STARFIGHTER.)

To adjust color and lighting effects, a raster scan must be checked. A raster display scans from right to left in a three dot color matrix across a video screen, like the picture on your TV set. The raster displays used to provide motion picture film quality are of course much more finely detailed, containing lots more information per screen than a conventional TV picture.

Since it takes up to 2 1/2 minutes to preview each raster frame of fully colored and shaded screen images, a single frame is recorded for each sequence, and the color and lighting are checked and corrected when necessary. Once the lighting position is designated for a particular sequence, it remains static for all frames. A few additional frames are then sampled to make sure that the lighting position has been properly designated.

"We look at an individual frame and move the lights around to where we want them," explains Cobb. "By and large it's like positioning the sun in the sky and then sampling a few stills in the sequence. If there's some peculiarity at this stage, we have to go back and correct for it somewhere along the line. We might even have to go back and redo the animation if it is something very strange that has been unforeseen.

"For instance, we can't always tell exactly what's in front of what in the vector displays used to preview the animation. Sometimes in our haste, we can miscalculate, and we might not check by looking at the top view or bottom view. We may have a ship actually penetrate the side of a cliff. Suddenly we'll see a wing slice right through another ship or something like that and realize, 'Omigod, I've got the ship in the wrong position.

"Another problem is that sometimes when the perspectives are not extreme and the ship is very far in the distance, we can't really tell which side of the ship we are looking at. We may, for instance, think we're looking at the front of the ship when we're really looking at the back of it. And if we don't find out until we raster scan, we see the ship moving in reverse and say 'Oh my god, we're going to have to turn that ship around.' We had a


few funny instances like that when we had ships passing through things or flying backwards."

One of the refreshing aspects about the effects for THE LAST STARFIGHTER is the use of a realistic and subdued color scheme. "We tend to associate this technology with a lot of garish, candy-apple colors because, essentially, a lot of technicians who developed this technology were often in charge of making the images, and they tended towards a tasteless excess," said Cobb. "While TRON has some fairly nice colors occasionally, there often tends to be exaggerated, color-blind, horrible colors and I wasn't sure whether that was an inherent limitation in the system or whether it was just the way the people had been doing it. I couldn't get over how one can achieve subtle colors-the ochres, the pearls, the mauves, and other variations. There are some really amazing and high quality colors that can be used.

"I tried to use earth tones as much as I possibly could in STARFIGHTER, sometimes to the amazement of the people in charge who felt that the colors were a bit too subtle at times, that I was perhaps going in the other direction. I used a very ochre, sand color for the Gunstar, and we were vascillating between not having it too yellow or too brown, nor too metallic. It was fun to be able to walk around in there in tiny decimal points, because the color schemes are quantified in decimal increments."

Everyone working on the film is very concerned with how realistic the effects will appear to the audience. As a test, a final image was projected on the biggest screen at MGM and production members walked right up to the screen to see if anything electronic could be detected. The resolution was such that it passed the test with flying colors. One of the crucial tests for the project was to be the starcar, which Robert Preston uses to drive Lance Guest into outer space.

Explains Cobb, "We knew we would have to build a mock-up of the actual car, an operating, three-dimensional mock-up for the scenes on location. We went directly from that to a simulated car, and that's just asking for comparisons. In fact, we practically do it in a single shot, so we wanted to be very, very careful. I obviously had to do the designs so that both had to be identical. I initially designed the car considering the requirement that it had to be built. It was up to Gene Winfield to build the car. I went over and looked at his chasis: he had an extended Volkswagen chasis that could be used as a wheel base and built it up from there, fulfilling the requirements of the script and the way it was supposed to look and operate.

"Then we took the same drawing over to Kevin Rafferty, the head of our department, and talked it over with him. We looked into shortcuts that would help the encoders yet still make sure that Gene Winfield could build along the same lines. We got them pretty close together. We were actually encoding the plans at one point, that is building the car in the computer, as Winfield was building it out in the Valley, and I was going back and forth comparing notes and making certain that the colors were as close as possible. Actually, I'm very pleased. I think we ended up with virtually the same car, and it looks the same in both simulation and reality. The proportions are exactly the same and the simulated version of the car has additional details such as rear strutters that fold out and engines that are revealed when it takes off and becomes a spaceship."

John Whitney, Jr. is concerned with just how audiences will perceive computer simulated effects. He feels that a computer simulated spaceship can be held on screen longer and still maintain its believability better than miniatures, which typically must be cut away from quickly if they are not to reveal their nature. Believability is also important because the script of THE LAST STARFIGHTER takes the audience through a demonstration of just how the ships are operated, and every detail of that operation must be realistically presented.

Simulation is also used to create a likeness of the film's actors in medium and long shots. "We have close-ups, which are interior shots, where the action begins, and we cut to a medium, shot which is an exterior view, and that action continues in computer simulation," said Whitney. "By cutting back and forth between a medium exterior shot in simulation and interior close-ups that are live-action, we are further blending the line where the simulation begins and the live action ends. A goal of this picture from the simulation point-of-view is to blur that distinction so that the audience won't be able to tell which is which. We also have shots where the foreground is live action and the background is simulation.

"There is also a kind of perceptual psychology to this too. You can have a computer simulated element in a scene which will not play as being live, but if you put another element with it that is live, it helps carry the element that's not live. This is very successful in background matte paintings where there is a foreground set construction that has a composite background painting behind it. There is another aspect working in our

favor which is a saving grace actually, and that is the resolving power or resolution of film. However it may be, it is only a subset of reality. 

"If you film a motion picture of a wall in 65mm and project it with the best lens yon can get right next to the wall itself, you immediatly tell the different. The whole production process is generations away from what you and I experience as everyday reality. The matte painter knows exactly how to take advantage of the motion picture's reproduction capavility, and by the same token we are learning to take advantage of the same


limitations. We only havr to simulate as much detail as the film can reproduce no more. Luckily, there are a number of very sophisticated techniques that are emerging to to help us along those lines."

One of the constraints that Digital worked under in pursuit of photo-realism in simulation effects, apart from the time limitations, was that of generic expectations. George Lucas' STAR WARS created a look and concept of space battles that film companies do not wish to deviate from. Such mimicry gives THE LAST STARFIGHTER what Ron Cobb describes as the "spitfires in space approach" Once more spaceships do not conform to the physical laws of the universe as they bank on non-existent air, etc. Cobb did insert a little sliding, indicating the effects of inertia when changing direction, but even that had to downplayed. Since Universal amd Lorimar were paying the bills, what they wanted would have to be what they'd receive. Thus, the effect of THE LAST STARFIGHTER are highly
reminiscent of those produced in other space films. 

Cobb designed the enemy ships with a swept forward wing stukka-like look. This Nazi aircraft look is meant to suggest the evilnedd of the deck fighters that Alex (Lance Guest) is combatting. Cobb described them as "statange, Blocky, bulky, menacing little interceptors with garling lasers, obvious gun turrets, and strange markings. The Mothership was designed along the same lines. All these ships were designed to be capable of landing vertically, but we never had a chance or demonstrate that in the picture.

"The deck fighters have swivelling double-engines, that pivot to a vertical position and the third engine in the back will also pivot to a vertical position. We thought for a while we would get to demonstrate this on the asteroid when they land, but a lot of that action was cut out,"

In addition to the Gunstar, the deck fighters, and mothership, Cobb also designed a utility ship, a Rylosian base built into the side of mountain, and several alien characters. Among Cobb's most Impressive contributions to the film were modifications to a chase sequence through an asteroid tunnel, or rather series of tunnels.

"I wanted to use some interesting lighting effects where the actual light from engines of he spacecraft in the tunnel would travel with the ship and illuminate the sides of the tunnel," Cobb remarked

"It looks like We're going to be able to pull that off. I've seen some preview scenes of it and it looks very interesting. It's a fundametally dark tunnel with just the lights of the engines crawling along the tunnel surfaces."

Nick Castle, director of THE LAST STARFIGHTER, was also allowed a lot of latitude in coordinating the final effects. His coworkers all praise his grasp of the basic effects concepts and his flexibility as well as his high standards. Castle was particularly excited about using the new computer techniques and predicted that motion control photography may become obsolete, Of course, Castle's main
concern for the film had to be how the effects fit into the story, and not surprisingly, that was one of Digital's concerns as well.

According to John Whitney, "From the dramatic point-of-view, the production process, whether it involves live action cinematography miniatures, or other special effect', that process is there to help tell a story in a way that is believable, exciting and entertaining To take the big picture view of all this, I think with the impact of computers in other fields what tends to happen is that the computer frees people to spend more time on the creative aspects of a problem by eliminating some of the old,
laborious, mechanical encumbrances.

"Also, the computer allows for a new level of precision. For instance, in sound reproduction, you've probably heard the comparisons of the signal to noise ratio. Incredible signal to noise ratios have been characteristic of digital signal processing, and that represents precision, a more faithful kind of reproduction taking place. I think when we talk about the use of computers in generating special effects sequences; we may be talking about a higher degree of believability on the screen. It puts you there more than other effects methods would.

"If you keep a conventional effects image on the screen for five seconds, you may believe it, but if the same scene were to play for ten seconds, you'd begin to see enough about it to say, 'Uh-oh that's not right.' You may not be able to say what it is, but you'd know that what you're looking at is not real. The advantage of using simulation is that you can play things longer on the screen. You don't have to cut away because of physical set-ups, because your camera is going to bang into something or gravity is a problem in that particular set-up. You don't have those constraints in simulation because there is no actual physical Camerawork involved.

"In terms of presenting action on the screen, we have an opportunity to with simulation of bringing a new level of excitement to the screen from the creative use and exploitation of the computer simulation process.

"Of course, a strong story is essential, and underlying the script of THE LAST STARFIGHTER is a strong story, a story about people, about a young man who happens to have a particular kind of talent. He has a great adventure and winds up being the best there is. The special effects are there to serve the purpose of furthering that story. They were not meant to stand alone as special effects, but they are meant to present outer space in as acceptable a way and as easy a way as location photography does."


 
An important issue raised by the new computer effects technology is how does it affect the art of the effects technician. "In the past, people initially came to computers with a negative prejudice and a lot of misunderstanding," said Whitney. "In the arts, there has been this really ridiculous idea that the computer will take over the creative role. What we're talking about is providing a too] that is a little bit easier to work with. Still, it's lots of hard work, but it is a little bit less laborious so what you get back is the opportunity to spend more time dealing with the underlying creative issues. Those are the most important issues.

"The technology and the aesthetic have to be in balance with one another. You can't have one without the other, so how can you say one is more important? You have to recognize that both must be there. What you want to do is bring the highest level of quality possible to the task at hand in all aspects of operation. We encourage our people to be more comprehensive rather than to be specialists. A comprehensive person doesn't perceive a barrier in language between art and technology. Good art depends on an effective synthesis of art and technology."

John Whitney, Jr. and Gary Demos started Digital using a Cray I -S computer and later switched to the more sophisticated XMP which was used to produced the 250 simulation scenes in THE LAST STARFIGHTER. Explains Whitney, "We had the foresight to also order the XMP at the same time we signed the contract for the I-s, knowing that the I-s would not be a powerful enough machine. We have expectations to acquire other computers in the future, as they become available that will be superior to the XMP in both cost and performance.

"If you look at the cost per bit and the speed at which they compute, supercomputers are 4000 times more efficient and cost effective than a home personal computer. You could write software for the kind of images we produce for


other computers, but you try to put this kind of detail together in one frame, and you can easily bog down almost any computer in existence today. Since a motion picture at sound speed runs at 1,440 frames per minute, if it takes you 24 hours or 100 hours. or 200 hours of a computer's computational effort to create one frame, then you know that the equipment you're using isn't practical. It becomes quite clear that medium-sized main frame computers are not powerful enough to create an image, that will suspend disbelief."

The problem of defining the degree of resolution needed to create an image capable of suspending, the viewer's disbelief is a central one. According to Whitney, "One of the problems plaguing this field has been,'What is sufficient resolution for theatrical purposes?' I've been an advocate of the idea that you can't get enough resolution electronically. Others will'argue that if you take into account the entire film process (which includes projection. and screen quality of individual theatres), 1000 or 2000 lines of resolution is adequate. Maybe they're right. It would certainly make things a lot easier.

"But we've tended to advocate higher resolutions than 2000 lines because of the following argument:, I think that motion picture film is a remarkable product. It is capable of storing enormous amounts of information in a physically small space, relatively speaking. If you compare other storage media such as digital tape, they are nowhere near as efficient a storage medium. The amount of information field on a single frame of film is literally in the billions of bits. It is probably capable of a higher resolution than that.

"The resolution changes with the nature of the scene you are recording. A dark, low-contrast scene is not stored with as much information as a very bright, welllit exterior scene. The film changes its resolution. It's hard to define technically what optimum resolution is, and that's one of the reasons it's so controversial because you can't pin it down.

"It's astounding how much data can be stored on 5247 [the standard film stock of the motion picture industry]. In fact, it's of a much higher quality than the electronic image, so that's always been my argument for saying you can't get enough resolution electronically. You need to have very high resolution electronic systems in order to eliminate the artifacts caused by low resolution which are immediate give-aways to the electronic origin of an image. If we're shooting in Vista Vision, we'll compute more, whereas if the final product -.,ill be for television, we'll comDute less. The way we've set things up, we can adjust it."

cording to Whitney, the costs

of effects production for THE LAST STARFIGHTER were about half of what similar effects using motion control would have cost, and motion control effects would have taken longer to produce and required a larger production team to get the same amount of work done.

The economics of computer simulation would not have been possible without the Cray XMP, which is capable of sustaining 160 million computations per second, especially important since computing the image for a single frame in THE LAST STARFIGHTER averaged 22 1/2 billion computations. The Gunstar ship seen in the film is the most highly detailed obj ect ever computer encoded, containing over 600,000 polygons.

While Digital's results have been impressive, there are still limitations in computer simulation despite methods constantly being tried to combat these problems. Some of the shots in THE LAST STARFIGHTER were sped up, and a little strobing becomes apparent when the ships move too fast, though this is not particularly noticeable nor distracting. Strobing is a problem encountered most frequently in stop-motion animation. Basically it is caused by the fact that the computer simulated object which moves is not blurred as a real object would be ' when photographed. Since each frame shows a clear, stationary image, the shots have an air of unreality to them.

During the making of THE LAST STARFIGHTER, the strobing was discussed, but no one was able to come up with a simple way to eliminate it. However, after THE LAST STARFIGHTER was completed, a practical method of overcoming the problem was discovered and Digital will be blurring fast moving objects in the future. This method was applied recently in a Fuji Film commercial showing a fast-moving film box.


However, several other techniques were perfected on THE LAST STARFIGHTER which help make the computer generated images more realistic. One of the biggest difficulties in miniatures is getting the lighting right because if the highlights, created by the distance between the model and its light source, are the wrong size, the result gives a false sense of scale. For THE LAST STARFIGHTER, once the colors are specified for a spacecraft, they never have to be specified again. The computer automatically adjusts the shades based on where the light source is indicated, and thus the shading, highlights, and shadows are automatically adjusted and the proper scale and believability is maintained.

In addition, Digital aged the Gunstar after each battle. A number of techniques were developed for modeling dents and stains onto the exterior of the ship, a far cry from the pristine, showroom look of most computer graphics. This aging, though subtle, gives an interactive feel to the visuals as if the ship was being genuinely affected by the attacks of the Ko-Dan armada.

In discussing the future possibilities of computer graphics, Whitney comments, "You can't do everything in this process. right now our best suit does not include fur on animals for instance, or the animation of characters, or even the expression of emotions on a human face, or the expression of speech from a human mouth. Those things cannot be done on a computer today in a way which we would accept as being believable. But there are many subjects that are well within our capability, and I think it's reached a point where we can sustain a business like we've created here. What you're seeing is the birth of a new process and these are its growing pains.

"The stereotype has emerged that computer generated imagery is restricted to a kind of hard-edged, cold look." Whitney added, "I think that the forte of computer graphics may well be the softedged, amophous kind of image." At the moment Digital Produc

tions is working on exactly that kind of imagery for a sequence involving the cloud layers of Jupiter to be seen in 2010: ODYSSEY TWO scheduled for release this December.

Production designer Ron Cobb views the final result of the work on THE LAST STARFIGHTER with a mixture of pleasure and enthusiasm, though he does see some room for improvement. Some limitations imposed on THE LAST STARFIGHTER's effects were due to lack of time, causing some shots to be deprived of shadowing. For an object of great compexity that is shaded to also cast shadows doubles the time the computer takes to generate that image. Also, the fractal landscapes seen in an asteroid tunnel sequence in the film had to be cut down and simplified. (Fractal geometry is used to generate natural terrain such as the slightly stylized, simplified rock surfaces seen in the film.)

Cobb takes a realistic view of these limitations: "We knew it was all going to come to a big crunch," he said. "We were going to accomplish as much complexity and realism as we could and tax the system to the very breaking point, and we knew at the end when the crunch came, we'd have to retreat to whatever level it took to actually finish the picture. We were hoping that when we had to do that, we would still be able to put the maximum amount of innovation into the picture. I think that the system worked well on the whole.

"I feel that at least a third of the effects in the film attain photo-realism, they are almost flawless. I am very impressed and very pleased; it's certainly the most advanced stuff that's ever been done. People familiar with the techniques used to make these images will be utterly amazed. The average filmgoer who is not terribly concerned with the techniques behind the film will probably just assume that these dynamic, interesting images are models, which is extraordinary."

Years ago Whitney and Demos created a computer animated figure of a juggling magician called Adam Powers which was considered incredibly advanced for its time. Now Whitney looks forward to one day creating a full-fledged character using computer animation and exploring the possibilities of creating digital sound simulation to go with the image simulation techniques. New possibilities for fully shaded rather than wirecage scenes with applications for video game technology are also being explored. THE LAST STARFIGHTER may be just a film about a boy who becomes a starship gunner and saves the universe as if he were playing a videogame, but the effects for the film open the way towards incredible future possibilities. The boom in computer images is just beginning.