Author Archives: Rebecca Perry

I am a Research Associate at the National Air and Space Museum and visiting scholar at the University of Virginia, where I have taught the history of computer graphics (CG). I study computing, visual representation and digital 3D modeling. I am especially interested in the creative process and collaborations between CG artists and CG researchers in the entertainment industry, cultural preservation projects and in museums.

Rocket Scientists and Their Games: A Little-Known Slice of History

In the 21st century, game companies are expanding what can be done with 3D interactive tools and virtual spaces. Companies like Epic Games are increasing blurring the lines between industries as diverse as simulation, film production, and a wide range of XR experiences (virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality). In a recent example, an estimated 10.7 million people simultaneously logged on to Epic’s Fortnite for a live, in-game music experience(1). Over 30 years ago, the game industry was in its infancy, the Apple II personal computer had been introduced with little available software, and motivated people wrote their own programs. In 1986, a small Los Angeles game publisher called Electric Transit, Inc. released one of the first 3D games designed for a personal computer. Wilderness: A Survival Adventure, was a first-person, simulation/resource management game that could run under DOS or on an Apple II. (read more...)

Rendering of a blue texture resembling a mountaint with a broken shield stuck in it repeating into the distance.

Art, Algorithms, and the Physicality of the Virtual

Star Wars’ legion of fans were rewarded in rewarded in December 2019 with the long-awaited release of Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker, filled with state-of-the-art computer graphics. 42 years earlier, George Lucas presented the first film in the series, Star Wars Episode IV—A New Hope. For the most part, Lucas’ 1977 work was a traditionally-produced film, which filmed painstakingly hand-crafted physical models of miniature spacecraft and terrain to create an alternate universe. But the film also featured several examples of the earliest computer graphics to appear in a feature-length production.(1) In the intervening 42 years, filmmakers embraced and evolved complex computer-generated visual effects into a sophisticated blend of art and technology which has transformed 21st century filmmaking and image culture more generally. (read more...)

Book Cover for New Media Futures

Uncovering Hidden HERstories of Women in the Digital Arts

The field of computer graphics has no single bigger event than the annual SIGGRAPH conference, a 5-day extravaganza that draws computer scientists, visual effects artists, hardware and software designers and thousands of practitioners in the arts and sciences from around the world.(1) The 2019 conference in Los Angeles, which wrapped up on Thursday, August 2, hosted a number of talks highlighting the stories of women working in computer graphics as part of the “ACM SIGGRAPH Diversity and Inclusion Summit.” One exciting panel, “HERstories: Women Leaders in the Digital World,” featured 12 women who are seminal figures in computer-entangled fine arts, many of whom began their work in the early 1980s. The panelists were all contributors to a recent book, edited by Donna J. Cox, Ellen Sandor, and Janine Fron, New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018). The panel and the book are welcome additions to the slowly diversifying histories of computer graphics, computer art and SIGGRAPH. (read more...)

Andy Serkis in a motion capture suit alongside the CG character Gollum.

Out-of-Body Workspaces: Andy Serkis and Motion Capture Technologies

Over the last two decades, the entertainment industry has experienced a turn to what Lucy Suchman termed virtualization technologies in film and videogame production (Suchman 2016). In addition, production studies scholars have described authorship as linked to control and ownership, sharpening distinctions between “creative” and “technical” work, a divide with significant economic repercussions (Caldwell 2008).  These ideas are useful in understanding film studio workspaces, where visual effects (VFX) workers and actors collaborate in creating believable virtual characters, using three-dimensional (3D) modeling software and motion-capture (mo-cap) systems to capture the attributes and movements of human bodies and transfer them to digital models.  Once captured, digital performances become data, to be manipulated and merged seamlessly with those of live actors and environments in the final film. The introduction of virtualization technologies and computer graphics tools have surfaced tensions over creative control, authorship, and labor. British actor Andy Serkis has been a high-profile apologist for the human actor’s central role in bringing virtual characters to life for film.  Serkis, who Rolling Stone called “the king of post-human acting,” is known for using motion capture (mo-cap) to breathe life into digitally-created, non-human characters. His notable performances include the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the ape Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), as well as  Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and work on several characters in the 2018 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which he also directed. While Serkis’ performances have made him highly visible to audiences, digital labor historians have begun documenting the often-invisible film workers creating 3D models and VFX (Curtin and Sanson, 2017). The tensions between mo-cap performers and VFX workers reveal the contours of an emerging hybrid workspace that combines actors’ physical bodies and movements with VFX workers’ manipulations of digital geometry and data. (read more...)

Replica moon rocks under a glass dome on a stand labelled "Simulated Lunar Samples."

The Strange Journeys of Otherworldly Artifacts

The list of objects on offer is intriguing: flags that were carried, but never raised on a flagpole; stamps that traveled thousands of miles without being posted; a meal tightly sealed in a plastic pouch, returned uneaten from the journey. These artifacts, and many others like them, are listed for sale on Bonhams’ auction site—under the “Space History” category. Popular items include commemorative medallions, pins, flags, mission patches, and postal issues, authorized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The auctioneers’ specialized language includes terms of location, movement and possession: objects are listed as “carried,” “flown,”  “signed,” and “rare.” Collectors prepare their bids based on the details of object histories—where they have traveled and with whom—as recounted in accompanying letters of authenticity or fixed in time and place by a photograph. Bonhams’ vivid descriptions and NASA’s authenticating control create a fascination and demand among collectors and the public for objects circulating on Earth that have been to space—and an invitation to support future journeys. (read more...)