Ken Knowlton, BEFLIX, and Bell Labs

Engineers & Enthusiasts

28-06-2022 • 12 mins

Episode Notes

Ken Knowlton passed away at the age of 91 last week. He was one of the leading figures in the establishment of computer graphics and animation

Auto-Generated Transcript   EandE-Knowlton Wed, 8/3 2:04PM • 12:43 SUMMARY KEYWORDS bell labs, work, schwartz, computer graphics, computer, images, figure, ken norton, nude, newton, film, important, fields, lillian, matthews, technologist, picture, billy, smaller version, talking SPEAKERS Christopher Garcia Christopher Garcia There are a lot of people who could rightfully be called the founder of computer animation, you could make up a list of 10 people by the most knowledgeable people in the field. And there wouldn't be much overlap. But one name that would be guaranteed to be on every list is Ken Knolton, Ken Knolton passed away at the age of 91 this weekend, but he left behind a legacy that has led us to where we are today. This episode, we're talking about Kendall, Bell Labs, and BT. Vis is engineers and enthusiast. Ken Knolton likely is the figure that will receive the most attention when going back over the early days of computer graphics. And for good reason. His work at Bell Labs in particular, was massively important. And while we could go into everything from his work, doing natural language translation in sentences using voyeuristic forms, which, honestly is way beyond my mind, too, is more widely known work. In computer graphics, we're going to focus just on to this episode. And in the next, it's going to be all about eat experiments in art and technology. It'll make sense when you get there. Bell Labs, which you've talked about extensively, was the home of many geniuses. And I'll just focus on four of them. Claude Shannon, and John Pierce, Max Matthews, and Ken Norton. And in the 1960s, these were four of the biggest names in technology in much the same way. 10 years later, the names Don Knuth, John McCarthy, and Feigenbaum and Marvin Minsky represented the peak of their work, despite the fact they were across two different universities. But these four were all at Bell Labs, and that made Bell Labs, a locus, Shannon and Pierce's work cutting across disciplines, two of the most amazing scientists of the 20th century, a figure known to few nowadays, but was incredibly important, Richard Hamming. And he did something very interesting, he told Newton, who was working in all sorts of different sections. He told Knolton slow down, if everyone here made more than one contribution to the Bell System in his lifetime, the system would be in chaos. That is huge. He was looking at the possibility of parsing computer languages, for example, and using them to create images. And in the early 1960s, he developed BEFLIX, which is a sort of a shortening of belflex. And it was the first computer language designed specifically for bitmap moviemaking. Now there had already been some work in computer animation in particular, using things like vector images. That was what Ed's a Jack had done with his demonstration of it looks like a domino that keeps one face pointing towards the globe at all times really innovative. Christopher Garcia Mike Knoll was also there and doing some very interesting mathematical works using printers more often than images on a screen. And what they had was a microfilm printer. And so it could put images that would go normally on the screen on to 35 millimeter movie film. Very important idea. So, after a series, this series of subroutine was created, he came up with this concept that was very simple. It was two different qualities of frame that could be created using what we would today consider to be pixels of, I believe, six different intensities. And this would allow you to make relatively rough images, I think it was 256 was the width of each individual frame at a maximum. But this still allowed for excellent expression. And when you look at one of the most important films in the history of computer graphics, one that should 100% be on the National Film Registry. It's called a computer technique for the production of animated films. Christopher Garcia That alone To show that BEFLIX was a major step forward. What's also incredible is that BEFLIX was retired very quickly, he only did a few films with it. And one that he did was for a high level list processing language called L six, and is a demonstration of how l six works and pretty simple, but it is massively important to how they would move forward in the idea of computer graphics. No, worked nowadays somewhat controversially, with Lillian Schwartz. And apparently there was an unhappiness with me being a very big proponent of Schwartz as an innovator in the computer graphics world. And he didn't quite like me, apparently. The idea here, though, is very important. This was the application of computer graphics and computer animation in an artistic context. Whereas BEFLIX had been used previously to do things like the demonstration of how you would make animated movies using B flicks or for L six, just demonstrating how you make movies, and use a project here. These were strictly artistic. And these are excellent films up to four minutes long, some of them scored by very, very significant figures in the history of computer music. Christopher Garcia Can you guess who the first one was? If you said Max Matthews, you're right. And in particular, that's why I believe Olympiad is a major significant step forward in the history of computer animation. And there'll be arguments for years and years over who deserves any credit for the work done in the Knolton-Schwartz collaboration. I think artistically, it is clear that Lillian Schwartz's impact on the project was massive when you compare to anything else Knolton was doing, and he was doing other things, including working with Stan Vanderbeek, one of the most important figures in experimental film in the US. And their poem fields were interesting, but they were not what Schwartz and Knowlton manage to do with Olympiad in particular, because it applies an idea that is known widely through the history of computer graphics. If you look at one of my personal favorite pieces, when you see a figure running, it's made up of these sort of traces. And as it goes, the traces get more diffused, I fuse until it's just a wireframe of a running figure. That idea has perpetrated on through it even occurs in some of the work of Mr. Wheeler when he was working with computers. The idea of a purely artistic delivery of computer graphics when Knolton was there on the very early portions. And while poem fields are important, I really think the works like pixelation, UFOs, definitely Olympiad definitely speak to the level of artistry that was being applied. But that might not have been the most important thing that he did. Christopher Garcia And we have to go back to Bell Labs and the office of a guy named Ed David. And he was a higher up in muckety muck that at Bell Labs, and Leon Harmon had come up with an idea, a prank really. And he enlisted the help of Milton, what they were going to do was one entire wall of Ed David's office was going to be covered with a huge picture that they were going to do made up of electronic symbols for transistors, resistors, mathematical operations, and so forth. And it's very, very smart. Because what nolton than others admittedly, including type artists, typewriter, artists of the 1920s had already realized this, that each individual character has a light, dark value. So for example, symbol for resistor is considerably darker than a symbol for, say, division. And when you're at a distance, all you're getting is that fields intensity of light. And when you can translate regular images into that you can make something that up close is gobbledygook. But once you step back from the whole picture, we know this from the pointless of course and various others. But here's the shocking thing. Their choice a female nude a woman reclining on a couch. Christopher Garcia Now, the 12 foot one was taken down pretty quickly at the labs. And apparently Ed David put it in his basement rec room, but smaller versions were all over the place. And according to Newton's website, he has a whole page about This smaller version of the picture began to mysteriously propagate. And I had not the slightest idea how the PR department scowled and warned that you may circulate this thing. But be sure that you do not associate the name of Bell Labs with it. Well, the big version did show up again, and that was in Robert Rauschenberg loft on October 11 1967. And it actually ended up in the New York Times. And what's amazing is that this idea of a nude being used in the New York Times is gigantic. He quotes Billy, Billy Kluever, claiming that this was the first time ever the times printed a nude while the PR department got together, and they decided that it wasn't porn anymore. It was art. And they could distribute it anywhere they wanted. But they had to say they made it at Bell Labs. A lot of the people who were working with Knolton over the years would go on to be huge, and I've mentioned most of them before, including Billy Kluever, Max Matthews, Lillian Schwartz, Andy Van Damme, also, and Stan Vanderbeek Vanderbeek in particular is a very, very significant figure. And someday I'll do more about his work in many ways. Vander Beek and Mr. Willer sort of bounce off one another. And what's interesting is that Leon Harmon was really the artist in the pairing. Well, of course, Newton was a technologist, which makes a lot of sense. No one would go on to do a lot of digital mosaics of various types. And he did this thing, which was sort of a puzzle where you could move faces in and out and it became very different. It's a very, very, I don't quite understand how it works. But it does allude to this idea that you can make faces out of any element, which I know logically makes sense. But when you think about it, and try to put that into action, it becomes much, much more difficult. Even today, I have trouble with it. Ken Norton passed away at the age of 91, leaving behind an influence that very, very few technologists can actually match. Next time we're back we'll be talking about eat experiments in art and technology, which will let me talk about my pal, Robert Rauschenberg, Billy Kluever. It's so many just data

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