Sunday, April 27, 2008

Handmade 3D

The Freres Hueon (apparently a couple of brothers from Bordeaux, France, but little information is available about them) made a "sweded" remake of the light cycle race in Tron, using cardboard props instead of computer graphics. As a Tron fan, I find this mightily impressive.

I should have a special altar built for Tron, as it is the original source of my deep love for computer graphics. I saw it in 1982 and found it so extraordinary and visually groundbreaking at that time that I sat through two consecutive showings. As we know, Tron was a commercial failure, and CG didn't really made it in the movies until Jurassic Park, 11 years later.

Still, Tron remains interesting in the way the authors took advantage of the limitations of the available technology. More recent movies overestimate the ability of 3D technology, so visual effects that look fantastic when the movie is released look fake and awkward after a few years (if not a few days), with characters deep into the uncanny valley and flat lighting. Tron has some cheesy parts (it was a mainstream Disney movie made in the 80s after all), but the effects, simple as they are, are still very pretty.

The Tron DVD also contains the following tidbit: as 3D was still largely experimental, the companies hired to create the computer graphics used very different technologies. Basically, one used polygons (for the Solar Sailer for instance) while the other used primitives (notably for the Light Cycles). The latter technology gave better, shinier results but with a price: in the DVD, we can hear Syd Mead, the designer hired to create the Cycles, lament the fact that his original smooth, curvy, organic-looking design had to be dumbed down into a bunch of spheres and cylinders... It is amusing that this debate still exists today in the POV-Ray community, where some users make a point of using only script and primitives while others have embraced polygon modelers.



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