First-Hand:Disney and Early Computer Animation
Submitted by A. Michael Noll, August 18, 2022
In the 1960s, we were investigating and pioneering computer animation, while we were employed at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated (Bell Labs) in Murray Hill, New Jersey. My computer animations were stereoscopic, and also two-dimensional. Kenneth Knowlton had devised computer animation programming languages involving pixels and mosaics. His BEFLIX language and the animations he made using it are well known, along with the art movies he did in collaboration with the artist Stan VanDerBeek.
Disney had started planning in the mid 1960s for its EPCOT exhibits. Roy Disney visited Bell Labs, and I recall showing him my computer animations, most likely in the late 1960s. We would have also shown him the animations by Knowlton. I recall that he did not see any relevance of computer animation to the Disney studios. Of course, our computer animations back then were quite basic, but with some imagination, they clearly showed the way of the future.
I wonder how things might have evolved had Disney back then in the late 1960s embraced and invested in the technology that we were investigating for computer animation. Disney could have hired a team of us from Bell Labs to come to Hollywood and develop the technology. This would have been a few decades before Disney and others finally used the technology. But we researchers and engineers at Bell Labs were quite conservative and were not risk takers.
Indeed, decades later Disney did embrace computer animation. I found the computer animation of Fantasia 2000 to be incredibly and fantastically beautiful, even giving me chills, particularly the Firebird Suite portion. Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, but could have helped develop computer animation as early as the late 1960s by building on the work at Bell Labs.
- My four-spatial-dimensional animation technique was used to create the flying title for the 1968 AT&T documentary “The Incredible Machine” and also the flying title for Arthur. C. Clarke’s 1970 NBC TV special “The Unexplained” (produced by Walt DeFaria).
- A. Michael Noll, “The VanDerBeek-Knowlton Movies,” LEONARDO, Vol. 52, No. 3 (2019), pp. 314-319.