Brief History of the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab

This is an excerpt of Terrence Masson's computer graphics history book, CG 101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference.

Much of it was written by Alvy Ray Smith and Paul Heckbert. [It is mostly accurate, but there seem to be a few errors -ph].

Computer Graphics Laboratory Inc.
(1981 to 1992)
The commercial production company set up by the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab. The reason it was created was because NYIT would have jeopardized its non-taxable status if its computer graphics lab (as distinguished from CGL Inc.) had engaged in major commercial projects. Commercials included many 3glitzy2 sports promos for CBS, spots for Volkswagon, Chevrolette and the 3Live From Lincoln Center2 open (which is still showing today.) . Many 3technical directors2. researchers and animators worked here including Pat Hanrahan and Ken Wesley(ILM). Two young animators, Glenn McQueen and Rex Grignon, are now animation supervisors at Pixar and PDI respectively.

New York Institute of Technology (NYIT)
In 1974 Dr. Alexander Schure, a wealthy entrepreneur, began to assemble the Computer Graphics Laboratory (CGL) at the New York Institute of Technology. His vision was to create a feature length animated film, with the aid of the days most sophisticated computer graphics techniques. NYIT itself was founded by Dr. Schure, had grounds encompassing numerous estates situated in the beautiful wooded hillsides of Old Westbury New York. Some of these estates were owned by members of the Rockafeller family, who also happened to have a seat on the board of Evans & Sutherland. Because of the close association of E&S with the University of Utah, Dave Evans recommended to Alex to seek out Edwin Catmull to head the new CGL. Ed Catmull had just finished his Ph.D. at Utah and taken a job at a CAD/CAM company called Applicon. It was not a hard sell to get Ed to leave Applicon for NYIT however, so he and fellow Utah graduate Malcolm Blanchard packed their bags for New York. Alvy Ray Smith and David DiFrancesco (both fresh from Xerox PARC) joined the team a few months later in what was called the 3Gerry Mansion2. Alvy and David had heard of Dr. Schure9s plans from Martin Newell at Utah (whom Alex had just hired briefly as a consultant). Dr. Schure had recently come through Utah and literally ordered 3one of everything2 to jump start his NYIT project. Some of this equipment included a DEC PDP-11, a new E&S LDS-1 and the first random access frame buffer also from E&S. Later, the CGL group would also receive the very first commercial VAX.

[SIDEBAR] VAX ALMOST SMASHED! In fact, the VAX almost never made it inside the building, if not for Alvy Ray Smith9s quick actions. It seems that when the computer was just lowered off the back of the delivery truck, another truck parked behind and uphill had it9s brakes slip, which started it rolling towards the brand new machine. Alvy quickly jumped in the driver-less truck and stopped it just before it could smash the VAX back into the very truck it was just unloaded from.

The CGL quickly attracted other technology experts and artists, including Christy Barton(from E&S), Tom Duff, Lance Williams, Fred Parke, Garland Stern, Ralph Guggenheim, Ed Emshwiller, and many others. Throughout the 1970s, the people of the CGL thrived in a pioneering spirit, creating milestones in many areas of graphic software. Many of the 3firsts2 that happened at NYIT were based on the development of the first RGB full color (24bit) raster graphics.

A few of the more notable 3firsts2: First RGB anything (because they had the first RGB framebuffers in the world). First RGB paint program (Paint by Alvy Ray Smith). First soft-edged fill (Alvy Ray again). First computer-controlled video editing. First TV commercial with raster graphics (Lance, I think, or maybe it was Ephraim Cohen). First pixel dissolve. First networked computer system (Christy rolled our own for us). The alpha channel is invented by Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. First hidden surface algorithm within a pixel (Ed). Lance Williams invented mipmapping (texture mapping is still done this way today). Garland Stern implemented the first scan and paint system (this is how the Disney/Pixar CAPS system now makes 2D animation - different system but same idea).

The atmosphere at the CGL was also very open, with many invited tours coming through the lab all year-round. Other universities like Cornell, and companies such as Quantel were among those to visit and take notes about what was being developed. The personnel structure was virtually non- existent, with never any heavy handed management from Dr. Catmull. People did what they were best at and helped each other out whenever needed.

[Strangest Job Title ever!] Alvy Ray Smith would later accidently come across an organization chart for the lab put together by Dr. Shure. Ed Catmull was running the lab of course but there where people listed above and below him that no one had even heard of. Alvy was particularly amused to find that his official title was 3Information Quanta2. A term very much in keeping with Dr. Shure9s somewht unique, and non-standard form of communicating.

Ed Catmull9s Tween, Alvy Ray Smith9s Paint program, and the 2D animation program SoftCel, all were in keeping with the original charter of the CGL, which was 2D CG. There were also many breakthroughs in image techniques involving fractals, morphing, image compositing, and Mip-Map texture mapping and many others. Key to this pioneering effort was the seemingly unlimited financing evidenced by Alex Schure. One such example took place when Alvy Ray Smith spoke with Alex about how good it might be to have not just the one, but three frame buffers. This way, Alvy explained, the three 8bit buffers could be combined to create the first RGB color frame buffer ever! Sometime later Alex not only delivered the two additional frame buffers, but an additional 3, which gave the CGL team a grand total of 6. (3Enough for two of those RGB things2 said Alex.) At $60,000 each (plus the $80,000 for the first) what this meant in today9s dollars was that on a simple request, Alex had just delivered about $2million worth of equipment. More Utah people joined the CGL, including Garland Stern who would write the vector animation system BBOP. David DiFrancesco would also begin what would be turn out to be a long association with film recording at this time. Jim Blinn even worked at the CGL as a summer intern in 1976.

[SIDEBAR] TUBY THE TUBA! At this same time as the CGL was up and running, Alex had about 100 traditional animators working on a film called 3Tuby The Tuba2. Unfortunately, after two years when the film finally screened, everyone9s worst fears were realized it was worse than awful.

Several different department also existed at NYIT by now, in different neighboring mansions; an audio group, a video/post production lab, and a computer science department as well. One project that was successfully completed, was a half hour video (22 with a single frame recorder) called 3Measure for Measure2, which combined conventional cel animation with TWEEN imagery. In 1979 when Ed Catmull left to start the Computer Graphics Division at Lucasfilm, many wanted to come with him. In fact, Alvy, Tom Duff, and David DiFrancesco all left and went elsewhere while waiting to join Ed in California when the time was right. Ralph had promised to stay at NYIT a full year, and he honored that commitment, even turning down an offer from Alex Schure to head the CGL group so that he would be free to leave one that year was up. A New York City commercial office was also established to market and sell the technology developed in Old Westbury. Known as CGL Inc. CGL Inc. also produced numerous commercial graphics jobs for the broadcast market.

The WORKS (The remaining historical text for NTIT/CGL was contributed by Paul Heckbert)

Shortly after Catmull left NYIT, Alex's son, Louis Schure, became lab director. At about the same time, the NYIT lab began preparing to make the first three-dimensional computer animated movie, to be called "The Works". Its science fiction screenplay was written by Lance Williams. A number of people were hired to work on the project. The principal robot designers and modelers were Lance, Bill Maher, Dick Lundin (designer of the famous robot ant), Ned Greene, and Carter Burwell. Some of the animators were Rebecca Allen and Amber Denker.

[THE WORKS!] A great deal of effort at NYIT went into the development of the film "The Works", which was written by Lance Williams and worked on from about 1979 to 1986. For many reasons, including a lack of film-making expertise, it was never completed. Sequences from the work in progress still stand as some of the most astounding animated imagery of the time.

Software development during the early 80's was guided by Lance Williams, Paul Heckbert, Fred Parke, and Pat Hanrahan. A number of excellent graphics software developers did pioneering work there during those years: Jim Blinn and Tom Duff (MAT: yacc-based modeling language), Jim Clark (E&S Picture system library from the 70's; Jim later went on to found Silicon Graphics and Netscape), Lance Williams (z-buffer and texture mapping techniques), Tom Duff (SOID: z-buffered quadric surface rendering with texture mapping, bump mapping), Garland Stern (BBOP: interactive keyframe animation system), Dick Lundin (dynamics simulation and robot modeling and animation tools), Ephraim Cohen (ZOOM: filtered image resampling and EPT: paint program), Thad Beier (SSOID: CSG on quadric surfaces), Mike Chou (SOID's environment mapping), Frank Crow, Andrew Glassner, and Tom Shermer (antialiased line drawing), Robert McDermott (geometric modeling tools), John Schlag (image processing software), Paul Heckbert (POLY: z-buffered polygon renderer with texture mapping), Paul Heckbert and Pat Hanrahan (beam tracing), Paul Heckbert (early splatting, a form of volume rendering), Lance Williams and Ned Greene (mesh modeling tools), Lance Williams, Fred Parke, and Paul Heckbert (face modeling and animation), John Lewis and Peter Oppenheimer (fractal modeling), Ned Greene and Paul Heckbert (z-buffer rendering for fisheye projection), Ned Greene (sky modeling from photographs), Jules Bloomenthal and Lance Williams (DEKINK: antialiasing, recording tools), Jules Bloomenthal (realistic tree modeling), Kevin Hunter (early marching cubes), Pat Hanrahan (EM: interactive modeling system), Pat Hanrahan (winged edge library), David Sturman (animation database and tools), Lance Williams and Paul Heckbert (Coons image warp), Tom Brigham (image morphing), Tracy Petersen, Mike Kowalski, and Carter Burwell (audio synthesis), and many other amazing graphics hackers and graphics hacks.

The workhorse hardware during the early 80's was six DEC VAX 11/780's as main computers, about three E&S Picture System II's for animation preview, about eight E&S and Genisco frame buffers for 512x486x24-bit raster graphics, about six programmable Ikonas graphics processors, the largest with 12 megabytes of image memory (an ungodly amount in that day: 2048x2048x24-bits), viewed with rare thousand line color monitors, several IVC 2000 2" videotape recorders, and a Dicomed film recorder.

Although The Works was never completed (the group was ahead of its time; it wasn't until 1995 that the first 3-D computer animated movie -- Toy Story -- came out), some major milestones of computer animation came out of the effort, including: The Works Trailer - hit of the SIGGRAPH '82 film show, 3DV, Inside a Quark, and segments for the 1984 Omnimax movie "The Magic Egg". The lab's animation demonstrated the first extensive use of texture mapping and environment mapping in animation, and some of the first 3-D character animation. Some pictures from the early 80's are available at

After this peak, the party began to wind down in the mid and late 80's: Bloomenthal left for Xerox PARC in 1985, Heckbert left for PDI and Pixar in 1985, Hanrahan left for Wisconsin, DEC, and Pixar in 1985, and Williams left for Apple in 1986. The dispersal of its lab members helped spread NYIT's ideas to many other sites.

[FACTOID] Many people regarded the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab of the late 70's and early 80's as the top computer graphics research and development group in the world.