Star Wars: a force awakened

December 18, 2015

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two 14 year-old friends are going to the movies. The film is the first of the original Star Wars trilogy, and for one of the two, it’s the 14th time he’s seen it; the other is not far behind.

Those two boys later went on to cofound Luxology, and are now Head of Rendering and Head of 3D Technology at The Foundry. The journey from there to here was more than coincidence.

The young Allen Hastings and Stuart Ferguson were obsessed with sci-fi films, even the bad ones. They’d also started learning to program at school on an HP3000 timeshare computer. If they’d been a couple of years younger, they would have played Star Wars; instead, they wanted to make it.

Armed with no more than that HP3000, they wrote a program in BASIC called Trench Run to recreate that iconic scene from the film. It printed images of the Death Star and the trench—constructed entirely of plus sign characters—onto the roll of paper coming out of the teletype printer, at the blistering rate of 10 characters per second (about three minutes per frame). Allen did the coding, while Stuart worked on the math for the transformations. This could arguably be called Allen’s first rendering engine.

Not content to stop there, Allen acquired his first personal computer—a Commodore PET—and Stuart quickly followed suit. The PET had a visible memory frame buffer with the staggering resolution of 320 x 200 and just one-bit depth. But it was enough to let them create point and line drawings on screen—or as they realized, 3D wireframes. They even succeeded in rendering animations, using an 8 mm camera pointed at the screen to capture each image, before advancing to the next frame and rendering again. 

Both Stuart and Allen loved making films. Stuart was a big fan of Ray Harryhausen, and tried to emulate his idol by creating stop-motion films using claymation and household objects. He kitbashed spaceship models (for real—before kitbashing was something you did in a computer program); built light and motion rigs; and created special effects with multiple exposures and by physically scratching and grading film. His space epic would occupy his spare time for several years.

Meanwhile, Allen had also honed his creative filmmaking skills with kitbashed models and molded clay, with each frame painstakingly recorded on Super 8, before getting hold of a Commodore Amiga personal computer—a step up in graphics capabilities from the old PET. He’d written a rendering program which would eventually become VideoScape 3D, but he was still creating his models by plotting them out on graph paper. Stuart seized his chance to help out his friend: he’d wanted to try his hand at GUI programming, so now he created his first 3D modeler. It was quickly adopted by Aegis as a companion product to VideoScape.

When Aegis went under, the pair moved on to NewTek™, where they created LightWave 3D®, with Allen working on Layout and Stuart on Modeler as each of their particular areas of expertise suggested. That’s where I met them, of course. The pair continued to test their evolving software on their own short film projects, with some success; Allen’s Rush Hour was included in the Animation Screening at SIGGRAPH 1990, and Stuart’s Titans Eternal was screened at SIGGRAPH 1995’s Electronic Theatre. 

In 2001, Stuart, Allen and I—together with a very small team of engineers we knew very well, and who still work with us today—formed a new company: Luxology. Finally, we could bring their genius into a single application, based on a flexible modern architecture. Today we know it as MODO, and the rest, I think, is history.

Would all of this have happened without Star Wars? Possibly. Or possibly not. I’m certainly glad it did.


Brad Peebler

Over 20 years experience in the field of computer graphics with a focus on 3D modeling, animation and rendering. Passionate about connecting with users and improving the education process.

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