All of us leave a trail of small impacts on others as we travel through life. A kindness here, a mistake there, a product that helps, a book that makes a reader cry. We often know nothing of these little touches on others’ lives. Sometimes, these nudges turn out to have a much greater effect, perhaps lifelong, which we probably never even realise. So, today, I’d like to say thank you to someone who through a small act of kindness made a huge impact on my life and indirectly many others.
In September 1977, less than two months after my eighteenth birthday, I travelled by train from Bolton the 300 miles to Canterbury at the other end of the country. I was going to Canterbury College of Art to study Architecture. Not that I particularly wanted to study Architecture. Although I loved art and architecture, I was not at all sure about being an architect, but I’d been assured by my school that having studied Art, Maths and Physics, I really didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t sure about going to Canterbury either, but with a set of diabolically bad results in my final school exams, no university would take me. I don’t entirely blame my school, but a combination of being very young for my year, undiagnosed dyslexia and general teenage anger had combined got me to the bottom of the academic pile.
Still, I set to, studied with some wonderful fun people and enjoyed my first year being taught by many inspirational teachers. That got me into it, but I still had a nagging feeling that there was something else out there for me. I cast around and took a computer course as one of my modules in the local technical college (paper tape and Fortran).
In my second year, frustrated with the futility of ‘drawing up’ (weeks of trying to draw my imaginary building on tracing paper), I started to wonder about whether computers would ever be able to help. Could they for instance, remove some of the huge uncertainty about designing a building, where you could not really know all about it (thermal performance, human interaction, lighting, etc, etc) until you’d built it, by which time it was a bit late.
I went to the library in search of answers. There I came across a book that talked about some of the research going on at the MIT Architecture Machine Group. It sounded amazing. I needed to know more and so I wrote (no Internet, no fax, intercontinental phone calls a rarity and luxury in 1978) to them. I’ve no recollection of what I said.
Weeks later an airmail parcel turned up for me. Inside was a lovely letter from the young professor, Nicholas Negroponte and an 8-inch (20 cm) pile of research papers and books he thought I might find interesting and helpful. Included was a copy of Soft Architectural Machines which he had published in 1975. Subjects covered included: Aspects of Machine Intelligence, Computer Graphics, Computer-Aided Participatory Design and Intelligent Environments. Wow! I was blown away by his generosity, blown away to be taken so seriously, and entirely blown out of my universe by the contents of the book. That all of this could be possible, could be conceived of, was beyond my wildest dreams.
I struggled through 3rd year and looked with increasing misery for an architectural practice that would take me for my ‘year out’ that I had to complete in practice before finishing my studies with a 2-year diploma. By chance I saw an advertisement in The Guardian newspaper for a research Masters degree at the Royal College of Art into the use of computers in architectural design. I applied immediately, went up to London for an interview, where I think I probably just ranted about how amazing the MIT group’s work was and how I wanted to be a part of the action. A few weeks later another package arrived. The RCA had offered me a place and the government would fund it. I couldn’t really believe it. I went for a bike ride to clear my head, stopped for a pint at a pub, then cycled home going “WHEEEE” (until I went into a ditch).
An amazing two years at the RCA led to a deep interest in the use of computers in art and design, teaching in art colleges, a job trying to design early computer games and then a job doing live television computer graphics for news (six feet tall cabinet of hand wired cards, in 1986, a “display line device” – you’ll have to look that up in the history books). That led to working on computer graphics systems with manufacturers and eventually to co-creating a software-based paint system for use in television, Matador.
Siggraph 1991, I was demonstrating Matador to a crowd of mostly students gathered around our booth. A guy sits down next to me to have a demo. He says, “what resolution can you do”, “any” I reply as this was one of our big innovations at the time. Can you do 1160 by 780 (if memory serves). Sure, I said and promptly dialled in the resolution and started painting on the blank canvas. “I think you guys had better come and see us” he said, “Great, who are you?”, “Industrial Light and Magic he replied”. I was speechless.
In 1992 Death Becomes Her was released, ILM had used Matador to create mattes to isolate Meryl Streep’s head in order to put it on her body back to front. That year they were using it to paint textures directly on to 3D models of dinosaurs to create realistic skins, we saw Jurassic Park for the first time in the royal command performance in Leicester Square. Over the ensuing ten years Matador was used in every VFX Oscar winner and more:
- 1992: Death Becomes Her
- 1993: Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, In the Line of Fire, The Last Action Hero, Schindler’s List
- 1994: Forrest Gump, The Mask, True Lies, Interview with the Vampire, Speed, Clear and Present Danger, The Crow, Star Trek Generations
- 1995: Babe, Apollo 13, Braveheart, Jumanji, Casper, Batman Forever, Waterworld
- 1996: Independence Day, Twister, Dragonheart, Star Trek: First Contact, Mars Attacks!, Mission: Impossible
- 1997: Titanic, Men in Black, The Fifth Element, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, Batman & Robin, Dante’s Peak, Flubber
- 1998: What Dreams May Come, Armageddon, Mighty Joe Young, The Avengers, Lost in Space, Saving Private Ryan
- 1999: The Matrix, Stuart Little, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy, Snow Falling on Cedars, Sleepy Hollow
- 2000: Gladiator, The Perfect Storm, Hollow Man, Cast Away, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, X Men
- 2001: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Pearl Harbor, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Amelie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
- 2002: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Men in Black 2, Minority Report, Spiderman, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
So, thank you Nicholas Negroponte, thank you for that small act of kindness that set me off on an incredible lifelong journey and one that helped to entertain of billions of people. I doubt I would have started without that encouragement . I know you have probably done far greater good directly with ‘one laptop per child’ project, but your impact on me and the amazing people I have worked with is irreplaceable.