Q&A: John Knoll on CGI, Tron and 25 years of change

Back then, using computer graphics to make a movie was considered cheating

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Was your involvement in computer graphics tied to your role in Photoshop, or vice versa? It was sort of happening at the same time. The way I've patterned my whole career is by starting with hobbies. When I was a kid, I had a whole series of hobbies, and one of them was model-making. I got my first job in the industry as a model maker, because it was a skill I could demonstrate. As soon as you're doing your hobby as a profession, it kind of kills it as a hobby, and so it's time for a new hobby. I was going to school at the time and started taking more interest in camerawork. Most of the models I was doing stage support for were built and shot at the time on motion-control systems, so I took up an interest in motion control. I started [putting] together my own motion-control system as a hobby project, and then I got hired at ILM doing motion control, and it was time for a new hobby. I took up computer graphics as a hobby and started writing a ray-tracing program. That led to the interest in computer graphics, and Photoshop came of that at the same time.

Do you still create your own computer graphics software, or is the industry standardized? That's one of the things that's really fun about ILM: We have a big R&D staff. We will use off-the-shelf tools ... but we're frequently asked to do things that are on the cutting edge, that are new, that you can't do with existing tools. That's why people come to us in the first place. I love working at a place where we're constantly asked to do something new and different and that's beyond the capabilities of what you can do with off-the-shelf software.

What's an example of something ILM can do that off-the-shelf software can't? It's a year-and-a-half old now, but the iMoCap system we used on Pirates 2 and Pirates 3 is an on-site motion capture that was something there was no commercial solution for. It was to solve a particular production problem and get a level of quality we didn't think we could attain otherwise. We got together with the R&D department and said, "Here are the constraints on our problem -- what solution can we come up with?"

What off-the-shelf packages does ILM use? We use Shake for compositing, RenderMan for rendering, Maya for a whole variety of things -- skeletal animation, particle systems.

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