I’ve been researching software and animation. As part of that project, I recently thought it would be good to know more about where the algorithms that make up 3D animation software came from. We’re quite used to thinking about digital vintage in terms of the textures and movements of on-screen entities (Buzz Lightyear circa 1995 versus 2014’s Hiccup). But there’s a story too to be had in looking through the traces of how particular kinds of algorithms came to be standard in software, and so taken for granted as a norm. A couple of examples would be the algorithms for kinematics or dynamics.
While sifting through various documents, including computer science journal articles about animation software programming, and early commentaries on computers and art, I came across a statement by Colette Bangert. Colette wasn’t an animator, she drew and painted landscape, and still does as far as her internet footprint suggests. In 1975 she and her programmer husband Jeff were experimenting with using computers for line drawings. I mention Colette here because I was struck by something she wrote about the productive cycle she experienced when thinking through the information needed to be programmed into a computer to enable it to draw a line:
We consider each drawing element as an independent element. This is artificial. Yet, this artificiality is precisely one aspect of the use of a mathematical attitude – the separation and isolation of individual elements of a problem. Our computer graphic efforts have shown us just how complex even the most simple meaningful hand made drawing is.[i]
There is much to unpack in Colette’s comments, but what she calls a mathematical attitude, the separation and isolation of individual elements of a problem, gave me pause. It straightforwardly leads into a way of thinking about algorithms, which are otherwise opaque to people who don’t know about programming (myself included). Instead of needing to know the math or code, we can ask what is abstracted as useable information, and then what happens to that information when it is put back together again to create, say, movement. As well as being a way of looking into software algorithms both present and past, Colette’s remark has a wider resonance. There’s a current movement to teach computational thinking in schools. Computational thinking means thought processes about manipulating data, using abstractions, and a lot of computer science concepts. Game designers are encouraged to create games to teach computational thinking, and there’s a board game called Robot Turtles aimed at teaching pre-schoolers to code.
A couple of thoughts about computational thinking: since so much is already digital having children learn to code seems a positive thing, as long as we manage to find ways of getting behind all the abstractions, keep track of what’s being left out, and the extent to which that does or doesn’t matter. Secondly: what about future proofing? Not future proofing by teaching children to code, since we’re already doing that, but future proofing the people who teach digital media, people like me and maybe some of you. We already teach people who are ‘born digital’; next we’ll be teaching people who have learnt to ‘think digital’ too. In not so many years to come, what will be the new baseline for thinking digitally in the Humanities?
Aylish Wood is Reader in Film Studies at the School of Arts, University of Kent. She is currently completing ‘Software, Animation and the Moving Image: What’s in the Box’ (Pivot-Palgrave), which is based on research carried out for an AHRC Fellowship.