Robert Abel & Associates
Emerging computer technologies in the late seventies and early eighties inspired musicians to innovate with new sounds and programming, and much of the creative heat from this period is down to the excitement of being at this new frontier. This was equally true in the world of film, specifically animation, and one of the most respected creative teams from this time were Robert Abel & Associates (RA&A).
Robert Abel started out doing film work with Saul Bass (working on the titles for Hitchcock’s Vertigo) and camera operating for the father of computer animation, John Whitney. Con Pederson had worked alongside Douglas Trumbull on making films for NASA and together were hired by Stanley Kubrick to create the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1971, longtime friends Abel and Pederson founded RA&A and became pioneers of motion-control photography and computer animation techniques.
Working with a computer strapped to a camera, Abel and Whitney had created a look that became known as the “slit-scan” effect. Pederson had developed this photography technique for 2001’s famous star-gate sequence, and at RA&A he further adapted the computerised camera system to create special effects for broadcast graphics and television commercials. One commercial for Kawasaki paid homage to 2001 and was subsequently banned for alluding to “the ultimate trip”. (Ironically, the stations which banned the commercial, ABC and CBS, went on to commision RA&A to design their animated idents.)
RA&A’s other famous commercials included ones for 7-Up, Levis and Chevrolet, and their style was nicknamed “photo-fusion”. For 1975’s 7-Up commercial, Bubbles, which was directed by Richard Taylor, they employed a back-light compositing technique created by Taylor which became known as “candy-apple neon”. This highly stylistic method of animation provided glowing effects to characters and scenes, and was further developed by colleague Bill Kovacs.
Kovacs had helped create previsualisation vector animation to help in planning final sequences, and in related experiments had been able to shoot images which yielded unprecedented “pseudo-3D” computer graphics. Abel’s plan to apply these techniques to film proved ahead of its time, leading to a failed experiment on the 1977 film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. RA&A had been hired to work on the special effects for this film, but due to Gene Roddenberry’s interference, the budget escalated out of control and Paramount felt forced to fire RA&A. Douglas Trumbull, who had just finished work on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, was called in to complete the effects shots, but although Trumbull received the credit for special effects on the finished film, most of the designs and concepts were that of Richard Taylor’s team.
After having provided the opening sequence for Disney’s film, The Black Hole, RA&A were one of four teams asked to provide effects for the 1982 film, Tron, and the “candy-apple neon” technique resurfaced to help create the look of this landmark film. There’s a deleted scene from Tron where the female character is at her apartment, wearing a luminescent gown very reminiscent of the butterfly wings seen in the 7-Up commercial. Richard Taylor, who started out doing lightshows for The Grateful Dead’s concerts, was now working at a company called Information International Inc, and he not only organized the effects for Tron but was a key designer of the film’s graphics and costumes, along with Moebius and Syd Mead.
At the same time as Tron was being made, Robert Abel co-directed (with Bruce Gowers) the music video for The Jacksons’, ‘Can You Feel It’, and in 1984, through a division called Abel Image Research, Abel oversaw a revolutionary advert for the Canned Food Council. The commercial, called Brilliance (aka Sexy Robot), was only shown on television once, and was inspired by a Chris Moore painting. Under the direction of Randy Roberts, Brilliance featured techniques that had never been attempted or achieved before, and the success of their motion capture process started a new era in animation effects.
‘Can You Feel It’, 1981
Posted by Manny Z