Category Archives: Digital Cinema

The most important American film of the past four decades

The internet is of course a wonderful resource for researcher, providing access to an astonishing array of information. It is also a rabbit hole down which you can disappear for days on end following something that catches your eye. Consequently, this week’s post has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what I intended to write about. Instead, I found Loren Carprenter’s Vol Libre (1980) on vimeo and have spent the past week reading about CGI, animation, and fractal geometry. This film marks the birth of CGI rendering in Hollywood filmmaking making it possibly the most influential American film since Bonnie and Clyde (1967) kicked the New Hollywood and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) changed the way movies are released.

Mathematicians often produce images and even films to illustrate principles and demonstrate what maths can do. Benoit Mandelbrot (1988: 8) discusses making films based on fractal processes as early as 1972; while Richard F. Voss was one of the pioneers of fractal imagery based on his work on 1/f noise (which James Cutting and colleagues have discussed at length in his research on attention and editing in Hollywood cinema).

At the time of Vol Libre Carpenter was employed by Boeing but after premiering the film at a SIGGRAPH conference went to Lucasfilm to work on the ‘Genesis’ sequences for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, eventually becoming one of the co-founders of Pixar Animation Studios and its chief scientist. In an article for The College Mathematics Journal in 1984 Carpenter described creating fractal images for cinema:

The method I use is recursive subdivision, and it has a lot of advantages for the applications that we are dealing with here; that is, extreme perspective, dynamic motion, local control – if I want to put a house over here, I can do it. The subdivision process involves a recursive breaking-up of large triangles into smaller triangles. We can adjust the fineness of the precision that we use. For example, in ‘Star Trek,’ the images were not computed to as fine a resolution as possible because it is an animated sequence and things are going by quickly. You can see little triangles if you look carefully, but most people never saw them.

Loren Carpenter, along with Ed Catmull and Rob Cook, was awarded an Oscar for developing digital rendering systems in 2000.

Vol Libre does not appear very often in the film studies literature even though there are a lot of books on digital cinema. Stephen Prince discusses Vol Libre in Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (see pages 22-23 and 54-55); and Issac Victor Kerklow mentions it in The Art of 3D Computer Animation and Effects (pages 16-17). A search on Google scholar for “Vol Libre” brings up many articles on digital imagery and the history of computing but nothing from films studies, although Tim Lenoir (2000) mentions Vol Libre in passing in an article on new media in Configurations. This raises the possibility that many film scholar are unaware of and have not seen this important film.

Fortunately, there are many useful resources available.

An article on Pixar, including a discussion on Carpenter’s work, by Tekla S. Perry can be found here.

Two papers co-authored by Carpenter can be found at the Pixar on-line library here.

An interview with Carpenter can be found at Vimeo here.


Kerklow IV 2004 The Art of 3D Computer Animation and Effects, third edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Lenoir T 2000 All but war is simulation: the military-entertainment complex, Configurations 8 (3): 289-335.

Mandelbrot BB 1988 People and events behind The Science of Fractal Images, in H-O Pietgen and D Saupe (eds.) The Science of Fractal Images. New York: Springer: 1-19.

Prince S 2011 Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.