Prix Ars Electronica 1987

The Film ‘mental images’

The creators of the film mental images received an “Award of Distinction” in the category “Computer Animation” at Prix Ars Electronica 1987. The film had been created by a team of Mental Images GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin, a new software startup, founded in 1986, with the goal to develop worldclass rendering software and to produce high-end computer animations. After setting up the company, the founders decided to create the movie “mental images”, to demonstrate the state of the art in computer animation at that time.
The movie was received very positively and the creators were awarded not only at Prix Ars Electronica 1987 (in Linz, Austria), but also at ACM SIGGRAPH ’87 (in Anaheim, CA, USA) and Nicograph ’87 (in Tokyo, Japan).

Creator Team
The movie mental images was created during autumn and winter 1986/1987 by the following team:

John Andrew Berton Creative and Technical Director
Axel Dirksen (✝ 3.11.2011) Software Development and Systems Engineering
Hans-Christian Hege Software Development
Rolf Herken Creative and Technical Director
Robert Hödicke Software Development
Ulrich Weinberg Technical Director and Sound Engineer
Roger Wilson Technical Director

After finalizing the movie in 1987, the visual effects artists John Nelson (2000 Academy Award winner) and Stefen Fangmeier (1996 and 2000 Academy Award nominee) joined the team.

Findings of the Prix Ars Electronica 1987 Jury
“The decision [...] is supported by the jury’s recognition of the excellent expression of the designer’s creative fantasy. The team involved in the realization has successfully shaped a seemingly real course of action into an exciting voyage. The single sequences of action and images are combined in the spectator’s mind into an unreal story with various possible associations and interpretations.”

Content of the Movie
The film begins in a subway car in a tunnel – mimicking the reality in a subway of Berlin’s public transport. The train runs into the station “mental images” and stops. With the door opening the image of the platform visible in the door window slides sideways and provides a view of an artificial, crystalline landscape. The incipient movement leads through the hilly terrain with well-preserved art-historical finds. With a fall over the edge of this area a flight over a plain boulder field begins. The rocks are furnished with paintings on the sides facing away from the observer. More and more of these paintings becomes visible during the flight as the point of view of the imaginary painter is approached. By taking this point of view the paintings comprise an image of a coastline with offshore islands. A giant drop falls into the sea. More drops follow in ever decreasing time intervals, washing the islands away on the waves. Heavy rain is falling on the water surface. Stepping back, it becomes clear that there is a pool of water, whose tiles replicate the image of the sky and the clouds. Night falls, the tiles turn into paintings of the Berlin Wall, and the water surface into a wet road. A newspaper is blown along the graffiti-covered wall, an indicator light on the subway station and a stairway to the street come in view. The shadow of a person climbing the staircase falls on the stairs. Street, wall, houses, lamps and an advertising column become visible. The gloomy atmosphere near the Berlin wall during the 60s to 80s becomes noticeable. The person takes a few steps. Its shadow glides over the curb, a cigarette butt falls, a match flares up. The person approaches a doorway. The steel door slides sideways and opens the way to a dark hall where a shiny black table shows up, illuminated by a hanging lamp. A roll of a dice on this table ends the film.

Music: Arnold Schönberg, String Quartet no 2, op. 10 (interpretation: The Juilliard String Quartet) and soundtrack of Eddie Jobson, Memories of Vienna.

Making of the Movie
The movie was created using Wavefront 3D Animation Software (Model, Preview and Image) and, by today’s standards, extensive in-house software. The in-house software was mainly required for creation of the scenes, for which fairly advanced geometrical algorithms have been used. For instance, to generate a boulder littered landscape, I created individual rocks by randomly disturbing Poissonian Delaunay tesselations of spheres and then distributing these objects spatially in a virtual landscape using a geometric packing algorithm.
On the hardware side we used Silicon Graphics IRIS 3030 workstations (running UNIX System V, with SGI specifics merged in) for interactive specification of the scenes and animations, and a dual processor Celerity 1260 (running BSD 4.2 Unix, with System V Release 2 functionality merged in) as rendering engine. The renderings were taped in broadcast quality with single frame recording and time-expensive pre-roll, using a 1 inch (SMPTE-C) Sony video tape recorder (BVH-2500P). Later we used a costly Abekas A-60 digital disk recorder, complying to the CCIR-601 standard (10-bit, 4:2:2 color encoding, interlaced video). This specially designed digital device allowed us to store fabulous 750 frames on parallel striped disks and record these 30 second film snippets thereafter in real-time (!) on a Betacam SP recorder (still analog; digital Betacam or ‘digiBeta’ became available only in 1993). The movie was distributed mainly on analog 3/4″ U-matic videocassettes.

Other winners at Prix Ars Electronica 1987
The Prix Ars Electronica jury awarded out of the 116 submissions the Golden Nica to John Lasseter (PIXAR, San Rafael, USA) for Luxo Jr., nowadays considered as the world’s most famous computer animation, and a honorary mention to Mario Canali (Correnti Magnetiche, Milan, Italy) for Urbana.

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