Who originated the ubiquitous laser/neon grid design of the '80s?
August 6, 2015 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Here are some examples of what I'm looking for.

You might have artists like The Memphis Group, Patrick Nagel, or Masoud Yasami come to mind but ,from what I've seen, none of them explicitly used this design.

Additionally, I'm also curious how they were created. Were they illustrated or was this an early implentation of computer graphics?
posted by coolxcool=rad to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
i always assumed it was tron (released '82) (background on cgi).
posted by andrewcooke at 3:35 PM on August 6, 2015

Response by poster: i always assumed it was tron (released '82)

I was thinking something similar when I first started thinking about this but look at the second example link. You'll notice the date of that magazine's release was in September of 1980. I believe I've seen some other images using the grid that were from around then and maybe even a little before.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 4:07 PM on August 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to do those for a living. They were made using Kodalith and gells and sometimes difusion to get the glow. Very popular with multi-media projector shows. Often a Forox (this used to be my livingroom) was used to shoot it.

I think it was Late 70's was when it started getting really popular, with R/Greenberg Associates using it on tv logos and commercials. Basically by the 80's everyone was doing it.
posted by Sophont at 4:32 PM on August 6, 2015 [27 favorites]

2001 A Space Odyssey had similar graphics, as did Star Wars.
posted by praiseb at 4:57 PM on August 6, 2015

Best answer: For making the actual grid, I used to just use a ruler and rapidograph and eyeball it. Some people used chartpak tape, and eventually you could get printed sheets of perspective grids. When desktop publishing started getting practical, we'd sometimes output a linotronic and shoot a kodalith of that.

Michel Tcherevkoff used to use grids in the 80's, he did a few Omni Magazine covers with them.
posted by Sophont at 5:22 PM on August 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

You saw a lot of glowing grids in late 70s sci-fi movies, as the UIs of computers or as a snazzy way to do an exposition dump. It was pretty standard background detail for starship bridges. The Black Hole's opening credits are one example, and that was 1979. (I think those were done via computer, but I can't say for sure.) (Also, check out that magnificent, Vertigo-esque John Barry score!) It may be that it started in sci-fi movies of the time and people came to think that look represented "the future" so it spread out into the real world.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:05 PM on August 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Michel Tcherevkoff used to use grids in the 80's, he did a few Omni Magazine covers with them.

I almost used that picture as one of the examples.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 7:45 PM on August 6, 2015

I think the first time I saw them was Star Wars in the Luke v. Death Star scene.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:40 AM on August 7, 2015

It came from vector monitors.
posted by Tom-B at 10:58 AM on August 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

As a small child, I thought space was full of those things.
posted by acb at 6:50 AM on September 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

"It came from vector monitors."


"I think the first time I saw them was Star Wars in the Luke v. Death Star scene."

Yeah. I think the most proximate influence for its iconic 80s status had to have been Tron -- but the original popular influences were, first and foremost, Star Wars in 1977 and then with regard to video games (thus Tron), 1980's Battlezone. And both Battlezone and the targeting visualization in Star Wars were the state-of-the-art 3D wireframe perspective 3D visualization during the 70s, which was by computing necessity and industry standards generated by vector graphics.

A note on what Tom-B and I mean by this -- display devices like computer monitors and televisions and such have evolutionarily changed over the last seventy years. The simplest such device is one in which you generate an electron beam, which you then aim at a screen coated with phosphors that glow briefly when the electron beam hits them. This is a cathode ray tube. How do you aim the beam? With electromagnets, which allows you to bend it up and down, and quickly. So you could just draw stuff freeform, right? And that works and can be super efficient, assuming you find a good way to describe what you want the beam to do and are able to control it well enough for your purposes. That's a vector display.

But televisions didn't work this way because they were painting complicated scenes from live signals and you just couldn't do that by having the beam actually draw stuff explicitly. Instead, televisions had the beam scan successive lines across and down the screen at a carefully fixed rate, and the intensity of the beam (and thus the brightness of the excited phosphors) varied with the input image across each line. If you have a way of making a video-camera that can make a corresponding and synchronized measurement along each line of the image, then the whole system will work quite well and just dumbly do its thing. So television worked great.

However, this posed all sorts of problems for computer generated graphics in early arcade video games. In those cases, the engineering requirements were basically the opposite. It wasn't starting with a real-life scene that it was copying, but rather generating a basic scene from scratch. Which, in those days, could only be a very basic outline. And processing time and memory were very limited -- it didn't make sense to scan an entire screen line-by-line to paint what was necessarily only some rudimentary shapes, anyway. Scanning the way a television does only to draw a circle in the center of the screen takes exactly as much time as it would to display something as complex as a television image because the scanning is a timed, lockstep process that covers the entire screen. Controlling the electron beam in a more free-form manner and having it quickly draw that single circle, however, is (or can be) fast. Furthermore, if you're scanning like a television does, you're going to be representing that display in your computer program as, at the very least, a sequence of some number of lines, each of which have some variation in the intensity of the electron beam described within each line. Think of how you would describe something that would result in a circle on such a monitor that has a beam scan, say, a hundred horizontal lines and assuming that you could specify different intensity changes within one-hundredth of each line's length -- that would be effectively 10,000 of what today we'd call pixels. A few of them would be "on", all the rest would be "off". You can find ways to store that single circle that doesn't take up 10,000 units and is much more efficient, but it's still pretty inefficient.

If, however, you have formalized a way to represent in your program and in the CRT circuitry something that can paint a circle of some diameter centered at some offset of the beam's resting point, then you can represent that circle in your program in the tiniest, most efficient possible form and you can have the CRT paint it in the shortest possible time. Since early computing couldn't possibly calculate scenes that were anything more than rudimentary geometric outlines, anyway, this meant that this sort of vector display worked very well for early arcade video games. This is part of why it was possible to get games like Battlezone and Asteroids on arcade machines years before it would be possible to do something similar with a television-style rasterizing CRT.

Eventually, increasing computing power and the desire for color graphics meant that arcade videos games converged toward using raster graphics and displays rather than vector. "Eventually" is probably the wrong word to use, since this happened pretty quickly -- the very first rudimentary arcade video games appeared about 1974 and I think raster graphics were already very dominant by 1981, right about the time of Pac-Man.

But notice how close that period aligns with what we've been discussing. Computer generated graphical displays first entered the public consciousness in a big way during the era of vector graphics. It was the only way that Lucas and Trumbull would have imagined a computer graphical targeting system for the TIE Fighter. Battlezone at the time was pretty mind-blowing. These and some other things placed this in the public consciousness as representations of the future and computers and such, and then Tron just took this to its logical conclusion and cemented it as an aesthetic. I think this continued to resonate in popular culture through the rest of the 80s.

A perspective grid like you're asking about minimally connotes this, as well as more generally alluding to all the ideas associated with a landscape.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:33 AM on September 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

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