Considered one of the founding fathers of computer-based animation and special effects, Robert Abel pioneered the commercial use of digitally-controlled motion-control photography and the use of computers for pre-visualization and animation, but he left a legacy greater than a portfolio of groundbreaking television commercials and filmwork. He also mentored a generation of talented directors and digital artists, essentially jump-starting a new industry.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Abel graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with a fine arts degree. In the 1960s, he became a successful documentary filmmaker, and directed titles such as The Making of The President: 1968 and Sophia: A Self-Portrait. It was the creation of Robert Abel & Associates in 1971, by Abel and his friend and collaborator Con Pederson, that changed the look of television and movies in the future.
Abel and Pederson adapted the computerized camera system used for 2001: A Space Odyssey to create special effects for broadcast graphics and television commercials. Their first assignments were animated logos for ABC Television and the Whirlpool Corporation. Soon, the production company began creating a series of ever more impressive television commercials, ultimately receiving 33 Clios for their work. They also created sequences for Disney's The Black Hole and Tron.
Wanting a way to preview ideas before committing to production, Abel & Associates found a solution with the Evans & Sutherland flight simulator. The device could present a simple wireframe version of what was to be photographed later by a motion-control camera. Abel's staff soon discovered that by adding colored filters and multiple exposures, the images produced by the E&S system could be photographed as final art.
Abel also invested in raster graphics with software developed by Bill Kovacs and others through a division called Abel Image Research. The Abel raster software was later developed into Wavefront Technologies' Preview, when Kovacs purchased the rights.
Abel & Associates gained a reputation for constant innovation and was considered the ultimate playground for young directors. "The essence of what I do is that I take risks," Abel said in an interview. "That's what film and special effects are all about. Every time I set out to do a project, I go out to do something never done or seen before. That means there's a great deal riding on everything I do."
"There was nothing scarier than Bob Abel pitching one of your ideas," said long-time collaborator and friend Kenny Mirman. "He was the absolute king of salesmen. He'd make stuff up on the fly, shoot ideas from behind his back blindfolded. Then make outrageous promises about using technology that hadn't been invented yet, quadruple the complexity of what you had taken a leap designing, and promise it sooner than what you had already said was too soon."
In an attempt to control the emerging digital effects market, Abel & Associates was acquired as part of a buying binge by Omnibus Computer Graphics of Canada in 1986 for $7.6 million. But the following year, Omnibus defaulted on investments and shut down operations, effectively closing RA&A. Later, Abel began producing multimedia projects at his new company, Synapse Technologies, and he also taught at UCLA. In 2001, Abel died of complications from a heart attack at the age of 64.
Many former Abel alumnus went on to form or work for top CGI companies including Boss Films, deGraf/Wahrmann, Image G, Kroyer Films, Rhythm and Hues, Metrolight, Santa Barbara Studios, Silicon Grail and Sony Imageworks.
"Bob's truest gift was as mentor and muse," Mirman said. "He had the uncanny sixth sense to hand pick the truest, keenest talent, hire them on the spot, and then inspire them to be more than they ever dreamed possible. He was a builder of dreams. He used us. I know he used me. And I loved him for it." ca
Thanks to Marah Abel, Bill Kovacs, Kenny Mirman and Richard Taylor for providing images and captions.—Patrick Coyne