How Michael Crichton Gave Birth to the Movie Pixel

By Leslie Horn on at

Pixelation: we rely on it today to obscure nudity and lewd gestures on TV. But did you know that we have a 1973 Michael Crichton sci-fi film called Westworld to thank for the image-blurring digital effect?
Crichton—who was relatively inexperienced at the time—wanted to create something that, onscreen, looked like a blurred digital machine. He first turned to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab but they require £130,000 and nine months, both of which were deal breakers. So Crichton sought out John Whitney, Jr., the son of a famed experimental filmmaker.

But the pixel wasn't born out of the press of a button. The New Yorker has the story:

Machines that could scan film into a computer or record computer images onto film were rare. Whitney knew of a Los Angeles-based company, Information International, Inc., that made such equipment. He struck a deal in which the company supplied a programmer and access to a scanner and recorder. From there, it was trial and error; he spent two months creating test footage and projecting it onto theatre screens to determine the best contrast and resolution for the pixelated effect, and to figure out what kind of raw footage would be easiest to understand once it was pixelated. In the process, he also learned that the digitally created colored areas needed to start as rectangles so they would appear square when projected in Panavision.

Crichton and Whitney eventually got the desired effect, but other filmmakers were slow to catch on. Of course, they did eventually, but it's thanks to the experimentation in this film you might never have heard of that led to many of the seamless effects in films today. Head over to the New Yorker for the full tale. [New Yorker]