Sampling popcorn tech

State's mission to create the future

Published: Jul 05 2016, 01:01:am

Sunday, June 29, 1986.

A MUST-SEE FOR MOVIE buffs is the California pavilion. For its theme, the state has chosen "creating the future," and among its tools is Hollywood technology.
    One use for California's "popcorn tech" is tourism promotion, effectively demonstrated in the pavilion's 200-standee Western Airlines Theatre, where four members of each audience are offered seats in a family-sized spaceship set on a stage in front of a blank green screen.
    The 10-minute show is a variation on the Chromakey performances that are part of the Universal City Studios tour. It features actor Robert Wagner, who appears on the theatre's several large-screen television monitors, to explain how the special-effects matting process works. As the audience watches, the spacecraft and its live crew are  matted into a six-minute aerial tour of "the Californias."
    In the pavilion's main exhibition area are additional displays of special effects and computer animation techniques designed by Robert Abel and Associates. A Los Angeles production house that specializes in innovative television commercials, Abel is the creator of the 45-second title sequence currently used [1985-1987] to introduce the Steven Spielberg series Amazing Stories.
    Abel's fascinating display offers step-by-step descriptions of the techniques used to create a number of memorable screen illusions. The approaches range from traditional models and mirrors, recalling the original King Kong (used to produce a giant ape ad for Transamerica Insurance), to full computer animation of an armoured knight (Amazing Stories) and a "Sexy Robot" (used to promote canned goods).
    In yet another display area, beneath the neon script phrase "Reaching for the Stars,'' 25 25-inch television monitors are stacked in rows of five. Here, the three-minute presentation consists of actor Charlton Heston's deeply felt reading of California, Ray Bradbury's poetic tribute to the aerospace industry.
    The reading  — and you'll have to  listen very closely given the general noise level in the pavilion — is accompanied by some dynamic,  evocative imagery devised by Amicus Productions of Los Angeles. The combination of visual mosaic and poetry works to make space exploration both exciting and romantic.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1986. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: As an apprentice to 1950s computer animation pioneer John Whitney, Robert Abel was present at the creation of an electronic art form. When the Cleveland-born UCLA film graduate set out on his own, he worked for several years as a college instructor, then as a movie director specializing in TV documentary features, such as A Nation of Immigrants (1969) and The Making of the President 1968 (1969). Shortly after launching his own company, Robert Abel and Associates, he made two theatrical rockumentaries, 1972's Elvis on Tour and Let the Good Times Roll (1973). His personal focus returned to technology, though, and during the 1970s and 1980s his company took a leading role in advancing the art of computer graphics. Although the focus was on producing television commercials — their creations won a total of 33 Clio Awards, the advertising industry's version of an Oscar — they also contributed visual effects to such feature films as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole (both 1979) and Tron (1982). Famous at the time of Expo 86 for producing "trippy" TV spots, Abel suffered a setback in 1987 when a corporate merger went sour and bankrupted his company. In 1990, he founded Synapse Technologies to create multimedia educational materials. Its initial focus was on the 1992 Christopher Columbus Quadricentennial, and thereafter on speciality venues such as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Robert Abel died in 2001 at the age of 64.

See also: The nine articles included in this, the second of four Expo 86 special reports, explore the pavilions of:
14: Expo 86 British Columbia
15: Expo 86 Canada/Washington State
16: Expo 86 Canada
17: Expo 86 California
18: Expo 86 Mexico/Cuba/USA