Make it wave

I was the system programmer at Montana Tech in 1979. I talked the school into buying a Tektronix 4027, one of the first color raster computer terminals. The 4027 was “the highest resolution” color terminal at its introduction.  It supported a whooping 640 x 480 display.  We refer to that as VGA resolution now and it seems quaint compared to the 1920 x 1080 resolution of HD TV. It was capable of rendering any of sixty-four colors, but only eight at a time.

It was also very expensive, at $9000, a considerable sum for a small college in the late ’70s. This made it very visible to the school’s president, department heads, and major graphics users. Buying it was a big risk, as the money could have been used to fund other needed computer upgrades. The administration wanted to see justification for spending so much.

I had to do a demonstration. I decided to display a US flag. In an era of monochrome monitors, that would be impressive. I quickly ran into a snag. The flag required a full minute to draw. This would not result in an impressive demonstration. (For the nerdy, “Did it really take that long” explains why.)

I learned how to leave the screen black while the graphic was being drawn. The computer would end by sending commands to map the 3 black color table entries into red white and blue. The flag would display instantly.

I timed the speech I would give to introduce the display.  With one minute left, I started the program that would draw the image.  All I had to do was push the return key at that point and continue my talk.

The administrators gathered around the terminal. I gave my talk. It described the terminal’s capabilities.  I pushed the return key at the right time.  I ended my talk by saying “Let me show you an example.”  The flag displayed almost instantly. The administrators approved.

They asked a few questions. I answered them easily.  Then, having said nothing so far, the president of the school asked “Can you make it wave?” I was completely deflated.  We wrapped up the presentation. My boss told me later that the presentation had gone well, despite the closing question.

It requires computer animation software and very complex mathematics to “make it wave.” In 2010, I got a copy of blender. Blender is an open source program that you can use to create models and render images of those models. I played with blender from time to time, but never seriously.  I never thought about making a flag wave until a few days ago.

A few weeks ago, I decided to become more proficient with blender. I downloaded the current version and started working through a book I had bought years ago. Blender has grown significantly since 2010. It has much better rendering, 3d animation and a physics model of cloth. It should be possible to do a very realistic rendering of a flag waving. I still didn’t think about that first demo.

My wife saw one of my early animations. It reminder her of the demonstration. She asked if I could make it wave.  The answer, right now, is ‘no’. I couldn’t come close to a photorealistic animation.  I had to see how well I could do.  The result is less than spectacular.  It is a very cartoonish rendering. But it waves.

Eventually, I will improve on this. For now, I’m happy that I finally made it wave.

Update: August 4th, 2017. It waves.

I’m working my way through a book on animation in Blender. This morning, I reached the chapter on Blender’s various physics simulations. I don’t need any form the animation I’m working on, but two of them, cloth, and wind, are perfect for making a flag wave. I watched a brief tutorial on YouTube, and fifteen minutes later rendered a much more realistic example.

It still needs a lanyard to be believable, but it’s a long way from that original static image.


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