Postcards from Barcelona
Xavier Berenguer, Roger Cabezas 
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IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, July 1992

"Postcards from Barcelona" is a collection of computer animations (two to three minutes each) about the city of Barcelona, the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Each animated postcard was created by a different designer working with a different musician. Both worked with complete creative freedom and were inspired by one of this year's most talked-about cities. 

With the support of Televisió de Catalunya (the Catalan TV station), we took the city of Barcelona as the main motivation behind our animations. Beyond its Olympic importance, Barcelona provides an enormous pool of inspiration: assorted styles of architecture, volumes of stories, past and present history, an infinity of human types... In a world divided between North (rich) and South (poor) countries, some recognize Barcelona as a city located at the North of the South. Others prefer to locate it at the South of the North. Our postcards explore these ideas. 

Something about computer art

After more than a decade of industrial production, computer animation has proved its capabilities for representating, explaining and creating abstractions. Therefore, we can talk about computer animation as a language for communication. But the power of a language must be tested at the level of the most demanding communication -artistic expression. In this sense, computer art remains a field with many expectations and very few references. There isn't really a long history of computer animation, and there aren't many works in this media. 

An objective reason for this is the cost and the technical difficulty of producing computer animation. It is a nonimmediate exercise and is often unpleasant for the artist. But even within the ghetto of computer graphics experts, we hear the doubts about what specific and genuine value lies in computer art. Delle Maxwell of Princeton, New Jersey stated that: "we all go on in the belief that there is  something about computer art that is significant. A technology that is already so integrated into so many levels of work and daily life must have implications for the arts. Yet this certain  something in Computer Art still remains rather elusive" ("The Emperor's New Art?" in Computers in Art and Design, ACM, New York, 1991, p.101). 

One way to search for the hidden something of computer art is to look at its directly related language -cinema. Recognition of cinema as art came the moment cinema was able to tell stories. The doubts surrounding animated computer images will disappear if the computer is able to tell stories, not just visualize formal experiments. If computer art is to continue, it must do so on the basis of its contents: a story, a concept, a metaphor... 

Another way to deal with the hidden something in computer art is to promote computer animations for their own sake, without a specific industrial demand. Every year since its founding in 1984, we at Animàtica have tried to produce these types of animations. Our effort provides a good opportunity to experiment with ideas and software to visualize them. It also turns out to be an interesting exercise that calls together technicians and artists without imposing messages before-hand and -especially important to guarantee the artists' enthusiasm about the experiment, without interference from clients. Postcards from Barcelona is one such project, allowing creative freedom and experimentation.

Walking through Barcelona's art

The whole Animàtica team conceived "Barnasaurus" one of the more playful of the animated postcards. Remo Balcells, a well known Spanish video artist directed the piece, and Francesc Bienzobas provided the music. Moving from the ancient village of Barcino in the Roman age to the postmodern view of today's Barcelona, this film explores several artistic and architectural present in the city throughout its history. A dragon -a mythical creature familiar in Catalonia- scampers through several examples of Roman and Gothic art, and then walks over buildings from the industrial revolution and works by artists Mies van der Rohe, Dalí, Miró and Picasso and Keith Haring.

We frequently overlapped the frames of this animation, and in several parts the layers interact in different ways. The textures, colors and general feeling of the piece are realistic -but not real. The character, the dragon, adds a new dimension to the piece. Its size changes from scene to scene, regardless of its environment. This technique gives each scene a different scale. Among this animation's most demanding tasks were the construction of the Dalí landscape, the Miró sculpture, the light effect in a stained-glass window, the 3D reconstruction of a Keith Haring mural, kaleidoscopical marble effects, and the moving Roman mosaic.

Walking through labyrinths

In another of the animated postcards called "Laberint", Rebecca Allen, one of the more experienced computer animation designer, present a story about life with Barcelona as her landscape. John Paul Jones composed the music. In this film, life is born inside a cave and passes through the corridors of a vague paradise, the Parc del Laberint. Then life matures in another labyrinth of Barcelona, the Barri Gòtic; and ends projected in the future.

While the first labyrinth was shot with a camera, the second one, the Barri Gòtic, is computer generated. As the older part of the city, it is a complex mesh of short and narrow streets, with a characteristic architecture. With the assistance of Remo Balcells, Rebecca created a particular path in this mesh. As a result, the environment is immediately recognizable to anyone who has walked for a while in that quarter.  

We spent a great deal of time working on the richness of the models and textures, the lighting, and the 3D movement past the buildings. Furthermore, Rebecca explored new ways of building and interpolating material by using a color Cyberware 3D digitizer. System manager Francesc Blanes wrote a set of programs to filter and manage that information.

Walking through the golden city

Another postcard, "Orgiment", presents color, textures, sculptures and irony from Javier Mariscal, one of the best known Spanish designers. Ia Clua composed the music for this piece. In the architectural and commercial flourishes of present -day Barcelona, its most remarkable buildings (antique, Gaudi's, modernist, ultramodern) emerge from mud and turn to gold. 

We generated the 3D landscape by modelling a set of 30 well-known Barcelona buildings from a set of clay models that Mariscal created in his studio. Some of the models fitted perfectly with the capabilities of the Cyberware 3D digitzer, and others were modelled using the Polhemus 3D digitizer. Finally, we used a set of standard tools and Wavefront software was used to finish the buildings. Mariscal painted and created the textures on the Macintosh, and later transferred these textures into Wavefront's software. Part of the 3D models did not suit traditional orthogonal texture mapping, so we developed a set of tools for creating the buildings's surfaces.  

The city of Valencia, 350 km south of Barcelona, has a unique tradition. On the night of March 19, the people of the city burn giant baroque cardboard and wood sculptures called "fallas". Mariscal, born in Valencia, and main animator Santiago Fort said that their work on this postcard was like creating "virtual fallas".

Future walks through Barcelona

We plan three other postcards following the same rule: each postcard is designed by a different designer who has a minimum of experience in computer animation. Whenever possible, the author designs objects, textures, backgrounds, and so forth on the Macintosh. We later transfer that information to Silicon Graphics workstations running Unix. On these systems, a computer expert works on the animation side by side with the author.

Future postcards will include a character animation, a walk down Les Rambles (a famous street in Barcelona) and a child's dream of the city. Together, all six films will make up a video of about 20 minutes. It will be the modern version of the collection of postcards in zigzag form that you can buy in any Mediterranean bookstore. This video will definitely reveal something about Barcelona, and we hope it will also reveal  something about computer art.

Watch the video here

Articles by X.B.