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Remembering Robert Abel

The film world lost a genuine visionary on September 23 with the passing of Robert Abel. At age 64, Abel left a legacy that could fill several lifetimes. While famous for his seminal computer-graphics studio Robert Abel & Associates, by the time he founded RA&A in 1971, Bob was already an Emmy and Golden Globe-winning filmmaker, with credits including Mad Dogs And Englishmen and The Making of The President: 1968.

In partnership with animator Con Pederson (2001), Abel launched RA&A by creating dazzling slit-scan effects. A consummate salesman, Bob wooed clients with RA&A’s eye-catching “streak” photography, and pioneered TV motion graphics. Using computer-controlled cameras, Abel’s team created the “photo-fusion” look in landmark spots such as 7-Up’s Uncola, which earned one of RA&A’s 33 Clios.

“We created photo-masochistic commercials with hundreds of motion-control passes,” recalls Richard Edlund, the four-time Visual Effects Oscar-winner who calls Abel his mentor. “There was so much happening in each frame that you couldn’t wait to see it again.” Homemade gear helped RA&A achieve effects that Abel gave nicknames like “candy-apple neon.” Edlund remembers, “If you had an idea, you just elbowed your way to a camera and shot a test. If it looked good, Bob would rush to NY and sell a commercial based on it. Then he’d come back and try to figure out how to make it work. He had this uncanny ability to charm the socks off you, and he also had no compunction about pushing you to the edge.”

RA&A pioneered the use of the Evans & Sutherland vector graphic computer to previsualize effects shots, an innovative approach at the time. It wasn’t long before Abel’s software guru Bill Kovacs was actually shooting images right off the E&S screen, which yielded unprecedented “pseudo-3D” CG. Abel’s plan to apply these techniques to features proved ahead of its time, leading to a failed experiment on the Star Trek movie, although RA&A did contribute images to the landmark CG film Tron. Kovacs, who would go on to found Wavefront Technologies, observes, “It’s a tribute to Bob that so much was brewed there. He loved to stir the pot and make something greater than the sum of the parts.”

During the 1980s, Abel mentored a new generation of talent such as Randy Roberts (The Sexy Robot) and Kenny Mirman, who designed Escheresque CG spots for TRW that won RA&A great acclaim. “We were making it up as we went along,” recalls Mirman, who likens Abel to Obi Wan Kenobi for his ability to inspire creative people. “Bob built the best playground possible.”

After RA&A closed, Abel created pioneering interactive projects including Columbus, now in the Smithsonian, and also taught at UCLA. But perhaps Bob’s most enduring legacy lies in the success of the many people whose talent he nurtured, including Oscar-winners Rob Legato (Titanic), Charlie Gibson (Babe), Scott Farrar (Cocoon), and Tim McGovern (Total Recall). Many Abel alumni today run companies of their own, including John Hughes and Richard Hollander (Rhythm & Hues), Tom Barron (Image G), Allen DeBevoise (Creative Planet), and Ray Feeney (Silicon Grail). Ask any of them about their time at Abel’s and you’ll hear legendary tales. ILM’s Kevin Rafferty looks back on working with Abel and says simply, “the word ‘icon’ is not out of the question when you’re talking about Bob.”

While Abel will be rightfully remembered for the many technical breakthroughs he shepherded at RA&A, he ultimately saw those inventions as just the means to a creative end. “Technology,” he once said, “just frees us to realize what we can imagine. It’s like being given the power to do magic.”

Those of us who were lucky enough to have worked with Bob will never forget the magic that he made.