GIA interviews Steve Gray, Part One
A pioneer in the field of computer graphics, he created some of the first all-computer generated commercials ever produced (including the Coca-Cola polar bears). He put together top-secret "Star Wars" SDI simulations for the U.S. government. He worked at Digital Domain (alongside Titanic director James Cameron) on films such as True Lies, Strange Days, and Apollo 13. He headed the "Advanced Media Department" at EA Vancouver where he worked on audio, video post, motion capture and 3D game algorithms. He was vice-president of Square USA, where he partied with Hironobu Sakaguchi and led U.S. development of Parasite Eve. Now, his Chemistry Entertainment works with Rainmaker Interactive to bring you the future of interactive entertainment: console, arcade, DVD and beyond. He even tried to play guitar in his own heavy metal band. He is Steve Gray, and GIA has the exclusive interview.
The GIA operatives were waiting tensely in an abandoned cabin in the Canadian wilderness -- that is, anywhere in Canada. Any moment now, the indominable Steve Gray would be arriving. He hadn't mentioned how he'd be showing up, though ... and this remote fortress was inaccessible by normal land routes (rabid meese guarded it fiercely). How would he reach -- suddenly, a crashing noise came from the back lobby! All agents ran swiftly to the back to discover a broken skylight and a goggle-wearing paratrooping character that could only be Steve.
Steve: Yo yo yo!
AndrewK: Hey hey, Mr. Gray!
AndrewV: How ya doin', Steve?
Steve: I'm fine ... so what are the hot topics for tonight?
AndrewV: Square recently paid Hong Kong's top female pop vocalist $1 million US to record the title song to FF VIII. Glad to know their money's being put to good use, eh?
Steve: Damn! We tried to get 'em to use some top music talent in the US for Parasite Eve, but no go.
AndrewK: Tip! Hire REM. They'll sell games baby!
AndrewV: Tip! Don't listen to AK, he's a psycho REM fan!
Steve: I was hoping for RAMMSTEIN!
AndrewV: (broodingly) Du ... du hast ...
Steve: Exactly. We're working on an arcade title right now that will have RAMMSTEIN-ish music
AndrewV: I have this recurring nightmare now where I wake up and Celine Dion has been paid by Square to dub FF VIII US ... and I turn on the radio and they keep on playing the Love Theme from FF VIII.
Steve: (screaming) WAAAAAHHHHH!!
AndrewV: They're bigger than ever nowadays ... Square and EA joining forces into the most talented and largest corporate conglomerate the world has ever seen ...
Steve: Well.. it makes a lot of sense from a marketing and distribution standpoint. The strange thing is, it is not at all unlikely that Square will end up distributing one of our games in Japan ... that is, it's not at all unlikely that EA will publish one of our titles at some point.
Steve: Yes ... Rainmaker Interactive is Chemistry Entertainment. Ex-Square people, about 15 of us now, plus some others.
AndrewV: Cool. What's Darnell doing nowadays? [Darnell Williams was another former vice-president of Square USA]
Steve: Darnell is back at his own company "ElektraShock" with his wife Rosa (who was running the place in his absence). They just completed a motion capture shoot and processing for us on our arcade title.
Various catching up on old Square USA employees ensues.
AndrewV: Well, as long as we're all here, why don't we introduce ourselves. I'm Andrew Vestal, I used to run a site called Square Net, now I do upcoming coverage for the GIA. I'll be doing most of the interviewing, mostly, so that we don't all run over each other in a flurry of indistinguishable dialogue.
Steve: Hi everyone. I'm Steve Gray, President of Rainmaker Interactive and Director of 3D Operations for Rainmaker Digital. Rainmaker Interactive is a division of Rainmaker Entertainment Group, a publically traded Canadian company that has division involved in live action film making (Pacific Motion Pictures), visual effects (Rainmaker Digital in Vancouver and LA), DVD authoring and Interactive). Rainmaker Interactive is based in the LA (Burbank) offices of Rainmaker Digital. We shared 3D production resources with Rainmaker Digital. This inlucdes resources in LA and Vancouver.
AndrewV: Are you currently working out of the LA or Vancouver offices, Steve?
Steve: I'm in Burbank, as are all the designers and programmers (for Interactive). We have about fifteen people here. The crew just devoted to Games is about ten now, the rest are working in the 3D area with Rainmaker Digital people. We expect the games group to grow to around 25 people within a month or two.
AndrewV: As for the other folks here right now ... Andrew Kaufmann works on features and supervising, Brian Glick is our other upcoming coverage fellow, Allan Milligan does our letters, and Andrea works on our "Vault" of older game coverage. Where is Brian, anyways? He steps out for five minutes, and Steve shows up ... serves the silly Canadian right.
CharlesV: I'm Andrew Vestal's little bro, Charles Vestal. I fix his computer when it breaks among, other things.
AndrewV: (whaps brother) I can fix my computer myself, thank you!
AndrewK stands up listelessly and wanders about the room.
Steve: ... what's he doing?
AndrewV: Wandering, I guess ... he wasn't paying much attention, anyways.
Andrea: ... and he never says anything important, even when he's here.
AndrewV: Just hits on everyone. (laughs)
Allan: And talks about sex and REM. Preferably simultaneously.
AndrewV: Anyways ... mind if we talk a bit about your early years in the industry? We can kinda talk about what you've been doing, role by role, and work our way back up to your current position at Rainmaker.
Brian: I'm back.
Steve: Hey, Brian. Sure thing ... so do you want me to just ramble for a while a give my history? Or take it job by job and you guys can ask questions?
AndrewV: Why don't we take it job by job and work from there?
Steve: Ok ... will do. "My First Programming Job," by Steve Gray.
I was in grade school, I think fourth or fifth grade, when they put some PLATO terminals in to the school I was at. PLATO was a 500-600 user network based on Control Data Corp interactive system with 512x512 monochrome graphics.
AndrewV: How'd you learn to program?
Steve: I learned to program on my own ... I worked at the Computer based Educational Research Lab (CERL) as a computer operator for years while I was in high school, but then I went to the University of Illinios in Urbana Champaign as a CS/Math double major.
AndrewV: Where HAL 9000 comes from!
Steve: That is correct.
AndrewV: What languages could you program in on PLATO?
Steve: PLATO had its own language called TUTOR. It was made up by a bunch of non-programmers for use by non-programmers so it SUCKED BIG TIME--
AndrewV: --ah, the precursor to PASCAL--
Steve: --but you could make cool graphics with it. Back then 512x512 orange plasma pannel display graphics were very cool. There were a bunch of multi-player games, Avatar (DND) and Trek being some of the bigger ones. We also had chat and e-mail before anyone. Before the Internet.
Steve: Before ARPANet!
AndrewV: Tin cans and strings, then?
Steve: Yep! When I went to college, I became a systems programmer ... writing lovely OS code in Cyber assembly language on the PLATO system.
AndrewV: That's the funny thing about crappy languages and platforms; they haunt you your entire life, eventually becoming "standards" for some God-knows-why reason.
Steve: You mean like Windows? (laughs) Then I dropped out of college... 'cause I was making too much money as a programmer ... and having too much fun playing guitar in a metal band.
AndrewV: What was the name of the band? And was it original or cover?
CharlesV: And do you have any samples for us? (evil laugh)
Steve: The first band I was in that was actually halfway successful -- that is, played paying gigs -- was called Riff Raff. It was a downstate Illinois bar band, so we would do basically 2-3 sets of covers and about one set of originals mixed in. I probably still have tapes of it somewhere, but I'd have to dig.
AndrewV: The Steve Gray interview swells into the Steve Gray biopic with interactive sound and music.
Allan: It then spins into a lavish music number, with songs and dances and midgets.
Brian: How could you have guessed that we'd really want to hear about your musical talents, rather than any minor "industry" details? (cackles)
AndrewV: Why did your school have Internet so soon? Lots of elementary schools are just getting hooked up now.
Steve: We didn't have Internet. PLATO was an "internet" like system long before the Internet or Web actually happened. This was approximately 23 years ago, or more ... oops ...
AndrewV: Did you just accidently reveal your age?
Steve: I would have been 11 so ... I'm 36 now ... so that would 25 years ago when I had my first programming job. Which was doing a English as a second language program for the PLATO network. It taught Spanish kids how to break English words into syllables -- why they need to do this, I still don't know.
AndrewV: They needed to get hookedia sobre los fonicos!
Steve: Si, vatos locos forever!
AndrewV: Did it use any graphics?
Steve: Yes, the Spanish program thing was actually a game.
CharlesV: You get the word correct, and you're sucked through a wormhole to a parallel dimension?
Steve: The words would fly at you as these 2D spaceship graphics and you had to split them apart where the syllables were. It supported multiple users -- not head to head combat, but it had a hall of records. It actually got so popular on UofI sites that it was banned as a "game" from study hours
AndrewV: Okay ... writing "English as a second language" proggies for PLATO isn't nearly as glamorous as movie or game work ... so let's talk about your California gigs.
Steve: After the PLATO gig I did more of the same sort of boring shit working for Control Data, then I moved to LA to be a rock star.
AndrewV: With your Riff Raff friends? Or independently, looking for the next big thing?
Steve: No ... by myself, looking for the next big thing, exactly. Being a wanna be rock star in LA turned out to be a fairly miserable existence. So I got a job at Robert Abel and Associates. They were the first big CG company. They did the effects for Star Trek I; I joined the company just after they finished that project.
AndrewV: Oooh, the wormhole? I didn't realize that was CG, I thought it was a more advanced form of the "shaky camera" effects pioneered by the TV series.
Steve: Nope, it was shot in film of an Evan's and Sutherland vector monitor. They also did the light boat thing sequence in Tron. They were the happening place, other than Digital Pictures (which did Last Starfighter and other things).
AndrewV: How did an out of work rock star find his way to the happening place? Just walk up and ask for employment?
Steve: I was answering ads in the LA Times. I had done CG before, and I conned my way into a job at Abel's. We did a lot of TV commercials, all of the "all 3D CG" TV commercials, most of which are long since forgotten unless you watch those compilation CG tapes.
CharlesV: Heh, I remember those ... the Mind's Eye.
Steve: Right, Mind's Eye. They probably have things like "Sexy Robot", "Hawiian Punch", "Benson & Hedges Gold & Power Cat."
Sexy Robot was for the Canned Food Consortium. I worked on 'em. I was part programmer, working on the Render and GUI, and part technical director, a glorified CG artist who can write Cshell scripts. Sexy Robot was defintely a cool spot
After Abel's tanked miserably, I went to work for a company called Ray Tracing Inc, and wrote a ray-tracer.
Steve: Then I went to JPL to work on Star Wars stuff. Big, big video game.
AndrewV: Star Wars Arcade? Wasn't that--
Steve: --no, no, no. US Government, SDI. [Strategic Defense Initiative]
AndrewV: Oh, that Star Wars! ... that's not nearly as impressive as if you had worked on Star Wars Arcade.
Steve: Yeah, bummer. But it paid good.
AndrewV: So what was your inspiration at JPL? Missile Command? Defender? Which classic arcade title did you pattern our nation's defense initiative after?
Steve: We wrote a system (game) in which you control a large number of low earth orbit "killer" satilites and a smaller number of geo-stationary orbit "battle management systems" The other side plays the Soviets and they have many ballistic missiles with multiple re-entry vehicles. The Soviets launch and you try and kill all the missiles.
AndrewV: Ah, so Missle Command.
Steve: 3D Missle Command at that, with multiple screens.
AndrewV: And here I thought nuclear war was just like Tic Tac Toe.
Steve: Well, the result is similar. The missiles always win if they get to go first ... actually, the missiles always win no matter what!
CharlesV: I guess we just hoped that the Soviets were training with Battleship, so they didn't find out that they always won, huh.
Steve: It was very upsetting to the Air Force people managing the program. Everyone knows the missiles always win; it's just those Washington people who are so good at living in a state of self-delusion.
The Soviets might as well have been training with Battleship -- they gave up. So in a sense, SDI actually worked, though not in the way it was supposed to.
AndrewV: This will sound really perverse ... but were these simulations fun to play? (laughs nervously)
Steve: Fuck yes! It rocked, it was super fast and had really cool graphics. I even put in mushroom clouds that you could see if you flew one of the cameras down on to the surface of the earth--
AndrewV: --the first ever post-apocalyptic Easter Egg--
Steve: --but the Air Force made me take 'em out; they didn't like it. "Too graphic," they said.
Brian: (laughs) That's incredibly twisted and bizarre. I love it.
Steve: We ... that was my point.
AndrewV: But "Star Wars" was shut down, eventually. What did you do next?
Steve: So after JPL I went to work for Media Logic -- wrote another Ray Tracer -- not that interesting. Then I went to work for Rhythm & Hues as head of their software department. Wrote part of another renderer, a bunch of particle system stuff, a bunch of GUI stuff.
MrsV: (from the kitchen) I loved that "Sexy Robot" bit!
Steve: Cool! They also did the Coca Cola polar bears while I was there. After R&H I went to Digital Domain to run the digital part of DD.
AndrewV: The domain part was taken--
MrsV: (from the kitchen) --did you work on the polar bears or were you just there there while they were done?
Steve: I worked on the bears. my main contribution was rendering software and specifically the fur and blowing fur effects.
Brian: "Interview with Steve Gray, conducted by Charles' mom."
CharlesV: You just hush, Glick.
AndrewV: What movies did you work on at DD?
Steve: I was there when we did True Lies, Interview with the Vampire, Apollo 13, Strange Days, and some other stuff.
AndrewV: Did you create any custom software for DD's effects, or did you use prepackaged programs?
Steve: I didn't do a ton of programming at DD; I was managing a department with about 100 people in it. However, Digital Domain collectively wrote a lot of custom software.
AndrewV: Did you work with James Cameron much?
Steve: I have worked with Cameron. He is a cool dude. Very smart.
AndrewV: Were there any effects shots that were particularly grueling, that took 25 tries or so to get right?
Steve: Probably the most painful shot I've ever been part of was called "MI-29" on True Lies.
MrsV: (from the kitchen) So that's why the bears were so cute!
CharlesV: Quiet, mom!
Steve: That's the final shot when Arnold lands the plane safely with his daughter character. We worked on that shot for 6 months.
AndrewV: What made it so difficult?
Steve: Cameron never liked anything we did.
AndrewV: Director James Cameron a perfectionist -- you heard it here first!
Steve: It shouldn't have been that difficult, but he was very picky about getting all the elements right, and it was the first shot we started on the whole movie, so a lot of R&D was spent just getting CG jet exhaust to look right.
AndrewV: Did you ever "cheat" to get a shot to look right?
Steve: ... "did you ever cheat?" Computer graphics is all about cheating! (laughs) As is all visual effects stuff. I've definitely done simple tricks that clients thought were some sort of fancy CG shit and not told them.
AndrewV: In that case then ... any particularly cool hacks?
Steve: Hmmm ... the blowing fur on the bears I think is a cool hack, though it's a little dated. What we did was this: first, for the fur on the edges of the bear we instanced lots of polygons that were perpendicular to the surface of the bear. Each poly got a five-frame animating opacity map that looked like a hand waving back and forth. For the fur on the belly, we took a picture of a polar bear rug and the morphed it about randomly and composited it back on top of itself.
AndrewV: Cheater, cheater!
Steve: It wouldn't really hold up anymore today, because there are some really cool fur shaders out there now.
Tomorrow: We actually talk about games! Steve talks about his work at EA Vancouver, partying with Hironobu Sakaguchi, joining Square, secret locations and features that were cut from Parasite Eve at the last moment, the engine they designed for Parasite Eve but Square scrapped, and some top secret projects he's working on at his new company, Rainmaker Interactive! Plus his favorite games, movies, and a special cameo from an old Square Net regular. All this and more in Part Two!