The Bob Abel Project

Fade To Black:

Remembering Robert Abel

Millimeter Magazine

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 like "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 R A&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 like 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."


Staying ahead of the competition, 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 1980's, Abel mentored a new generation of talent like 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 like "Columbus," now in the Smithsonian, and also taught at UCLA.  But perhaps Bob's most enduring legacy lies in the success of 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, like John Hughes and Richard Hollander (Rhythm & Hues) Tom Barron (Image G) Allen Deveboise (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.
                                           --Ellen Wolff

The Narrative

The environment at Robert Abel and Associates was unique in the world of design and technology. Many of the seminal advancements in the art of special effects can be traced to that company. With this in mind, Ellen Wolff and Bill Kovacs who both were employees at RA&A, would like to write a book that seeks to shed light on this pioneering environment, how it came about and what it was like to work there. Bill Kovacs is an Academy Award winner who started the digital graphics initiative at RA&A. Ellen Wolff is an accomplished writer in the visual effects community with numerous articles to her credit for Variety, Millimeter, Film & Video, VFXPro and many others. Ellen regularly interviewed Bob and several key employees during the past fifteen years so varied source material exists.

After initial discussions it has been determined that the uniqueness of this story and its "meaning" can best be discovered through a series of group interviews with the key project teams that worked at RA&A. We are confident that, through their words and personal stories, a complete and compelling story will emerge. Today these key players are nearly all accomplished and award-winning industry professionals in their own right.

Status

So far the following individuals have been interviewed: Con Pederson, Richard Edlund, Richard Taylor, John Hughes, Richard Hollander, Bert Terrari, Harry Marks, Tom Barron, Ray Feeney, Wayne Kimbell, John Grower, Michael Gibson, Priscilla Valdejulli, Sandra Ford, and Sherry McKenna.

Once these interviews are done they could be published on a web site or compiled as a book. Bill Kovacs is working on an archival DVD the material for which will come almost exclusively from a Pioneer Laserdisk that was created in the mid 80ís.

The Art Collection

Bob Abel was an avid collector of contemporary print graphics. His collection of over 60 prints and photographs provides a wonderful tour of the best in 70s and 80s print graphics and movie poster art from Hockney to Kubrick. During the heyday of RA&A these posters lined the walls of the facility on Highland Avenue and are memorable icons for many alumni of the company. Although individual collectors have expressed an interest in purchasing individual items, the Bob Abel Estate is currently looking for a home for this collection in an environment where students and art enthusiasts can see it in its entirety on a daily basis in connection with the pursuit of their craft. A multi-media CD-ROM has been created to document the collection.

The Alumni

A comprehensive list of Abel Alumni is available on request