Film still from film 'Toy Story'

Book review: ‘A Biography of the Pixel’ by Alvy Ray Smith

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Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith explores the development of the pixel, the organising principle that brings stunning visuals to life in the digital world.

“We are now all aswim in an ocean of pixels,” says American computer scientist Alvy Ray Smith. “I carry billions of them on my person, and I suspect you do too.” Indeed, we have all been exposed to all kinds of digital imagery made up of pixels, from scrolling through social media platforms on our smartphones to the animated films we know and love. And this was sparked by the 'Great Digital Convergence' of 2000, whereby a single new digital medium replaced nearly all analogue media such as oil on canvas and ink on paper.

A Biography of the Pixel’ (MIT Press, £32, ISBN 9780262542456), written by Smith himself, points to that significant millennial event by celebrating ‘Digital Light’ – the vast realm that includes any pictures for any purpose, made from pixels.

Smith is the ideal person to write a book on this very subject. He co-founded the now Disney-owned Pixar and Altamira Software and was the first director of computer graphics at Lucasfilm and the first graphics fellow at Microsoft. He has also received two technical Academy Awards for his contribution to digital movie-making technology. With all those years of expertise working in this field, it’s safe to say he is more than qualified to explore this very area in depth.

The computer scientist argues that consumers of the Great Digital Convergence – prompted by Pixar’s first digital film Toy Story in 1995 and the debut of the DVD in 2000 – have taken very little serious notice of this pervasive change in our daily experience. He writes that this is perhaps because most people haven’t realised that ‘Digital Light’ is a single unified technology, and that the notion is new. Making this clear is a major purpose of the book, he writes.

‘A Biography of the Pixel’ does this by exploring three ideas surround this issue: waves, computation and pixels, which Smith says underlie all the apparent complexity of Digital Light (his own term for pictures constructed of pixels). The first three chapters of the book are dedicated to these foundational ideas, with the stories of people who made them possible.

Smith’s journey through the pixel’s development begins with French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier’s analogue idea of waves and then explores the digital idea of computation which dates back to 1936 when mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing invented it to capture the notion of a precise process.

He highlights how the most important but least known of the three ideas is the underlying theme of his book: waves and bits can pass back and forth between each other – between the digital and analog worlds. Here, he explores the Sampling Theorem introduced by Russian information theorist Vladimir Kotelnikov in 1933, which is fundamental to the design and analysis of today’s electronic communication systems.

Smith notes that his entire book – being a biography of the pixel, with the pixel being our name for a sample of the visual world – is about sampling. “Pixels are invisible bits that represent visible waves,” he explains. “My fervent intent is that you understand this piece of magic and be amazed by how it works.” Indeed, Smith highlights how the idea of the pixel has been misconceived over the years as a little coloured square – but are rather a “profound and abstract concept that binds our modern world together.”

He stresses how the pixel is the organising principle of Digital Light, and that sampling, which relies on Fourier’s waves, was created almost simultaneously with computation in the mid-1930s. Smith uses the analogy that sampling met computation, fell in love and conceived a child, Digital Light – the premise of the book.

Not only does Smith explore how waves, computation, the pixel and Digital Light came to be at the forefront of our everyday lives – he then focuses on the two technologies that shaped Digital Light: computers and movies. In the second half of this engaging book, he presents each tech intuitively and provides readers with the history of its invention, all the while debunking some of the common myths about both technologies.

Smith explains, engagingly and accessibly, how pictures composed of invisible matter become visible – that is, how digital pixels convert to analogue display elements. Taking the special case of digital movies to represent all of Digital Light, and drawing on decades of work in the field, smith approaches this subject from multiple angles – art, technology, entertainment, business and history – in a thought-provoking and educational way.

Indeed, ‘A Biography of the Pixel’ is an essential and pleasant read for all those who regularly engage in a lot of media content: whether you’re an avid gamer, a film enthusiast, or simply like to browse the Internet. In fact, if you’re aspiring to pursue a career in filmmaking and/or animation, perhaps this book would inspire you further.

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