John Whitney, Sr. was one of the most important innovators in computer filmmaking. After making Five Film Excercises with his brother James, he repurposed WWII anti-aircraft technology into an analog computer that could be used to compose complex animation. An early version of this machine was used by Whitney to create Lissajous spirals in Saul Bass's title sequence to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Later versions were used to help animate James's Lapis (1963-1966), as well as John's Catalog (1961).
Whitney refined his apparatus, eventually calling it his Cam Machine, patenting the device in 1963. Around this time, Whitney also developed his slit-scan animation technique: A movable slide with a slit cut into it is placed between the camera and the object photographed. Using a long exposure and a moving camera, the technique produces elongated and distorted elastic light effects. The Cam Machine and the slit-scan method were duplicated and refined by Douglas Trumbull for the "stargate" sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
John Whitney's machine was an analog computer. A digital computer uses binary code as its input. Analog computers require that some material--a drawing, or photograph--be put together before being fed into the machine, meaning, in Gene Youngblood's words:
"that a great deal of handicraft still is involved, though its relation to the final output is minimal. The original input may be as simple as a moire pattern or as complex as a syncretistic field of hand-painted dots--but some form of handmade or physically demonstrable information is required as input in the absence of conventional computer software."
This handicraft was the driving force behind Whitney's invention. His modification of the military technology produced an apparatus with a rotating base, in which control signals were sent from the analog computer to motors that drove the gears that moved the artwork under the animation camera. The device was a "precursor of computer animation stands developed nearly twenty years later." Whitney's interest in developing new technologies for abstract filmmaking led him to design machines used for the first computer-based animations. With assistance and funding from IBM, Whitney's artisanal experiments in computer animation paved the way for the increased use of computers to generate imagery in commercial films.