Nobody knew anything about 3D computer graphics in 1986. No big movies had been done - except for TRON, which doesn't count, and a smattering of commercials on TV that were pretty limp examples of what was to come, if you ask me.
So we worked in a golden haze of underpaid, unknown achievements and the little pleasures of hot coffee and a client's relieved last-day thanks.
Until Mark Roman. He was the first full time fan. I don't know how he had found out about computer graphics - or even when I had first met him. He was suddenly just there. Everywhere. At programmer conferences, at art luncheons funded by the La Jolla Art Guild, at SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) meetings. At software developer's sales conferences, at our studio first thing in the morning, at slide shows about fractal generation, at parties thrown by somebody whose girlfriend was just hired by a video company downtown to redo their logo. Frequently he'd show up to two of these a day, always early, asking everyone what they did and who they were. It was an astounding feat, because Mark Roman didn't have a car. He'd always be bumming a ride to each event, or arriving in an unbelievably beat up Ford that had been borrowed from his roommate. You couldn't even contact Mark via a phone, because he didn't have a telephone, or a job that anyone knew about, or any visible means of feeding himself. If anybody ever wanted to see Mark, which nobody ever did, you simply had to think hard, broadcast out thought waves, and he'd show up by magic. It worked. Anywhere, anytime.
These endless appearances of Mark did him absolutely no good at all. Not only did he not have any schooling (that anyone knew of, because Mark was incredibly closed about his own life) but he had no ability or willingness whatsoever to do anything in the field of 3D graphics.
That doesn't really describe him, though. Mark was a mumbling, hairy schlub. He had a huge, puffy mustache hanging down off a saggy face, stringy, uncombed long hair hanging down, wearing an old t-shirt, patched jeans, and tennis shoes way past their 50,000 mile checkup. He was unhealthily thin. His eyes. They looked so tired and sad. I've seen beaten dogs whose eyes were more hopeful than his. They were always ringed by black circles. Sleepless nights, too many bus stations? Incessant parental abuse? Drugs? Mental illness? All of the above? What we knew is that we didn't want to shake his hand. There were warning lights going off all over this guy - but Mark just never realized the bad impression he made with everyone.
"Umm, well I ran into Tony Salson yesterday, and umm, he was mentioning that you guys did some really hot animation for HBO, ummm . . ." Mark would mumble in a low, troubled voice. Then he'd fix on you, staring at you with his big miserable eyes, forcing you to speak.
"Yeah, Mark, we just finished a job for HBO. We weren't going to tell anybody until the next Supercomputer Center meeting, though, so, you know, keep quiet about it until then." I'd respond, always surprised he knew this stuff before anybody else did, and vaguely flattered.
"Oh, don't worry, Cam, I won't say anything - uhmmm ahmmmm, the Supercomputer meeting is going to start, uh, when?" he'd push on, somehow both blackmailing you into inviting him to a meeting he had nothing to do with, and convincing you to give him the exact time it started in one mumbled half-finished sentence.
He kept showing up at the conferences and parties, on time, pumping everybody for info, with no socks on. He became more than a fan, though - he was a mascot, and all computer graphics people in San Diego were his unwilling protectors.
"I mean, who is this guy Mark Roman? I saw him last week at the IBM user's meeting. He was handing out their course outline."
"Mark? I don't know. But he's always at the SIGGRAPH parties."
"Who's that? Mark Roman? Yeah, I saw him at the L.A. SIGGRAPH party talking to Alvy Ray Smith. He introduced him to Steve Jobs."
"Yeah, I'm kidding."
It was like that though. Mark became so much a fixture of the CGscene that anything was possible after a while. There were Roman sightings everywhere. It was creepy. Mark did nothing in computer graphics, but was getting all the perks.
This was the very beginning of the age when computers would generate money for their owners; in the old days, computers were necessary tools to keep track of cash and data. They were an expense you'd grudgingly pay for, write off at tax time, and repair twice a year, like a company truck. Things had changed. Now, to graphics people, the computer was the business. It printed money. The bigger the hard drive, the faster the CPU, the more jobs you could generate. We were getting $10-20,000 per animation, often once a week. There was no competition, because everybody was making money. And it happened so fast that people were still wondering why hardware dealers were driving around in paid-off Porches, and why Wavefront Engineering was charging $65,000.00 for a 60 megabyte tape of their software. And the new world of software - hardware - sales - promotion was being ridden on top by this shaggy skank of a brain shattered ex-hippie, Mark Roman.
Perksville. He ate free food catered to the sales reps' expensive parties in Ramada hotel rooms. He drank free beer at the hard-rocking animators apartments. Sir Roman, Reigning Lord of Perk Hall. Free t-shirts from the software companies, gift boxes of coffee and fresh peaches from add-on card manufacturers at Christmas. Gratis rides to trade shows in the best cities all over the U.S., staying in the best hotels bummed from salesmen who didn't even use their rooms, they were hustling so hard. He knew stuff. Memorizing names and positions in companies. He knew details of alpha-release dates pried from the quiet programmers who were grateful of any attention anybody gave them. Things got really strange when Mark started knowing the company owners, though. He grew to be so good at the networking that he knew more about the company you worked for than you did.
"Uhmmm Cam, mumblebumble, Ray Davis is giving a talk this Friday at the Hyatt on Harbour Island." he'd slip you this info in an offhand way, always expecting an answer.
"Oh yeah? Who's Ray Davids?"
"Ray Davis. He's the Sony distribution rep for their new laser recorder. I thought you'd know him . . ." then Mark looked at me with a really strange contortion affecting his mouth. It wasn't a smile, because it didn't spread happiness. I was really puzzled for a moment, then something flashed. Mark was leering at me! He had one-upped me and was bravely trying to bathe in the pleasant knowledge of his own superiority!
"Mark - " I had to straighten this out immediately. "I don't give a fuck about their video recorder. They're write-once and they're a ripoff of their own component video standard. Nobody uses them, which invalidates their use as a standard. OK?"
Reassuringly, his face fell back to it's usual glum watchfulness. "Uhmmm. Ahlmmm gumma, but uh, Cam, it uses a laser."
"Yeah, so? What's it do - shoot robot aliens, too?"
We had a running joke that there would be a world wide nuclear war. Raoul, Alex and I would escape the mainland at the last second, on a tuna boat with half tank of gas left, make it to an island, and crawl into the nearest shelter - a cave. Inside the cave, we'd all look up, and there would be Mark Roman. "Hey, guys," he'd say, "what took ya?" It's not a very funny joke, but to anyone who knew Mark the eerie reality of it always made you laugh uncomfortably.
"You know, Raoul," I was saying to our boss, "Mark is an amazing guy."
Raoul looked at me like I had farted.
"Really." I went on, "He is - I mean, how does he do it? He doesn't have a phone! But he's more clued in to the whole graphics world than any of us. If we could tap into his secret, we could rule the industry."
"Ah, I don't know , Camarone, he's Mark Roman." he said the name like you'd pronounce Adolf Hitler.
"I know, but, like, maybe you could hire him part time to just update you on events, or something. Maybe if he got a real phone, he could line up meetings for us all over California. What he's doing right now is pretty amazing."
We both paused and thought for a second. We were both imagining Mark with our Devil Studios badge at the huge national NAB conference held in Las Vegas, reaching out a palsied, bony hand to shake with the CEO of Silicon Graphics . . .
"No Camarone. It just wouldn't work."
"Hmm. You're right."
We left it at that for a while.
Mark Roman was eventually hanging around Devil Studios so much, Raoul finally gave him a job doing a storyboard for some lousy TV logo job. I think he paid him about 100.00 cash or something, mostly hoping Mark would buy a new shirt with it, or maybe his first pair of socks.
Mark's job was to basically color in a storyboard we had already received via fax. We were all interested in how he'd manage it, seeing as it was probably the easiest thing anybody could imagine doing. Mark didn't have colored pencils, though, or an airbrush, paint, or a personality, so the scales were pretty evenly balanced. Mark took the storyboard home immediately, with a strangely new look on his face - determination. He came back three days later saying it was almost done. He had colored in five of the eight panels, painstakingly shading every detail on the little two-inch wide grainy faxed drawings. Some of the smaller details had been painted in with white guash. It looked somewhat professional, but oddly childlike. We all felt even more sorry for him than before.
Mike then seriously, pathetically begged Raoul for MORE TIME to finish the storyboard: Raoul agreed, seeing as they weren't to be shown to anybody in the first place. Mark worked and worked, sometimes late at night at the studio itself, refining and coloring his little greasy fax. I'd peak over his shoulder sometimes - it was kind of scary seeing his little masterpieces taking form, but even more scary was the intense look on his face when you DISTURBED him.
They were eventually finished well after the production had been done and had begun rendering. Mark was proud, and kept pointing out the little details to Raoul. We all smiled and looked the other way. Job over.
Yet Mark would hang around the studio for months afterwards, seeming expectant. We couldn't figure what he was up to. Then he started asking Raoul if his credits would be on that job.
"No, Mark. Are you creezy? It's a logo for a leetle news station. There no credits."
That disappointed him. He went away for a day. He came back the day after, and had a huge argument with Raoul. We heard some of it through Raoul's famous closed door; he had DESIGNED the job, yells Mark! Where was his designer FEE? Why wasn't he being recommended for our next jobs? Where was his copy of the job on 1" tape to make dubs from, to show other 3D DESIGNERS??? He should be put on staff! He should be sent to the national SIGGRAPH trade expo at Raoul's expense to show this job to his PEER GROUP!
I am not kidding. That was the last we saw of Mark for a while. Raoul kicked him so far out of the studio he needed a plane ticket to get back in California.
Months went by. Fall became winter. We had some fun jobs, a few nightmare clients, a couple of barbecues at Raoul's place.
The phone rang. At the other end was a scratchy voice, droning on about something. I thought it was a telemarketer, and was about to hang up, when the voice began to mumble something about SIGGRAPH. It was Mark Roman. How did he get a phone?
"... at this meeting we'll be talking about uhmble fumble the future of uh, y'know, uh . . ."
"Mark!" I was almost happy to hear from him - "How did you get a PHONE?"
"Ah well, I'm at Number Nine Computers right now, and they let me . . ."
Of course. "Look Mark, I'm on a job right now. Just tell me where the SIGGRAPH meeting is this time." SIGGRAPH was a newly big national organization that had become the last word for 3D software developers. Their national show was held once a year in different cities across the U.S. Everybody attended these, and showed their most recent advances in digital animation. The pace was so breakneck you almost had to go to their show, both for the rush of seeing things that had never been done before, and to see what was going to be the next popular, flashy, mind-blowing effect sought by every ad agency in New York. There were also local SIGGRAPH groups, though, with meetings attended by student hangers-on, interested retirees, and a whole range of fringe wannabees. These were the meetings that Mark attended, and sometimes even organized. They were informal and usually depressing.
"I was kind of hoping," Mark went on, "that Raoul would let me have it over at Devil Studios. We've got some really important people coming and . . ."
"Have it here? Like, are we hosting it? Are we supposed to show our studio to everybody?"
"Well, no, not really, it's gonna be uhnmmm, like, ahmber ummer, my meeting. I just need a place to have it."
Raoul is a softie. He said yes after talking to Mark for a while. Partly, though, he said yes because Mark promised that the head of Number Eight Computers would be coming. They were big, old in the industry, and sort of mysterious. Raoul got kind of excited and ordered some snacks and a couple bottles of wine.
"Eets the best tax writeoff, eh, Camarone? Thee best advertising?" he joked, holding onto a big top quality magnum of California chardonnay.
"Ah, hold on." he ran out of the room. Pause. He ran back in, showing me a few joints he had just rolled - nice big sloppy fat spliffs. "If anybody wants one, I just can't say no, you know? HA HA HA."
Mark showed up a little later, entering the studio with Tony Malcolm, head of Number Eight. Roman was so proud of his catch. His back was a even little un-hunched over, and he was almost smiling, which was hard because it took a lot of muscle to winch that mustache up high enough to make way for a decent smile. Raoul ignored him and immediately began pumping Tony Malcolm's hand, sizing him up, acting all cute and courteous. They went into the meeting room, leaving Mark and I out in the front room.
"Mark - you want some wine?" I asked, trying to be nice.
"Nope, uhmmm, I got to run this ah, meeting, there's more people coming"
The front door opened again, and in walks the area distribution head of Silicon Graphics. Yikes! Mark goes up to him, shakes his hand, and leads him into the meeting room like this kind of stuff happens every day at his house. Then in comes, though our door, the head salesmen and owners of every huge multi-million dollar computer corporation based in San Diego. The manager of Z-Cubed, the largest defense contractor in North County. The new field reps for The Post Place, an all-digital studio in L.A. with a new San Diego office. The CEO of Outboard - the first computer board manufactured in the area, with overseas sales of billions. Every heavy hitter within two hundred miles. The guys who had built the local industry from nothing, years before. Mark Roman had invited the Forbes 50 of San Diego.
And they were really thirsty. They started getting rowdy, drinking wine, chomping sandwiches, even a whiff of weed was coming from outside. Everybody was sitting around our circular oak meeting table; Raoul was having a great time, like a big boy's birthday party.
Then Mark started mumbling, trying to say something. "Ahmm, well I guess it's time to start the ummm arrrb meeting, if I can get everybody's attention." Raoul pointed to him, and assumed his best chastised little boy look, quieting down.
"Go ahead, Maak, it's your meeting." says Raoul, smiling at the obvious contradiction of it all.
"Well, aah, I think we should talk about the future of computer graphics in San Diego. You know, the future of like what we do. SIGGRAPH is supposed to be a forum for ideas, so I've drawn up an agenda for tonight . . ." and Mark brings out this little piece of paper, ragged around the edges, with tiny little writing scrawled across it.
"You know, Mark, a lot of us here aren't even SIGGRAPH members, um, a lot of people are just here to have a good time and meet each other." I whisper to him, trying to clue him in before something awful happened.
"First on the agenda is the future of 3D graphics," Mark goes right ahead, flying blind. "and the future of special effects."
"WAIT A MINUTE!" a sales rep stands up - "WHO ARE YOU?" everybody looks at the sales rep. He's a clean-cut, hard working young guy wearing a suit, obviously a little angry at having Mark Roman lead this meeting. We all look back at Mark.
"Ahmmm ummmm, I'm Mark Roman, and I'm chairing this SIGGRAPH meeting."
"Yeah, but who are you? What have you done in the field of computers? Why are you leading this meeting?" We were all starting to wonder the same thing, actually. Turn back to Mark.
"Well, I'm a designer here at Devil Studios, and . . . "
"Oh, Maak." Raoul looks at him, sternly, then smiles to everyone.
". . . and I'm President of the local SIGGRAPH." Mark continues.
"Hey, hold on there, if we're going to have a local SIGGRAPH chapter, we should do it right. We should ballot a president, charter a San Diego group with the national committee, and establish a set of meeting times. We could have a really strong group, and maybe even have the national show here once every few years, like the L.A. group." The rep was making sense, painting a nice picture of our future, especially about the notoriously powerful L.A chapter.
"Yeah, uhmm, that sounds great." Mark is bobbing his head, up and down, yes yes yes.
"But you're not the President! Nobody elected you!" everybody is sizing up Mark now - and definitely nobody elected him. He was as they say in politics, unelectable. "You haven't sent in any forms to the national committee!"
"Uh, yes, I did."
"I sent in the forms to charter the San Diego chapter, and I'm the President." Mark has a slight leer on his face now.
"Mark - YOU DID?!" I almost yell, staring at him in panic. He couldn't have. That would mean . . . no. He couldn't have.
"Yeah, that's why I'm having this meeting. The San Diego chapter is officially started. I got the letter back last week." His leer is a bit bigger.
We all look at each other. The sales rep guy is speechless in shock; he sits down. Mark is head of our SIGGRAPH. The bomb had been dropped. The as-of-late raging party was now silent with bewilderment. Mark Roman would represent the seventh largest city in the U.S. - the second largest tourist destination in California - at the biggest computer graphics expos of all time. We were all in his hands.
"Ahmmm, uhmm, so, back to my agenda, uh, uh . . . "
He was the founding father of SIGGRAPH, San Diego.
It made sense, of course - we couldn't do it because we all had jobs! Mark had no job! We couldn't make the phone calls because our phones were on hold, taking orders for new work! Mark had no phone!
even though San Diego had a new multi-million dollar downtown convention center,
big enough to host the Republican National Convention,
Mark's lasting stain on the local SIGGRAPH committee seemed to always ensure their avoidance of
our fair city.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Let's hope SIGGRAPH has gotten over it. I have run into "Mark" often at SIGGRAPH and one thing is for sure: he is a very friendly party animal. He's also come a long way since those early day's of the '80's.
His omnipresence on the computer graphics party-networking scene can be very effective, as my following short story will illustrate:
A certain absent-minded programmer friend of mine, Mr. TCB, had made plans to share a hotel room with me at SIGGRAPH 98. I had reserved the conveniently located hotel in Orlando months in advance. Mr. TCB arrived at the convention center to register. Then he realized he had forgotten which hotel we were staying at. Didn't have a clue. So, instead he found the first free party/reception he could. At the party Mr. TCB bumps into Mark and they chat. Mark mentions in passing that he'd run into me at an earlier SIGGRAPH reception, where I had given him my business card. From the card Mr. TCB was able to call and get information on where I was staying. So thanks to Mark, our hapless Mr. TCB, new in a strange town, found his room safely that night. - HG
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