Hitchcock’s Artillery

On the 55th anniversary of Vertigo, Tom McCormack recalls the novel equipment used to create the film’s title sequence, an “obsolete military computer called the M5 gun director” from WWII:

[Computer animation pioneer John Whitney] was hired to complete the seemingly impossible task of turning [Saul] Bass’s complicated designs for Vertigo into moving pictures. A mechanism was needed that could plot the shapes that Bass wanted, which were based on graphs of parametric equations by 19th mathematician Jules Lissajous; plotting them precisely, as opposed to drawing them freehand, required that the motion of a pendulum be linked to motion of an animation stand, but no animation stand at the time could modulate continuous motion without its interior wiring becoming tangled. …

The M5 was used during World War II to aim anti-aircraft cannons at moving targets.

It took five men to operate it on the battlefield, each inputting one variable, such as the altitude of the incoming plane, its velocity, etc. Whitney realized that the gun director could rotate endlessly, and in perfect synchronization with the swinging of a pendulum. He placed his animation cels on the platform that held the gun director, and above it suspended a pendulum from the ceiling which held a pen that was connected to a 24-foot high pressurized paint reservoir. The movement of the pendulum in relation to the rotation of the gun director generated the spiral drawings used in Vertigo’s opening sequence.

The M5 weighed 850 lbs and comprised 11,000 components, but its movement was dictated by the execution of mathematical equations; it was very much a computer Whitney’s work on the opening sequence for Vertigo could be considered an early example of computer graphics in film—and a clever détournement of military equipment.