From EMS synthesizers to ‘Alien’: Alan Sutcliffe - A Memoir

March 2014

Alan Sutcliffe Self PortraitGeorge Mallen remembers his friend and colleague Alan Sutcliffe and his contributions to the computer arts.

The news of Alan's death was a shock and stirred many memories. He was such an important influence on my life and work and his presence is stamped all over the diverse activities of our careers in computing.

I first met Alan around 1966 when he was head of a software development unit in ICL. He was originally a mathematician and had a keen interest in music. Our meeting came about through developments for  the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1967.

Alan was working with composer Peter Zinovieff who was developing electronic music and had created a company called EMS (Electronic Music Studios) which built and sold synthesisers. The electronics engineer who helped Peter and Alan, Mark Dowson, also worked for me at System Research Ltd where he created the electronics for an exhibit called Colloquy of Mobiles designed by Gordon Pask.

Peter's studio / lab was in Putney close to the ICL office on Putney Bridge and System Research was in Richmond so moving between EMS and System Research was relatively straightforward and it was during one of the project meetings in Putney that I met Alan.

We shared interests in the wider applications of computing and software and a year or so later, after Cybernetic Serendipity, we both attended the IFIP Congress in Edinburgh in 1968 and lobbied the BCS to create a Specialist Group to encourage artists to get access to computers and use them for creative purposes. A couple of months later the Computer Arts Society was formed with Alan as Chairman, John Lansdown as Secretary and me as Treasurer.

Alan's many and major contributions to computer art over the half century of his involvement will be acknowledged elsewhere but certainly the Computer Arts Society wouldn't have come into being and wouldn't have survived without Alan's deeply held belief that such a thing should exist and his knowlwedge of the ways of the British Computer Society that was needed to make it happen. 

Alan's style of chairing CAS meetings was distinctive - the primacy of the ‘conversation’ about ideas, techniques and tools and art work was all important but also bringing anyone with the slightest interest or potential contribution to computer art into the fold. There was a vague acknowledgement that procedures and some bureacracy was necessary - but as little as possible!

However Alan and I worked together on many other ventures besides CAS. In the late 60s I had left System Research Ltd and founded System Simulation Ltd (SSL) to continue research, with my colleague Mike Elstob, into the uses of simulation to help design crime intelligence systems. Our first contract was with the Home Office Police Scientific Development Branch which allowed both Mike and I to complete  the groundwork for our respective PhD projects.

By this time Alan had become somewhat disenchanted with the corporate constraints at ICL and left. He joined us in SSL in our tiny office above an antiquarian bookshop in Twickenham and soon got some work in on computer graphics.

I think our first media project was an Alan led animation sequence for an advertisement for Gilbey's Gin commissioned by the ad agency Young & Rubicam. I was discussing this with Alan last time I saw him just before Christmas and wondering how we got the stuff plotted. My belief is that we got John Lansdown to do it and that was John's intro to the commercial media world. Alan wasn't so sure so there's a bit of research needed to nail that one.

Thus Alan was a key part of SSL from roughly 1973 to 1983. That decade was such a creative period, we got involved in so many diverse software adventures - pioneering applications in media graphics, simulation of industrial processes, computer aided design, corporate decision support in both public and private sectors, indexing systems for book publishers, computer art exhibitions... and other things where memory is porous.

In 1977 SSL moved from Twickenham to John Lansdown's architectural practice in Russell Square. John became Chairman and Mike Stapleton joined us to add real computer science muscle to our armoury. It was then that we were contracted by 20th Century Fox to provide computer graphics for Ridley Scott's ‘Alien’.

Alan's key contribution was the terrain model for the landing site for the Nostromo space ship. We had a styrofoam model made and Alan digitised that for the 3D representation on the flight deck computer screens as the spaceship landed. A real complement to Alan's creation was a query we had from some intelligence agency in the US as to whether we'd had access to some of their on going work on terrain models because the screen representation was very similar to theirs (they said, but we heard no more).

With hindsight it is clear that the Alien project was some kind of culmination of the combined skills of CAS and SSL crossing disciplinary and cultural boundaries. Alan, John and I had worked closely together on many projects, from the Ecogame project for Davos in 1969/70 through to Alien in 1979 and the Channel 4 logo in 1982 and many stops in between.

What can one say of a personal / professional relationship that survived almost 50 years? It worked, was great fun and produced results, but true to form, little money! I mourn Alan as friend, colleague and mentor, a good companion in the uncharted regions of software application where we found our inspiration.

System simulation - Uniquely experienced

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