A Brief, Early History of Computer Graphics in Film

John Whitney, Sr., also known for the slit-scan technique that produced the visually powerful "into the monolith" imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is often credited with bringing computer graphics to the film industry. He experimented with war-surplus analog computer control mechanisms from antiaircraft weapons to control the motion of a camera in the late 1950s and 1960s, producing a number of short animations and television commercials. He continued his work with computer imagery, always seeking to create harmonic, algorithmic motions, producing some very attractive mandala-like imagery in a series of short animations through the 1970s and 1980s.

Ivan Sutherland's 1962 MIT thesis on an interactive computer graphics interface, called Sketchpad, demonstrated for the first time the power of computer graphics as a method for controlling and interacting with computers, and served as a great inspiration to other researchers. The University of Utah and the New York Institute of Technology fostered rich environments for this fledgling science, producing a crop of computer graphics researchers and techniques that have helped to shape the field.

The first feature film to use digital image processing was Westworld, in 1973--the same year as the first SIGGRAPH conference. John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos at Information International Inc. (III; aka "Triple I") provided digitally processed, pixellated versions of motion photography to portray an android point of view. The same group used digital compositing to materialize characters over a background in the 1976 sequel, Futureworld. These efforts were recognized with a Scientific & Engineering Academy Award in 1994.

In 1977 Star Wars used what was probably the first example of 3D computer graphics in film, albeit in the form of vector or wireframe, rather than shaded, imagery. Larry Cuba, in what was then called the Circle Graphics Habitat (now the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, or EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, created a 3D wireframe view of the trench of the Death Star that was used to train rebel pilots. This film also featured a rare example of analog 3D computer graphics--a very brief, false color image of the Deathstar emerging from behind a planet--created using the Scanimate system.

In 1979 Ridley Scott's Alien was released and made limited, but effective use of 3D computer graphics, again in the form of vector or wireframe graphics. Systems Simulation Ltd. of London created a computer monitor sequence showing a terrain fly-over, rendering computer-generated mountains as wireframe images, with hidden line removal.

The first feature film to use shaded 3D computer graphics imagery, rendered in the style used today, was 1981's Looker. Polygonal models obtained by digitizing a human body were used to render the effects, which were again created at III. After working on the effects for Looker, John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos were instrumental in the pitching and preproduction of the next big CGI film, Tron, but left III before its production to form Digital Productions.

The film many people associate with the (difficult) birth of Hollywood computer graphics is Disney's Tron, released in 1982. The effects for Tron were created by a number of fledgling production facilities: III, Magi Synthavision, Digital Effects (of New York), and Robert Abel and Associates. Despite its intriguing and attractive imagery, the poor critical and public response to Tron, as a film, together with some delays and difficulties during production, put a chill on the CGI industry that probably slowed its growth for a time. Indeed, most of the CGI production companies involved in Tron are no longer in business and none are currently involved in computer graphics production. All of these companies produced television commercials for a time during the 1980s, and Gary Demos, while still at III, produced some unused and seldom seen but impressive test footage of an X-wing fighter for Star Wars. The polyhedron character, "Bit", in Tron is probably the first CGI "character", though it was deliberately designed to have a sufficiently limited range of controls and animation that it is debatable whether this work qualifies as true character animation.

In 1982 Paramount released Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which contained a one minute CGI sequence depicting a simulation of the birth of a planet (the "Genesis Effect"), created by Pixar, a LucasFilm spin-off that would go on to produce Oscar-winning computer graphics in the years to come. The Genesis Effect made the first onscreen use of a particle rendering system to achieve its fiery effects.

In all of the films to this point, computer graphics had been used to portray... computer graphics. Throughout its early years in Hollywood, sophisticated CGI of the day was used to show what computers of the future might look like, whether from the outside, as in the monitor displays of Alien and Khan, or, as in Tron, from the "inside".

In 1984 Digital Productions created the first photorealistic computer graphic images for a feature film, The Last Starfighter, using a Cray X-MP supercomputer. Here the computer images were integrated with live action as realistic scene elements, rather than as monitor graphics or computer-generated imagery. Instead of the film industry's traditional models and miniatures, computer graphics were used to create all the spaceships, planets, and high-tech hardware in the film. Also at Digital Productions: Larry Yaeger and Craig Upson combined computational fluid dynamics with CGI, for the first time, to create the planet Jupiter in 2010 (1984); Larry Yaeger and Bill Kroyer designed, animated, and technical directed the flying owl in the award-winning opening title sequence of Labyrinth (1986); and Bill Kroyer animated Mick Jagger's "Hard Woman" rock video (1986). Digital Productions also created a string of Clio award-winning television commercials during the 1980s, and produced some impressive test footage for a few special projects, including Dune (1984) and Star Trek: The Next Generation, prior to its television premiere in 1987. Digital film scanning and compositing work at Digital Productions was also subsequently recognized with a Scientific & Engineering Academy Award in 1995.

Digital Productions was purchased, along with Robert Abel & Associates, by Omnibus Computer Graphics in 1986, and all three organizations closed their doors in 1987. Omnibus Computer Graphics also produced the silvery, reflective spaceship for Flight of the Navigator (1986).

In 1984, musical group Dire Straits came out with a classic rock video for their song, "Money for Nothing", featuring a low-detail, but very engaging animated CGI character, animated by Ian Pearson, Gavin Blair, and David Throssell at a London-based company called Rushes.

In 1985 Pixar produced what is arguably the first CGI character animation in a feature film--the stained-glass-window-come-to-life effect for Young Sherlock Holmes (the primary contender being the simple polyhedron character, Bit, in Tron). Unlike their Genesis Effect, Pixar used more traditional rendering and texture-mapping techniques in this film. In the early days, however, Pixar was probably better known for their John Lasseter-directed series of short subjects, including the Oscar-nominated "Luxo, Jr.," (1986) and the Oscar-winning "Tin Toy" (1988). With John Lasseter directing, Pixar also went on to produce the first all-CGI animated film, the Oscar-nominated Toy Story (1995).

ILM/LucasFilm produced some unique special effects for The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991). Though used quite differently in these two films, both sets of effects were based on traditional rendering techniques coupled with methods for dynamically warping the shapes of 3D objects and 2D images known as morphing (ILM actually first showed its image morphing techniques in the less commercially successful Willow (1988)). The firm has also created television commercials and music videos using these techniques, and further popularized CGI effects for film in the Jurassic Park films (1993, 1997).

Other computer graphics production for television commercials has been done by the now-defunct Cranston-Csuri Productions, its successor MetroLight Studios, the Robert Abel spin-off Rhythm and Hues, and the oldest surviving (and still thriving) computer graphics production house, Pacific Data Images. DeGraf/Wahrman, a Digital Productions spin-off, produced effects for the film version of The Jetsons (1990). In addition, the dropping prices of graphics workstations and the growing capabilities of microprocessor-based systems have given rise to smaller independent production houses such as Homer and Associates, and Kleiser-Walczak, as well as some in-house production at various film studios.

Computer graphics has also given a behind-the-scenes assist to traditional animation in film, going back to Disney's The Black Hole (1979), in most Disney films since The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and in Kroyer Films' FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). Disney brought computer graphics back in front of the camera to provide the ballroom interior scenes for Beauty and the Beast (1991).

Though far from an exhaustive list of all computer graphics effects for film, I believe this summary does hit, and accurately date, most of the early landmarks.

Last updated August 16, 2002.