Much has been written about the history of animated films from the perspective of hand-drawn animation pioneers like J. Stuart Blackton, Émile Cohl, Winsor McCay and Walt Disney. But the history of computer-animated films specifically is something that deserves its own examination.
One thing that’s different between cel animation and computer animation is the long road that computer animation took to get to the big screen, and given the rigidity of computer graphics in the mid-to-late 20th century, it took even longer for Hollywood to release a fully computer-animated feature film before Pixar made Toy Story in 1995. And even after that, CG human characters would be stuck in the uncanny valley for a few more years, which is part of the reason why Pixar initially chose to make movies about inanimate objects. But computer animation would not have reached this point in the nineties if not for several key developments in the decades that preceded them, and I have pinpointed some important people, places and moments in those decades.
John Whitney was a man from Pasadena, California who went to Claremont to attend the private liberal arts school Pomona College and later created award-winning abstract films in the 1940s. His animation techniques were used in films, television shows and commercials, most famously in the title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) which Whitney collaborated on with graphic designer Saul Bass.
In 1960, Whitney founded Motion Graphics Incorporated, a company that used analog computers to create movie and TV title sequences and commercials. Whitney had converted the computers from the mechanisms of World War II equipment that was used to break Nazi codes, and he even used a computer he made from a WWII M5 anti-aircraft director for the earliest example of motion control photography, a technique that enables precise camera movement control, which allows filmmakers more freedom to experiment with imagery and more creativity, including the implementation of trick photography like chroma key compositing, which was a significant factor in the development of the color separation techniques popularly used in green screen. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was an early example of a film using motion control photography.
Whitney later shifted from analog computers to digital computers in the 1970s, the decade he was at his creative peak making psychedelic animation for films like Arabesque (1975), as well as experimenting with programming at California Institute of Technology and teaching the very first class dedicated to computer graphics at UCLA.
The First Computer-Animated Film
The first time computer animation was broadcast to the public in a film, it was not for entertainment purposes. It was vector graphic animation in a Swedish newscast from 1961 portraying a car traveling down a proposed highway. The CGI was created at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm via the BESK (Binär Electronisk SekvensKalkylator, which is Swedish for Binary Electronic Sequence Calculator), Sweden’s first electronic computer, as a way of conveying information to the public.
The science and technology research company Bell Labs in New Jersey experimented with the artistic value of computer animation in the 1960s. Edward Zajac created one of the first digitally animated films A Two Gyro Gravity Gradient at Bell Labs in 1963, which was a demonstration of the original path of a satellite.
That same year, Ken Knowlton developed the first domain-specific computer animation language called BEFLIX (a combination of “Bell” and “flicks”). Although Bell’s CG films were mostly for educational purposes, Knowlton did collaborate with experimental artist Stan Vanderbeek in the mid-’60s on a series of CG animated films created using BEFLIX, including the visually striking Poem Field series.
Meanwhile, another Bell student, engineer and animator Michael Noll, created stereoscopic 3D images and even 4D imagery, which he would eventually use to produce CG animation for films and television.
American graphic designer and Boeing art director William Fetter was the first person to create a human figure using computer animation, and he also popularized the term “computer graphics” to describe this kind of work.
MIT student and internet pioneer Ivan Sutherland created the program Sketchpad, which allowed you to interact directly with an image on a screen, the first demonstration of graphical user interface, which would eventually lead to the creation of the computer mouse and allow people to interact with computers in ways beyond typing on keyboards. This would also be a key development in the creation of computer animation.
In 1968, Sutherland would team up with David Evans, the hardware pioneer and founder of the computer science faculty at the University of Utah, to found Evans & Sutherland, a company which would make even more technological leaps like head-mounted displays, framebuffers and realistic flight simulators which would also be animated with computers.
All these things would eventually lead to computer animation making the jump to the silver screen.
The first time digital imagery was seen in a Hollywood film was in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), in which an android’s point of view was pixelized using computer technology that was processed by none other then John Whitney’s son John Whitney Jr. along with Gary Demos. Westworld’s sequel Futureworld (1976) was the first mainstream film to show 3D wireframe imagery, plus University of Utah graduate students Ed Catmull (future co-founder of Pixar) and Fred Parke (CG facial animation pioneer) created a digital hand and face that would also appear in the film.
Wireframe imagery was on display in Star Wars (1977) in the scene where the Death Star plans are shown on screen, and in the targeting computers of the X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon. The massive popularity of that film was another obvious contributing factor to the wide adoption of computer graphics across Hollywood.
Wireframe CGI was also used in the films Alien (1979) and The Black Hole (1979), and George Lucas had such a keen interest in computer technology that he hired artists with computer experience from the New York Institute of Technology (Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith and Ralph Guggenheim) to head Lucasfilm’s computer division, which was later sold to Apple founder Steve Jobs and became the studio Pixar. Pixar had a few historic moments in the evolution of animated films, including creating CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which migrated the inking and painting process to the computer with Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) being the first to use the process and The Rescuers Down Under (1990) being the first film created entirely on computer, and of course Toy Story (1995) which was the first fully computer-animated feature film.
Beginning in the 1980s, computer-animated films began looking more advanced and became more narrative-driven with characters who actually conveyed emotions and even elicted laughter. The artistry that had made hand-drawn animation appealing for so many years was finally coming out in computer animation, with the University of Montreal paving the way in 1983 with the film Dream Flight (Vol De Rêve), a beautiful neoncore voyage across the world which was directed by Philippe Bergeron, Nadia Magnenat Thalmann and Daniel Thalmann and won several awards after being showcased at SIGGRAPH.
University of Montreal also created the film Tony de Peltrie (1985) which was the first ever computer-animated film to show a character express emotions through body movement and facial expressions via CG animation, and the film Rendez-vous in Montreal (1987) which featured an animated Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe meeting at a café, the first example of a computer-animated celebrity duplicate.
Many more computer-animated films were created in this period and soon there were many different computer companies making commercials, company logos, animated shorts and visual effects for live-action films including Industrial Light & Magic, Dream Quest Images, Pacific Data Images, Alias Research, Wavefront, Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Blue Sky, Mainframe Studios, Animal Logic, Digital Domain and Blur Studio.
Before YouTube, the only place you could see these short films were on home video compilations like the Mind’s Eye series and occasionally on television.
Meanwhile Hollywood was making leaps and bounds in the digital front. Disney’s Tron (1982) featured characters getting pulled into a world inside of a computer and it also literally featured live-action actors on imaginary sets created by computers. The Last Starfighter (1984) featured computer-animated spaceships while Star Wars was still using models. Computer animation could also be seen in The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Willow (1988), The Abyss (1989) and the Star Trek films.
The early 1990s were an important milestone thanks to the groundbreaking CG work of ILM in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), which were both box office hits and encouraged Hollywood to invest further in computer animation in the nineties with films like The Mask (1994), Casper (1995), Jumanji (1995), Men in Black (1997), Flubber (1997), Titanic (1997), Stuart Little (1999) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).
Following The Great Mouse Detective, hand-drawn animated films continued putting 2D characters into 3D environments like in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Tarzan (1999), and some animated films like Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997) and The Iron Giant (1999) even blended hand-drawn characters with CG characters.
After the colossal success of Toy Story, computer-animated feature films took over Hollywood and even continue to eclipse hand-drawn animated films as the dominant animation style in America to this day. The films that immediately followed Toy Story’s success include Antz (1998), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Dinosaur (2000), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), Shrek (2001), Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Ice Age (2002).
In addition to commercials and music videos, a lot of television shows were starting to feature computer animation as well, including live-action shows like Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1 and Farscape, and hand-drawn animated shows like Beetlejuice, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and The Simpsons. Plus there were fully computer-animated TV shows like ReBoot, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Donkey Kong Country and Rolie Polie Olie in addition to the VeggieTales and Animusic videos.
Now in the 21st century, computer animation has infiltrated pop culture so widely that it’s rare you’ll see any animation on your screen that was not created digitally.