History of Computer Graphics and Effects
Matt Leonard, of Digital Dreams & Visions and CinemaGap.com
the very early days of man’s creation it seems he has been
fascinated by the world around him. Early cave paintings
show the very first artistic expression of man’s desire
to represent this world, showing not only the very form
of creation but the living qualities of movement as well.
This art form has been developed and diversified over the
centuries until the establishment of the motion picture
industry in the late 1800’s. The first ever special effect
or ‘Illusion’ as they were known then, was produced in 1895
by Alfred Clark in The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
the turn of the century, the French magician George
Méliès released his first film Indian
Rubber Head (1901) bringing his own form of magic
to the big screen. The following year he released
A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Dancing
Midget (1902), using almost every type of special
effects trick used today.
Méliès: A Trip to the Moon
continued to become more elaborate throughout the next twenty
years, through people such as Robert W. Paul and Edwin S.
Porter. The technique of using Mattes to composite several
images onto one negative was employed in such films as The
Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Motorist (1906).
this, MGM developed the Composite Reduction process allowing
previously photographed footage to be inserted into specific
areas of another frame, as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1923), The Ten Commandments (1923) and Ben-Hur
O'Brien: The Lost World
the mid 1920’s things began to change. Willis O’Brian’s
Stop Motion hit theaters in 1925 in the form of The
Lost World, while a year later Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
(1926) took the effects industry by storm. The Schüfftan
Process artfully employed in Metropolis and other
movies, utilized forced perspective techniques to create
an illusion of size and distance. Such techniques are
still common today, being used in such films as Mighty
Joe Young and Armageddon (1998).
effects industry continued to grow through the 1930’s
with such films as King Kong (1933) and Gone
with the Wind (1939). In 1934 Walt Disney’s Snow
White arrived ushering in a new era of full-length
O'Brien: King Kong
post-war years of the 1950’s moved the focus of film
to outer space, and with the development of the Motion
Control Rig by Paramount, more sophisticated shots were
developed. Meanwhile the SAGE Machine (Semi-Automatic
Ground Environment) was created to follow enemy fighter
planes during the Cold War. This provided the first
interactive computer graphics. Some of the outstanding
effects films of the 50’s included Destination Moon
(1950), War of the Worlds (1953) and Forbidden
Planet (1956). The Blue Screen technique was also
invented, enabling a person or object to be filmed against
a blue, green, or sometimes red background, and then
extracted and composited against a different background.
of the Worlds
was little technical development during the early 1960’s.
Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
came out which included the famous Stop-Motion ‘skeleton
battle sequence’ which is still inspiring filmmakers
today (e.g. The Mummy (1999)). 1963 saw the first
Academy Award given for Best Visual Effects, won by
Hitchcock’s The Birds. Then in 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s
2001: A Space Odyssey (Oscar winner), began to
push the boundaries of special effects once again.
Harryhausen: Jason and
the FX industry had not moved forward tremendously until
the late 60’s, the computer graphics industry had made
headway. Ivan Sutherland had invented the Sketchpad
interactive graphics software in 1962 and the University
of Utah had opened the first CG department in 1966.
2D morphing techniques were first developed in 1967
at the University of Toronto, along with the development
of Environmental Reflection
Sketchpad invented by
Mapping (1976) and Bump Mapping (1978) by James Blinn.
Triple-I created the first feature Film appearance of
3D CG, while in 1968 Ivan Sutherland and David Evans
joined forces to open the world’s first CG company,
Evans & Sutherland, still going strong today. 1968
also saw the arrival of Ray Tracing developed by Bell
Labs and Cornell University.
the 1970’s technology within computer graphics continued
to grow, pushed forward by pioneers such as James
Blinn and David Em. Bezier curves (1970) were invented
along with both Gouraud (1971) and Phong (1975) shading.
1975 saw the development of a CG teapot that has now
become the computer graphics icon. Ed Catmull went
on to develop texture mapping in 1974, refined later
in 1976 by James Blinn. Bill Gates founded Microsoft
while Steve Woznick and Steve Jobs built the first
Apple Computer. Also Quantel created Paintbox, the
first graphics product aimed specifically at the broadcast
Lucas formed Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to cover
the huge array of special effects for his new film Star
Wars (1977) (Oscar winner). Among those who joined
were Dennis Muren, John Dykstra and Richard Edlund.
A host of films began to appear utilizing CG, including
The Black Hole (Oscar nominated) and Alien
(1979) (Oscar winner). Also in that year Ed Catmull
left NYIT and joined ILM to head up their CG department.
Light and Magic:
the 1980’s, Triple-I continued their work producing
seven minutes of CG for Looker (1980), while
ILM produced the first all digital CG image for Star
Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), though Disney’s
Tron (1982) was the first extensive use of
3D CG. (For more information on Tron, click
the Wild Things Are (1982-83) was a pioneering 35mm
film test, which digitally composited 3D CG backgrounds
with traditionally animated (digitally inked and painted)
characters. The work was led by Chris Wedge (now vice-president
of Blue Sky/VIFX, Joe’s Apartment, Star Trek:
Insurrection and Bunny). John Lasseter (director
of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monsters
Inc.) left Disney and joined Lucasfilm Computer Graphics
Division, working on the CG Endor moon sequence for "Return
of the Jedi" (1983) (Oscar winner).
Where the Wild Things Are test (MAGI)
(Silicon Graphics Inc.) was founded by Jim Clark in 1982
and by 1984 they had released their first product the IRIS
1000. The early 80’s also saw a surge in the opening of
graphics software houses and the release of new products
onto the market. These included 1983: Alias Research Inc.
(Alias/1), 1984: Wavefront (PreView), 1985: Softimage (Creative
Environment) and 1982: Autodesk (AutoCAD).
1980 and 1985 the special effects and computer graphics
industries began not only to settle down but also to
merge slightly. Richard Edlund left ILM in 1983 and
formed Boss Film Corp., powering onto the market with
effects work for Ghost Busters (Oscar nominated)
and 2010 (1984) (Oscar nominated). Lucasfilm
Computer Graphics Division released The Adventures
of Andre and Wally B directed by John Lasseter.
Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985) became the
first animated feature film to contain a 3D element.
Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Division produced the 3D
animation required to bring to life a knight made of
stained glass for the film Young Sherlock Holmes
(1985) (Oscar nominated). The project was also the first
to composite CG with a live-action background. Dennis
Muren was the Visual Effects Supervisor.
Light and Magic:
Young Sherlock Holmes
1986 Pixar was formed when the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics
Division was purchased from George Lucas by Steven Jobs
for $10 million. The pioneers included John Lasseter, Ed
Catmull and Ralph Guggenheim. The company went on to produce
the famous ‘Renderman’ software and animated features including
Luxo Jr. (1986) (Oscar nominated), Red’s Dream
(1987), Tin Toy (1988) (Oscar winner), Knick Knack
(1989), Toy Story (1995) (Oscar winner), A
Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story II (1999), For The
Birds (2000). (For more about Pixar and to view some of
the short films depicted below, click
the Duck (1986) was the first film to use digital wire
removal and the first work carried out by the new ILM computer
graphics department. Later that year they also worked on
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) which contained
the first use of 3D scanning by Cyberware on a film. During
the following year Arcca Animation produced Captain Power
and the Soldiers of the Future (1987). It was the first
TV series to include characters modeled in 3D entirely within
Light and Magic:
the end of the 80’s things were beginning to steam
ahead. ILM won another Academy Award for Who Framed
Roger Rabbit, and completed the first digital
morph for Willow (1988) (Oscar nominated).
The following year ILM produced ‘the Donovan’s destruction’
sequence for the end of Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade (1989). The shot involved scanning multiple
film elements into the computer, digitally compositing
them together and then scanning back out to film.
Also in that year, ILM produced the ‘water pseudopod’
creature for "The Abyss" (1989) (Oscar winner).
The software used included Alias/2 and Photoshop.
Dennis Muren, Mark A.Z. Dippe and John Knoll were
some of the brains behind the success of the project.
we move through the final decade towards the next millennium,
the Computer Graphics and Special Effects Industries continue
to break new boundaries and bring us the most spectacular
array of visual imagery to date.
of the newer CG companies to appear towards the end
of the 80’s was Rhythm & Hues. They produced over
30 shots of photorealistic airplanes, bombs and smoke
all in daylight for a film Flight of the Intruder
(1990). Another new company, deGraf/Wahrman, produced
the first CG simulator ride that same year called
The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. They
also produced the CG head of the robot villain for
Robocop 2 (1990). Disney produced the first
completely digital film in the shape of The Rescuers
Down Under (1990) and ILM painted the first digital
Matte Painting for the film Die Hard 2: Die Harder
(1990). The film also contained extensive Blue Screen
Compositing for a sequence in which Bruce Willis is
ejected out of a plane’s cockpit. Pixar used their
new Photorealistic Render software, Renderman, to
produce the famous "Shutterbug" image. Autodesk
released 3D Studio v1, their own 3D modeling and animation
Rendered at Pixar using Renderman Software
Light and Magic:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
marked the beginning of the ground breaking years. James
Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Oscar winner)
brought to life by the artists at ILM began to change
the way Hollywood perceived computer graphics. It was
the first major digital character to be used in a film
since the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock
Holmes. Alias/2 and Photoshop were used along with
a host of in-house tools designed especially for the
project. Dennis Muren, Mark Dippe, Stefen Fangmeier,
Tom Williams and Steve Williams were some of the people
involved. Another major contribution that year came
from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; the ‘ballroom’
sequence contained a complete 3D rendered background.
Stop Motion was superceded by Go Motion created by Phil
Tippet for Dragonslayer (1991).
1992 ILM continued to push the boundaries in Death Becomes
Her (Oscar winner), creating photorealistic skin. Walt
Disney also continued to push their techniques in both Aladdin
and their short in-house project Off His Rocker.
Also Virtual Reality hit Hollywood in the form of the Lawnmower
Man (Angel Studios).
Light and Magic:
things happened the following year, but all were overshadowed
by the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park
(1993) (Oscar winner). ILM employed a huge range of
tools to create CG dinosaurs and various other special
effects needed for the film. These included Alias PowerAnimator,
Softimage 3D, Matador and Lightwave (for simple animatics).
1993 also saw the rise of Digital Domain formed by James
Cameron, Stan Winston and Scott Ross.
Muren, Steve Williams, Mark Dippe & Eric Armstong,
saw a significant rise in films containing CG. This included
Forest Gump (ILM) (Oscar winner), The Flintstones
(ILM), The Mask (ILM) (Oscar nominated), The Lion
King (Disney), Timecop (VIFX), The Shadow
(R/Greenberg Associates) and True Lies (Digital Domain)
(Oscar nominated). Also Mainframe Entertainment’s Reboot
came out as the first 100% CG television show. Microsoft
bought Softimage, and the computer game Doom was
1995 SGI acquired both Alias and Wavefront combining
the two companies into Alias/Wavefront. In the film
industry, Toy Story (Pixar) became the first
full-length 3D animated film. Judge Dredd (Kleiser-Walzack
Construction Company) became one of the first films
to incorporate CG stunt doubles along with Batman
Forever (Warner Bros.). ILM released Jumanji,
further developing their ability to produce photorealistic
hair, and Casper, the first CG characters to
take a leading role. Rhythm and Hues’ Babe won
an Academy award for its special effects. Steven Spielberg,
Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen joined together
to form Dreamworks SKG, and the Sony Playstation was
Light and Magic:
Industrial Light and Magic
1996 Dragonheart (Oscar nominated) was finished.
Rob Coleman of ILM oversaw hundreds of shots of the
talking dragon, Draco, achieving not only a full range
of emotional expressions but also the ability to talk.
The breakthrough ‘Caricature’ software or ‘Cari’ for
short, had been developed by Cary Philips and has now
become one of ILM’s main in-house tools. ILM also relied
heavily on Alias/Wavefront’s Dynamation particle system
software for the movie Twister (Oscar nominated).
Disney’s remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
used CG to produce crowds, props and other effects.
Among the other big films to contain computer animation
were Space Jam (Warner Bros.) combining traditional
animation with live action, and Independence Day
(Oscar winner). The computer game Doom was superceded
by Quake, and Autodesk released 3D Studio MAX.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Tricia Ashford &
Dynamation particle system was again used in 1997
by ILM in the creation of a CG cape for Spawn
together with realistic goo, drool and saliva. George
Lucas restored Episodes 4, 5 and 6 of the Star
Wars saga; over 350 shots were modified or added
to the existing footage. James Cameron’s company Digital
Domain created a huge number of shots for Titanic
(Oscar winner) which included extensive use of Motion
won an Academy Award (in March 1999) for Geri’s
Game (1998) which utilized Subdivision surfaces.
Radiosity Rendering was used in the creation of Bunny
(1998) (Blue Sky/VIFX) which also won an Academy
Award the same year. 1998 seemed to be a year of animation
involving animals with A Bugs Life (Pixar)
and Antz (PDI). Chris Landreth received a Genie
Award for his contribution to Bingo, the test
project used on the newly released Maya character
animation and special effects package from Alias/Wavefront.
Light and Magic:
Light and Magic:
Jurassic Park: The Lost World
The Fifth Element
has been an excellent year for both computer animation and
special effects. In May George Lucas released the long awaited
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, containing
almost 2,000 digital effects created by Industrial Light
& Magic under the supervision of Dennis Muren, John
Knoll, Scott Squires and Rob Coleman. This was without question
the biggest computer animation and special effects film
in history. Among the digital tools used to create this
ground breaking achievement were PowerAnimator, Maya, Softimage
3D, Commotion, FormZ, Electric Image, Photoshop, After Effects,
Mojo, Matador, and RenderMan. Various proprietary in-house
software packages were also used including Caricature, Isculpt,
ViewPaint, Irender, Ishade, CompTime and Fred.
Industrial Light and Magic:
ILM’s other contributions this year are The Mummy, The
Haunting and Wild Wild West. Other major effects
movies this year include The Matrix, whose special
effects were created by Manex Visual Effects, Toy Story
2 (Pixar), Supernova (Digital Domain), Deep
Blue Sea (Hammerhead) and Lake Placid (Digital
Industrial Light and Magic:
Star Wars Episode 1
The Phantom Menace
we move into the next millennium, one of the big questions
which is often asked within the computer animation
and effects community is "what is the next big
thing?" ‘Jar Jar Binks’ from Star Wars Episode
1 (ILM) (1999) was the first photorealistic all
digital main character in a feature film. People are
still fascinated by the concept of entirely digital
photorealistic humans. With the improvement in both
hardware and software our ability to create more and
better digital characters improves by the year.
people argue that various questions need to be asked before
a huge amount of effort is put into one relatively small
area of the industry. Elvis was Elvis not because of how
he looked but because of how he moved and acted. There are
hundreds of Elvis impersonators in the world, some of which
are very good, but none of them are good enough to fool
us into thinking Elvis has returned. The closer we get to
creating a completely digital character the more our senses
seem to alert us to the fact that something is not completely
right and therefore we dismiss it as a cheap trick or imitation.
What Dreams May Come
are no doubt many reasons for using digital humans,
such as for stunt stand-ins or simply for those impossible
situations conjured up by Hollywood, but as Dennis Muren
of ILM once said, "Why bother! Why not focus on
what doesn’t exist as opposed to recreating something
that is readily available." Over the last few years
we have begun to see animation and special effects creating
more impossible situations such as the ‘Flow-Mo’ and
‘Bullet Time’ effects shots of The Matrix
(1999) and the beautiful artistic style of What Dreams
May Come (1998).
has found there to be a huge shortage of dinosaurs, dragons,
Gungans and various other creatures and characters needed
for lead roles in today’s motion pictures. A lot of people
are very keen to see the progression of digital creatures
taken to its logical conclusion of human beings, while others
say the focus should be on more artistic effects. Whatever
your opinion is, you can be sure of one thing: the magic
of computer animation and special effects will continue
to advance even faster into the next millennium as a tool
to bring to life the dreams of storytellers.
by Matt Leonard, Digital
Dreams & Visions Ltd.
You may reach Matt at the following: firstname.lastname@example.org