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10 Amazing Milestones of Early Computer Animation

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This past weekend, you relived the wonder of Jurassic Park and remembered the first time you saw convincing CG effects on screen. But Jurassic Park built on a long legacy of computer innovation, more than a decade and a half of on-screen computer effects. Here are 10 landmarks of early CG, many of which still look great.


1) Westworld (1973)

According to the book Creative Computer Graphics by A. Jankel (Cambridge University Press, 1984): "The first application of computer graphics in feature films was in Westworld, produced in 1977 and featuring a robot gunman (played by Yul Brynner), whose eyesight took the form of a mosaic of 'quantized' patterns. The sequences were, at the time they were produced, an effective, dramatic and visually stimulating representation of representation of the way a robot sees... The technique used for Westworld involved sampling the pixels of a photographic image, averaging the intensity of the light from 50 to 60 pixels at equal intervals and separating the red, blue and green signals. The resulting large squares of color were enough to provide a recognizable image of a previously known object, especially when the object moved."

2) Alien (1979)

Not surprisingly, a lot of the earliest computer effects on screen involved computer readouts or visualizations. Including the Death Star "blueprints" in the original Star Wars, and the hologram projectors in the pilot cockpits in Return of the Jedi. One of the first computer readouts on screen was in Ridley Scott's Alien, where we see a depiction of the landscape that the Nostromo is flying over. At first, the technicians at Lodge-Cheeseman Ltd. and Systems Simulation Ltd. wanted to take a polystyrene landscape and digitize it, turning into a database which they could present on a grid — but the landscape was so complex, with mountains and hills sloping down to a central valley, that the dataset would have been enormous. Instead, Alan Sutcliffe at Systems Simulation Ltd. created a random landscape generator, with a built-in slope towards the center, and displayed the results on a grid. A separate program created the parameters of the valley, and the whole thing was given a convex curve, to suggest the landscape of a small celestial body. A third software routine made the slopes of the hills rougher, to suggest a weather-beaten look.

3) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The team that eventually became Pixar started out as Lucasfilm's Graphics Group, and their first big job was creating the Genesis Effect, showing a planet being brought back to life. The attention to detail in this one-minute sequence is incredible: one programmer even ensured that the stars in the background exactly match those that would be visible from a star 11.2 light years from Earth. The actual explosion of the Genesis Device represents the first appearance of particle systems in computer animation, an innovation devised by Bill Reeves. The initial explosion of the Genesis Device creates particles, which are particle systems in themselves. They form concentric rings on the planet, and secondary systems are generated to simulate flames licking across the planet's surface. According to Jankel's 1984 book, Reeves and his crew varied the "velocity, radius of generation circle, ejection angle, size, lifetime and generation rate" of these particles. Lucasfilm's team later created the Stained Glass Knight who comes to life in 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes, which was one of the first computer-generated characters on screen.

4) Tron (1982)

Disney's 1979 movie The Black Hole featured some early CG effects, including the opening sequence. But Tron was a meeting of many of the giants of early computer effects, including MAGI, Bob Abel & Associates, Digital Effects and III. These were companies that had honed their skills doing TV commercials (check out Abel's trippy 7-Up ad) and opening graphics for "TV movie of the week" spots. Digital Effects created the opening sequence and the Bit character, using a rig that included a 1200-baud modem and a DEC PDP-11/34, with a refresh rate of one polygon per second. MAGI created the Lightcycles, Recognizers and Tanks in the Game Grid area, using a process called SythaVision that recognized basic geometric shapes as solid objects with density — which could be varied in size and thus animated in three dimensions. The shapes you could make weren't very complex, but the motion could be very fluid and smooth. Meanwhile, III produced the MCP, the Solar Sailor and Sark's Carrier.

5) High Fidelity (1983)

Robert Abel & Associates made an incalculable contribution to the history of computer effects, including early work on The Andromeda Strain, the Jackson's music video "Can You Feel It," and the first computer game to have animated backgrounds played on a laserdisc, Cube Quest. This short film, however, represents a huge milestone — it's a proving flight for raster graphics, which was one of Abel's main contributions to computer animation, and which provided the foundation for Wavefront Technologies, which created the first off-the-shelf computer animation tool.

6) The Last Starfighter (1984)

John Whitney Sr. was a pioneer of computer animation who built an analog computer/film camera hybrid out of an old World War II anti-aircraft gun sight in the early 1960s. His sons all went into film-making as well, and John Whitney Jr. co-founded the company Digital Productions, which generated digital effects for 2010 and Mick Jagger's "Hard Woman" music video. But the crown jewel of their early productions was The Last Starfighter, which was their bid to "out-Lucas Lucas," as Jankel puts it. This movie featured a full 27 minutes of CG animation, costing $14 million. The Gunstar, the movie's final starfighter, comprises almost 400,000 polygons — four times the number of any object ever produced by computer graphics before then.

7) Brilliance (aka Sexy Robot) (1985)

As we've mentioned, Robert Abel & Associates already had a huge contribution to computer animation — but this is still a milestone worth celebrating. In late 1984, an advertising agency visited Abel with a proposition: the National Canned Food Information Council, representing Heinz, Del Monte, Campbells and other companies, wanted to do an ad for the 1985 Super Bowl which would make canned foods sexy and cutting-edge again, because they were worried that people thought canned foods were becoming obsolete. They had a number of drawings of a sexy woman made of chrome, who would be voiced by Kathleen Turner. The advertising agency asked Abel if he could create the ad by the Super Bowl, which was eight weeks away. Abel said he'd let them know on Monday — and spent the weekend trying to figure out how to make it work. Then they locked the doors and vowed not to leave the building until Monday morning. The entire weekend, seven animators tried to figure out how to animate a human-looking character and make it look real. Keyframe animation still wasn't possible, so they decided to figure out a way to track the motions of a real-life woman, shooting her with several cameras from different vantage points and using the footage to create a motion algorithm. In the book Understanding motion capture for computer animation and video games by Alberto Menache, Abel is quoted as saying: Several of us got into our underwear. We got black adhesive dots and we would photograph each other with Polaroid cameras and then we would lay out these Polaroids so we could see how they changed from angle to angle. Finally, on Sunday at 3 AM, they decided they could digitize the motion in time.

8) Chromosaurus (1985)

Pacific Data Images (PDI) got bought by DreamWorks Animation and produced films like Shrek and Madagascar. But originally, it was just a company started in a garage owned by founder Carl Rosendahl's father. They did a lot of work for TV companies, including Brazilian TV — but in the meantime, the company allowed its employees to create lots of short films for fun, several of which won major awards. And this one in particular stands out, because of the cool-looking chrome dinosaurs and the realistic motion. And the boppy 1980s soundtrack.

9) Labyrinth (1986)

Digital Productions triumphed with Last Starfighter, but their achievement with Labyrinth was perhaps even more impressive — the opening sequence features a digitally animated owl that flies around. Jim Henson had already been interested in computer animation, having pitched a show in the mid-1980s called Starboppers that would have featured the first CG effects on television, and which got as far as creating test footage. Henson tried to film a real owl for the opening credits of Labyrinth — but the thing flew to the top of the soundstage and refused to come down. He tried to use a muppet owl, but it looked silly. So he contacted Digital Productions' Bill Kroyer, who rented a stuffed white owl from the Museum of Natural History and studied the aerodynamics of flight. Every feather on the owl's wings was modeled individually and hand-painted, with a diffusion matte on each feather, and each feather was rigged to pivot separately. They weren't sure if it would look right until they finally rendered the first image, and when they saw the "big, soft photo-realistic feathers," the whole crew broke out in cheers, according to the book Moving Innovation: The History of Computer Animation by Tom Sito. The owl was also one of the first 3D scans of a maquette statue.

10) Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987-1988)

Because Jim Henson didn't manage to get Starboppers on the air, Captain Power is arguably the first TV show to feature computer-animated effects prominently. The antagonists, including Soaron, Blastarr and Zenon, are all computer rendered and then placed in the frame with the actors, with an effect similar to Tron but created every week for a half-hour television show. Just matching the timing of the live-action scenes to the computer-generated action so they could be composited together was a huge challenge, especially since the show was filmed in Canada and the graphics were created in California.