When was CGI invented? A Brief History of CGI in the Movies


While timeless treasures like Shrek tend to monopolize contemporary spotlight, CGI’s history is steeped in drama and glory. We didn’t start by animating ogre noises for the children.

There are so many types of CGI to contend with. What was the first CGI movie? Is this all Pixar, or do we have a few other behind-the-scenes heroes to thank for our favorite CGI movies? John Lasseter and Brad Bird are just the latest in a long line of visionaries. There is a lot to unpack here.

The history of CGI in the movies

Much like a lot of other terrifying things around us, CGI is actually the product of universities, secret government experiments, and a lot of personal research and study by a few notable people.

Two of the most famous minds caught between the art of war and the art of creation were John Whitney and Larry Cuba. It was Whitney who first realized that the technology behind anti-aircraft turrets could be used to plot points on a Cartesian field. These dots could be used to draw anything digitally, a completely new notion at the time.

After finally managing to procure some of these machines as army surplus, he and Cuba were able to put their radical ideas to the ultimate test. They were the first to invent the term “motion control” and these “cam machines” made possible their first CGI digital and geometric collaborations.

These abstract autonomous experiences were very simple, but something about them piqued the curiosity of those lucky enough to witness it. In 1960 Whitney and her partner officially went into business under the brand name Motion Graphics, Inc.

The duo have published several collections of these CGI math animations; many of their peers then imitated their work. Whitney’s self-proclaimed secret was her dedication to the concept of harmonic progression – fluid movement and camera movement that cradles the viewer in submission.

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock formalized things. Vertigo’s opening sequence features some of the psychedelic styles characteristic of Whitney’s early work. These animations, however, have no actual narrative content. Many ignore this in favor of more thematically relevant achievements in this area.

The first Pixar movie

Pixar Animation Studios.

Image Credit: P.gobin /Wikimedia Commons

Pixar, before revolutionizing the world of feature film animation, actually made its first appearance on the big screen as a smaller part of a live-action movie. This was back when Pixar was still just a subsidiary of Lucasfilm and worked alongside Industrial Light & Magic, the industry leader in film special effects at the time.

The script for the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes called for a knight to come to life from the windows of a stained glass window in a church. John Lasseter was the driving force behind this streak; from there he directed some of the most famous Pixar movies of all time, including Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars.

The following year, Steve Jobs bought Pixar from Lucasfilm. And in 1995, we finally got the world’s first CGI feature, Toy Story.

The first movie to use CGI

CGI in a general sense dates back a few more years, but not quite in the full-fledged form of the knight of Young Sherlock Holmes. Tron, for example, used computer-generated images to simulate the feeling of being in a virtual world three years ago, in 1982.

These two scenes in Tron and Young Sherlock Holmes actually included live-action actors. Does it matter? It depends who you ask.

In 1973, Westworld used CGI to emulate a robot’s point of view. The scene invites the viewer into the world’s first fully CGI-based sequence, creating the sensation of a warmth seeking effect. These were rendered and mostly hand-tinkered 2D images, but the look was new, especially for 1973.

Talk to the hand

Westworld has been replaced by another film called Futureworld. This sequel brought the original team together to do pretty much the same type of things as before. This time, however, the work of a few talented newcomers was brought into the fold.

Ed Catmull and Fred Parke, still graduate students at the University of Utah at the time, were two aspiring computer scientists at the forefront of the early CGI movement. One of their projects, a model of the hand of Ed Catmull, ended up leaving the impression of a life on the scientific community.

Catmull, in particular, wanted to explore many of the challenges associated with rendering digital images, all of which hamper the progress of others. One of these problems was to make the surfaces curved – vital if one wishes to imitate real life objects such as human beings.

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“A Computer Animated Hand” has toured the world and was officially created in 1973 as a submission to a computer convention. Once Hollywood caught wind of their triumphant breakthrough, the best and the brightest had only to taste themselves.

This famous animation was played on computer screens during the film, making it something more akin to a prop than anything else. Yet the audience was stunned. It was unlike anything that had been shown in theaters before.

The appearance of the hand in Futureworld was admittedly minor, but its legacy lives on. We love this piece of history because it’s so meta. Catmull doesn’t just show us the finished project, he walks us through its creation step by step and subjects it to the rigors of a few basic poses before giving us a glimpse of the inside.

The animation itself premiered in 1972, which means it actually predates some of these other accomplishments. The fact that the hand didn’t make its screen debut until 1976, however, leaves Catmull and Parke’s big win in dispute. But they will always be number one in our hearts.

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The first CGI blockbusters

While ridiculously tame by today’s standards, Larry Cuba’s take on the Death Star in 1977 is one of the most iconic moments in film production history. Produced by the University of Illinois, even this extremely simple animation pushed the technology that Cuba had to its limits.

Jurassic Park, one of the most beloved Spielberg joints of all time, used a combination of CGI and animatronic mannequins to create each terrifying scene. In terms of screen time, about a third of dinosaur visuals were entirely CGI, all in the hands of Industrial Light & Magic.

Related: How to Start 3D Modeling: A Beginner’s Guide

The future of CGI

Fun fact: A team of 27 people brought Toy Story to life. For comparison, that’s about 570 less than what a modern Pixar movie needs. These are industry-wide projects that unfold not over months, but years.

All of the above is a testament to the power of vision, creative energy, and willpower in this endeavor – these innovators had nothing to work with, but their ingenuity laid a solid foundation for those to follow. The first CGI effects used in movies were relatively straightforward, but these scenes are some of the most memorable images of our lives.

If you’re short on inspiration as a 3D animator, take a step back and look at where we were ten years ago.

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