Charting the Animation Revolution

Looking at the film and video industry, it’s impressive to see how far animation technology has come. Animation technology, especially the use of CGI, has evolved considerably over the past several decades, with roots beginning in the 1970’s and developing into the staggeringly realistic effects we see today. From the groundbreaking start of 3D computer graphics in the 1973 film Westworld to James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, animation technology has seen several milestones over the years, as witnessed in a range of feature-length titles, short films, and even music videos. The following are some of the most important breakthroughs in animation technology.

1973: Westworld

This feature film was the first to use digital image processing, and it is recognized as a groundbreaking achievement in film animation. The film was followed by another milestone when its sequel Futureworld was produced in 1976 using 3D computer graphics to create an animated hand and face.

1981: Looker

This sci-fi film features the first-ever computer-generated human character as well as the first use of 3D digital shading. The film is not as well-known as others that would include more extensive use of CGI, including the 1982 film Tron.

1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A division of Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for developing the “Genesis Effect” to create fractal-generated landscapes. This was the first film to include a sequence rendered entirely with CGI, just barely beating Tron to the punch.

1984: The Adventures of Andre B and Wally BAn animated short film

This short film was the first all-computer animated short, created by The Graphics Group, a part of Lucasfilm that would later become Pixar. The animated short was also the first of its kind to include CG animation with squash and stretch motion and motion blur.

1985: “Money for Nothing

See the first computer-generated music video below:

1986: Labyrinth

This iconic film boasted, among other achievements, the first realistic computer generated animal in a feature film (the flying owl in the opening credits of the film). Looking at what was considered “realistic,” you can see just how far computer animation has come!

1986: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Another milestone in animation can be credited to the Star Trek franchise, as this film is recognized as the first to use Cyberware 3D scanner technology and 3D morphing.

1987: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future

This TV series was the first to include characters created entirely using computers.

1988: Tin Toy

This was the first Oscar-winning computer-animated short film, produced by Pixar and John Lasseter. This short film was largely responsible for inspiring the creation of Toy Story after it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1988 and opened doors for computer-animated feature films to become welcomed more freely into the filmmaking industry.

1991: Terminator 2: Judgement Day

This Terminator sequel was groundbreaking in the film animation industry in several ways, including its use of realistic human movements for a CGI character, the first main character of a major feature film to include CGI elements, the first use of multiple morphing effects in a major film, and more.

1993: Jurassic Park

No animation list would be complete without Jurassic Park, a feature film that captured the first photorealistic, computer-generated creatures in a feature film. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park would go on to be an iconic example of using CGI to make a film more realistic for audiences, despite the film’s unbelievable plot elements.

1994: The Crow

This film achieved something no other film had done before but is now done quite commonly in Hollywood: recreating a deceased actor using CGI. Today, this technique has been seen in films that are famous for using CGI to include actors in impossible-to-create scenes, including Paul Walker’s return to Furious 7 after his death and Carrie Fisher’s reprisal as a young Princess Leia in Rogue One.

1995: Toy Story

This Pixar film was the first CGI feature-length animated film, which would secure Pixar’s place as a permanent fixture in the animated film industry.

1997: Marvin the Martian in 3D

This was the first film created to be viewed using 3D glasses!

1999: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

This Star Wars installment was the first non-animated feature film to use CGI extensively throughout the film, including backgrounds, vehicles, people, and even supporting characters who were included in scenes with real actors.

2002: Ice Age

Ice Age was the first feature-length animated film to be exclusively rendered using a ray tracer.

2003: The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions

The Matrix Reloaded was the first film to utilize “Universal Capture,” or image-based facial animation, to create digital look-alikes. This was used during the famous scene, “Burly Brawl,” between Keanu Reeves’ Neo and the duplicated copies of Agent Smith.

In Matrix Revolutions, in the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith, the iconic scene when Agent Smith’s face looks to be literally “punched in” because of the CGI facial deformation accomplished by the filmmakers.

2004: The Polar Express

This Christmas classic was the first 3D computer-animated film created using motion capture to make the characters appear more human. The end result garnered mixed reactions, partially due to the film’s approach toward the “uncanny valley.”

2004: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Bending the rules of CGI, this was the first movie made with all CGI backgrounds with live actors. The actors filmed their scenes entirely in front of green screens without any background sets whatsoever.

2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This film was an oddity for viewers, breaking the rules of special effects as well as the human experience. The reverse-aging film required new technology to create the necessary effects, ultimately leading to the creation of “contour,” a means of capturing an actor’s facial movements and digitizing them onto a computer-generated likeness. Brad Pitt’s facial expressions were replicated throughout the film when he was either too “old” or “young” to play his part in live-action.

2009: Plumíferos

This was the first feature-length film created using open source software for all animation, creating new standards for who can create computer-generated films and what software must be used to do so.

2009: Monsters vs. Aliens

Previously, animated films were created and then converted into 3D, but this film was the first to be created natively in stereoscopic 3D.

2009: Avatar

Avatar is well-known by now for being the first feature-length film to include an entire 3D, photorealistic world, including characters, creatures, landscapes, and more.

While there have been countless films and videos that can be considered milestones in the animation industry, these represent some of the most crucial and widely recognized innovations in the field.

The Los Angeles Film School offers degrees in visual effects, game art, and computer animation, paving the way to careers in animation with cutting edge animation technology. Following trends and milestones in animation technology, we ensure our students and our programs reflect the ever-changing animation industry, whether it be keeping up with the latest in film, video game, or music video production.