The history of animation is rich in innovation

Looking at the film and video industry, it’s impressive to see how far animation technology has come, in both animated and live-action films. Animation technology, especially the use of CGI, has come a long way, 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 the 2009 film Avatar, renowned for its animated special effects used throughout the entire film, animation technology has seen several milestones over the years, as witnessed in a range of feature-length titles, short films, and even music videos.

Animation technology has come a long way, particularly in the last 20 years, as CGI and 3D technology has evolved to allow for the creation of unprecedented film and video masterpieces. The following are some of the most important breakthroughs in animation technology and its use that have made the animated film industry what it is today.

1973: Westworld
This feature film was the first to use 2D computer animation, 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 CGI 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 3D 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 B – An animated short film
This short film was the first all-CGI 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 CGI animation with squash and stretch motion and motion blur.

1985: “Money for Nothing” – music video
See the first computer-generated music video below:

1986: Labyrinth
This iconic film boasted, among other achievements, the first realistic CGI 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 CGI 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 films was largely responsible for inspiring the creation of Toy Story after it won the Oscar 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 film 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, in spite of a 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 for 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 we was either too “old” or “young” to play his part as 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, 3D films were shot and then remastered into a 3D version, but this film was first shot 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 animation that paved the way for other films and animated creations.
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.

By Hope Swedeen