A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation

Arts College 732
Winter 07
3 Credit Hours

Call Number - ARTS COL TBA



Individual Course Sections

Index of Course Sections




Supplementary Resources

A short history of

CGI Family Tree

History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 - 1821)

History never looks like history when you are living through it.
John W. Gardner (1912 - 2002), quoted by Bill Moyers


The study of the history of CGI (computer generated imagery) is an important part of our overall educational experience, not necessarily to build on the historical precedent, but to gain an understanding of the evolution of our discipline and to gain a respect for the key developments that have brought us to where we are. The discipline is so recent in its early developments and so rapidly changing that we are in fact living it, and it evolves as we speak. Yet we have been so busy in advancing the discipline that we have often neglected to accurately record this history. So we will decide to agree upon certain past events in order to begin to develop a definitive record of what has transpired in this evolutionary process.

We must learn from the past, as we develop a theory and methodology which is tuned to the capabilities and qualities inherent in software, hardware, animation techniques, etc. that are part of our broad, contemporary, and creative computer graphics environment. It is in this context that this course has been developed.

Herbert Freeman, in an introduction to his 1980 IEEE compilation of computer graphics papers, presents a succinct overview of the first two decades of the development of the CGI discipline. Like many other disciplines, computer graphics and animation has a rich (albeit relatively short) history that involves the following four eras, which are very much linked and related:

  • pioneers
  • innovators
  • adapters
  • followers

Early pioneers include artists (such as Chuck Csuri and John Whitney) and researchers (such as Ivan Sutherland and Ken Knowlton). These visionaries saw the possibilities of the computer as a resource for making and interacting with pictures, and pushed the limits of an evolving technology to take it where computer scientists never imagined it could go. Their work motivated the work of the others as they tried to realize the potential of this new vision. In this course, we will survey work from Sutherland, Csuri and Whitney, National Research Council of Canada (Burtnyk, Wein and Foldes), Michael Noll, Lillian Schwartz and Ken Knowlton, and others.

Many of the so-called innovators were housed in universities and research labs, and were working toward solving fundamental problems of making "pictures" of data using the computer. We will survey work from many of these facilities, including Bell Labs, Ohio State, University of Utah, New York Institute of Technology, Evans & Sutherland and several aerospace and automotive companies, MIT, and others. Individual work of Nelson Max, Jim Blinn, Loren Carpenter, Turner Whitted, and others will also be reviewed.

The early adapters included pioneering CGI production facilities, artists, researchers, and research labs and industries with an interest in converting much of this early work into a viable (and marketable) tool for realizing their disparate goals. Notable companies include Robert Abel and Associates, Digital Effects, MAGI, Information International Inc., and others. Artists include more from Whitney Sr., Yoichiro Kawaguchi, David Em, Jane Veeder, and others.

The late seventies and early eighties saw the second wave of adapters, which were primarily special effects production companies, equipment and software developers, universities, motion picture companies, etc. We will survey work from PDI, Cranston/Csuri Productions, Digital Productions, Omnibus, LucasFilms, and others.

As the technology advanced and the acceptance of this new approach to image making increased, the industry likewise evolved, and many of the current contributors, or followers (this descriptor is not intended to be demeaning or derogatory) came into being. These include effects production companies such as Pixar, Disney, Metrolight, Rhythm and Hues, ILM, Sony, Digital Domain and others. We will also look at work from universities such as Cal Tech, Ringling, Cornell, Ohio State, UNC, Brown, Utah, etc., and companies and research labs such as Apple, SGI, Microsoft, Alias, Softimage, Interval Research, and others. We will look at the impact on related areas, such as HCI, design, multimedia, virtual reality, scientific visualization, etc.

The course will include a review of the work of these individuals and institutions on video and film, as well as a review and discussion of printed material from the literature. Students are expected to participate in these discussions.

For a review of the various institutions and individuals that have contributed to the discipline and that are covered in the course readings, take a look at the CGI Family Tree (which is also in the infancy stage and evolving on a daily basis!!)

An historical timeline (always under construction) can also be accessed, as can a short history of CGRG and ACCAD. Additional resources (eg, papers) used in this class can be accessed from the readings or obtained from the resources link.


Links with the following icons provide streaming video. Performance is dependent on the download speed of your network.

Media is in Quicktime format. If you need a Quicktime player or update, go to http://www.apple.com/quicktime/

Media is in Real format. If you need a Real player or update, go to http://www.real.com/realplayer

Note: This web site is an accompaniment to the AC732 history course at ACCAD, and therefore may seem slightly Ohio State - centric... it may well be. Many contributors to the broad discipline of CGI are not represented - it is not because I am underemphasizing their contributions; rather I have put together the materials for this particular course, and have chosen to emphasize certain contributions. Also, my intent is to continue to expand and correct this site. If you have any corrections or feedback, please send them to me.
Wayne Carlson carlson.8@osu.edu