1st July 2019

Computer Animation: A Brief History – Part I

In recent times we have seen Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) production mode flood the cinemas. Changes in technological advancements in filmmaking have appeared since before the invention of the first portable motion picture camera invented by Louis Lumière in 1895. Since then, filmmaking has been sophisticated/progressed to cradle/further advances in lighting, music, sound, special effects and camera movements.

CGI was first developed not for the entertainment business but by USA’s space and military race. The development of virtual reality cockpits, computer-controlled cameras and many more all developed for the Cold War period. CGI or Computer Animation, was first put into effect in Hollywood after the popularity of video games. This technology was seized upon purely for its commercial aesthetic, to try and capitalize on a fast growing video game movement amongst young individuals. From this thinking came Disney’s Tron (1982), a film about a man who gets trapped in a computer game and has to win to survive. The film crashed at the box office. After the failure of Tron, Hollywood was reluctant to make any film that would rely too heavily on this technology until it was sure there would be a financial return on such an expensive and time consuming tool.


Hollywood throughout its history has been notoriously slow to adapt to technological advances due to time and money constraints. The best example of this, being the reluctance amongst studios in the mid 1920s to embrace the introduction of sound and talking pictures, known as ‘talkies’. Heavy investment into Computer Animation only began after James Cameron showed its real potential with Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). Before this film appeared on Hollywood’s radar it took the efforts of visionary filmmaker George Lucas who delved into the genre of science fiction. His creation, the hugely successful sci-fi fantasy series Star Wars (1977) changed filmmaking forever. The favorable outcome of the film echoed a success not only in the box-office but also in other businesses outside the film boundaries, such as merchandising. This was made possible through the film’s combination of a modern take on classical hero story and extraordinary special effects that preserved the suspension of disbelief. The triumph of the digital technological advancements made in the film was the pioneering method of combining miniature models with cameras programmed digitally to integrate the model with the blue screen, making the transition between both to be almost imperceptive.


The incorporation of digital technology and filmmaking attracted new investors, sponsors, other mediums that could profit from filmmaking, such as merchandising, theme parks, magazines, all this due to the revenue return proven in ‘Star Wars’. This repeated formula was to dominate a new way of producing and distributing films in Hollywood. Hollywood transcended the boundaries of making films. Studios went beyond being mere film production companies. Huge investment from financial institutions and corporation mergers meant the studios product could cross over to more channels, especially in the outsourcing of specialized workforce.




1.) Traditional Animation or Classical Animation

2.) 2D Animation

3.) 3D, Computer Animation or Computer Generated Imagery

4.) Motion Graphics

5.) Stop Motion


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Even though Computer Animation materialized in the late seventies, you might wonder why it took filmmakers twenty years to properly invest in this new tool? We can trace this behavior back to Hollywood’s reticence towards ‘talkies’. The studios believed that movies with sound would not attract or prove as popular as the current format, therefore they were unwilling to take the financial risk of equipping cinemas for a perceived failed medium.

The first Hollywood film to adopt advances in computer graphics was the film Westworld (1973); it took 8 hours to do 10 seconds of 2D Computer Generated Graphics. Technology was being developed and tested by few visionary filmmakers, the success of video game industry allowed investors to incorporate this ideal into film.


In the early 90’s the speed of advances in microchip technology and solid investment from Hollywood in Computer Animation, gave way to the creation of new software and skilled professionals to use them, this cemented the blockbuster film as the main form of production.




Have you noticed how fast Computer Animation has grown?


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Adorno, T. (1991) The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture London: Routledge

Ascher S. & Pincus E. (1999) The Filmmaker’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age London: Plume

Cook, P. & Bernink, M. (1985) The Cinema Book London: BFI

Darley, A. (2000) Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres London: Routledge

Hayward, P. & Wollen, T. (1993) Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen London: BFI

Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts Oxon: Routledge

McGilligan, P. (2003) Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light New York: Wiley

Nelmes, J. (2003) An Introduction to Film Studies London: Routledge

Vaz, M. & Duigan, P. (1996) Industrial Light and Magic: Into the Digital Realm London: Virgin

Wasko, J. (1994) Hollywood in the Information Age Cambridge: Polity Press

Worthington, C. (2009) Basic Film-Making: Producing Switzerland: AVA



Star Wars (1977) George Lucas

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) James Cameron 

Tron (1982) Steven Lisberger

Westworld (1973) Michael Crichton


Journals/ Magazines:

American Cinematographer (Hollywood: ASC Holding Corporation)

– September 1999

CineFex Magazine (California: Valley Printers)

– January 2005 Issue no. 100

– January 2009 Issue no. 116




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About the Author

Anish hails from London and holds a degree in software engineering from the University of Manchester. Following his education, he worked for several years in the financial industry as a platform administrator before founding Revolution Productions in 2008. In addition to over seven years of video production, Anish is seen as an industry professional, adding his insight in publications such as VentureBeat, ReelSEO and Wistia.

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