A short computer-generated imagery (CGI) history

The BESM 4 computer (1968)

The history of computer-generated imagery goes hand in hand with the history of the computer, as the computer evolved CGI effects became possible and gradually evolved over time.

For the origins of computer-generated imagery (CGI) we need to go back to the year 1968. In this year a group of Russian mathematicians and physicists lead by N.Konstantinov created a mathematical model of a moving cat across a screen. A program was made for a special computer by the name of BESM-4. The BESM-4 computer printed hundreds of frames that could be converted into usable film material.

In the 1970′s CGI really got a hold in the designing community. With many people experimenting with new movie and designing techniques the technology rapidly evolved. Just a few years after moving a cat across the screen the 2D animator Peter Foldes created the first CGI animated short film drawn on a data tablet. Foldes also used the world’s first key frame animation software, which was invented by Nestor Burtnyk and Marceli Wein.

Westworld CGI effect

New CGI developments followed shortly as a few months later in 1971 the first CGI was used in television programs. Two years later in 1973 the first 2D animated effect was realized by Yul Brynner in the point of view shot in Westworld.

The first 3D computer-generated imagery was created in the film Futureworld in 1976. In a scene the hand and  face of the actor was enhanced with the use CGI. Futureworld used 2D digital compositing to materialize characters over the background.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) poster

After these first steps into discovering the possibilites of CGI a probably familiar man named George Lucas saw it’s possibilities. George Lucas conceived the popular Star Wars franchise which made use of top edge CGI effects  at the time and many that were never seen before. The 1977 movie became a huge box office hit and became an inspiration for many CGI effects that followed.

Many movies using CGI effects follwed soon after Star Wars: A New Hope which showed the real potention and mind boggling possibilities of computer-generated imagery. Superman: The Movie (1978) conceived the first computer-generated title sequence. The movies Alien (1979) and Black Hole (1979) pushed the boundaries of CGI further by conceiving 3D wireframe rasters that created more detailed CGI effects.

Tron CGI created Light Cycle from 1982

As the computer developed and became more integrated into society CGI did to. In the 1980′s a bombardment of CGI milestones were made which most importantly were: the first CGI human character (with the first use of 3D shaded CGI), the invention of the Genesis effect for creating alien-like landscapes like used in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982), TRON (1982) which made use of 15 minutes of fully rendered CGI footage including the famous light cycle sequence.  Many box office hits used CGI effects like the first water 3D CGI effect in the film hit “The Abyss”  and the first digital composite in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade (1989).

The Matrix

As we entered the age of the internet and the spreading of the personal computer CGI effects began to become more and more photo realistic. Major steps forward were made in the creation of movies as Terminator 2: Judgement Day which figured 3D CGI motion pictures. Two years later in 1993 Steven Spielberg raised the bar by creating the first eye dropping photo realistic computer-generated creatures in Jurassic Parc. More computer generated movies  followed as CGI got a hold in many state of the art movies. In 1995 Toy Story got the title of first fully CGI animated movie. Last but not least the 1990′s CGI era ended with the blockbuster movie The Matrix (1999) which was the first to use the so called bullet time effect.

As the movie industry matured the game industry started to get a foot hold to. In the so called fifth generation gaming consoles fully 3D playable games got more and more popular. With the release of the Playstation (1994) and the  Nintendo 64 (1996) games got their first fully 3D supported gaming platforms. games as Super Mario 64, Doom, Final Fantasy and Crash Bandicoot set the standard for many computer-generated games that followed.

Gollum (2002)

As we entered the 21st century CGI possibilities became almost endless and more and more mixed with the authentic film footage. Movies as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Polar Express (2004) pushed the boundaries and possibilities of CGI further. Lord of the Rings was the first to make use of artificial intelligence for it’s digitally created characters as it also created the first photo realistic motion captured character. The Matrix: Reloaded thereby was the first to use Universal Capture to capture more frames in an image. Furthermore in 2004 the animated film “The Polar Express” (2004) pushed the boundary by being to first to use motion capture on all it’s movie characters.

Many breakthroughs followed as we entered the realm of photo realistic CGI effects. The last years computer generated imagery has almost become the standard in any feature film that hits the cinema’s. In 2009 the best selling movie of all time, Avatar, pushed CGI to yet a higher level, creating a movie that was fully made with performance capture, transforming the actors into photo realistic 3D characters.

Aside the movie industry the gaming industry made many improvements to. Implementing motion capture techniques and other CGI techniques that were also used in movies. Maturing into a fully dynamic industry in the last twenty years, games as Grand Theft Auto and Crysis keep advancing the CGI standard over the last several years on gaming platforms. An interesting detail is that games and movies are starting to show more and more similarities. As games become more  story driven games are becoming more like playable movies. Bioware and Lucas Arts upcoming story driven game Star Wars: The Old Republic (scheduled for a 2011 release) is a good example of this merge between movies, animations and games.

As we move forward toward the future of CGI it is for sure computer-generated imagery effects will improve further. With computer power constantly advancing CGI will do the same. I am looking forward to the near future of CGI, especially to the prequel to the Lord of the Rings: The Hobbit that is being made as we speak. Having a scheduled release in December 2012 I believe the movie will hold some interesting CGI techniques for us. I wonder what CGI spectacle we can admire in the coming years, I hope it will be as interesting as it has been so far.

* Sources:


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Rowan Gonzalez

Founder & Chief Web Editor at Computer Stories
Rowan is the founder and Chief Web Editor of Computer Stories. He studied Communication and Multimedia Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam from which he graduated in 2013. Rowan's passionate about computer technologies that make the world and our lives a little better.
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