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Computer Graphics History Essay, Research Paper


The Bauhaus (page 12) movement saw historical precedent as a force that limited creative potential. In particular the new technologies and material now available demand a design theory tuned to the capabilities and qualities inherent in these materials. (Unknown).

Hollywood has gone digital, and the old ways of doing things are giving way to a new age of computers and technology. Advertisers, television networks, and movie studios alike are embracing special effects and animation created with computer. For decades editors had to work by cutting and gluing film segments together. Now they are sitting in front of computers editing entire features. We the viewers are now witnessing the results in a way never dreamed of before. Like many other disciplines, computer graphics and animation has a rich history, yet perhaps the most surprising aspect of all this, however, is that the entire digital effects industry is still in its infancy, and the future looks bright.


In the beginning computer graphics were extremely cumbersome and hard to control. The hardware systems, or muscles, of early computer graphics were huge and unrealistic. These machines often filled entire rooms or even buildings. In addition to the size of these machines, the software programs, or brains, were hopelessly underdeveloped. Fortunately, the evolution of both brains and brawn of computer graphics did not take long to develop. Instead, it has taken only a mere three decades to move through the evolution of science fiction to technology. We have surpassed the Stone Age of computers and into an era of silicon and liquid processing. Unlike the early days of computers, where the only way to interact was to use toggle switches, punch cards, and Teletype printouts. Now with the ever-growing technology we are now able to sit down in front of a computer screen and interact to create such things as spreadsheets, word processing, and simple games like solitaire.

It all began in 1953, by an electronics engineer named Ivan Sutherland, who began establishing himself as a leading researcher in the computer science field. In 1960, Sutherland worked on developing a graphics program as part of his Ph.D. research that would simplify the exchange of information between human beings and computers. His research project illustrated not only a new way of handling computer graphics, but a powerful new way of operating computers as well.

Sutherland s computer program, called Sketchpad, made it possible to create graphic images directly on a display screen by using a hand-held object such as a lightpen. The visual patterns were then stored in the computer s memory, where they could be recalled and manipulated at a later time just like any other data. Sketchpad was the first program that allowed the creation of graphic images directly on a display screen rather than by entering codes and formulas into the computer through a keyboard. Even more revolutionary, it allowed for the information that was stored in the computer to be altered and updated by changing something on the display screen. For the first time, it seemed possible that computers could be used for something other than data processing.

In 1967, Sutherland was recruited by Dave Evans to join the computer science program at the University of Utah as a professor of electrical engineering. Their goal was to shape the computer industry that combined science with creative arts. From this unique mix of science and art, a basic understanding of computer graphics began to grow. They developed algorithms (page 12) for the creation of modeling, lighting, and shading of solid objects, which is now the basis of virtually every aspect of today s computer graphics. This set the stage for the founding of E&S (Evans & Sutherland), in 1968, (The first company to specialize in computer modeling systems and software and today one of the leading designers and manufacturers in the industry).

The decision to create this company was not primarily to make a lot of money, but to develop the technology that would allow computers to be used as powerful tools. In 1969 E&S rolled out their first computer graphics system. This system could draw wire frame images extremely rapidly, and was the first workstation (page 12) created for computer-aided design (CAD). CAD was used to create two-dimensional drawings, such as those for automobiles and airplane parts, floor plans, and maps. Up until this time, the only computers available that could create pictures were custom-designed for the military and extremely expensive.

Times were changing, and throughout its early years, the University of Utah s Computer Science Department was supported by research grants from the Department Of Defense, but with anti-war and anti-military protests in the 1970 s, increasing restriction was put on the department s ability to continue research. In 1974, Dr. Alexander Schure, a wealthy entrepreneur, and founder/president of New York Institute of Technology, (NYIT), stepped forward with his dream of creating computer-animated films. To accomplish this task, Schure recruited Edwin Catmull, a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Utah, to head the newly formed Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology. Schure then equipped the lab with the best computer graphics hardware available at that time. With a full staff, $2 million worth of equipment, and Edwin Catmull at the stern, they set out to produce a full-length computer animated feature film.

In 1973, dozens of research papers and hundreds of new discoveries were done, but in the end, it was still to early for such a complex undertaking. The computers of that time were simply too expensive and too underpowered, and the software was not nearly developed enough. By 1978, the project had become too expensive and Schure could no longer justify funding, and so the lab s funding was cut back. The NYIT did not patent any of the discoveries found by the researchers, instead, the research was made available to anyone who could make use of it.

The industry s first attempts; As the influence of NYIT slowed down, the first wave of commercial computer graphics studios began to appear, and so did film visionary George Lucas. Educated at Modesto Junior College and the University of Southern California, began his career with his prize-winning student film THX-1138 (1965). In 1979, George Lucas hired Edwin Catmull, (a Ph.D. in computer science), and with him, some of the best talent from NYIT, and started Lucas film Ltd. During this time several other computer graphics studios opened as well. Lucas film was at the head of computer imagery, but while Lucas film researched how to apply digital effects into filmmaking, the other studios began creating flying logos and broadcast graphics for such corporation as Gillette, TRW, NFL, and television programs, such as ABC World News Tonight and The NBC Nightly News. The initial idea was to create feature length animated movies, but nearly all the computer graphics were created for television.

In 1982, Lucas film invented the Genesis Effect with the making of Star-Trek II. This was the most extraordinary movie that set the stage for many more ideas and actions to follow. This sequence was the first time computer graphics were the center of attention, instead of being the underlying support to other actions. The Genesis Effect required many developments of computer graphics algorithms, including one to create fire and another to produce realistic scenes, such as mountains, clouds, and shorelines from fractal statistical probabilities. The Genesis Effect began to draw in many of Hollywood s elite, who wanted to find out both how this idea was done and if it could be used to create and entire film.

Catmull continued to work with Lucas film and eventually helped to create TRON in 1979 and The Last Starfighter in 1984. Although the graphics were done extremely well, the scripts were weak, and both of these films were given bad ratings, and blamed the film s failure on the overselling of the technology used to create the films. Gradually, Lucas graphic goals deviated from Catmull s passion for creating a computer-animated film, and so there was a parting of ways.

In 1986, Apple Computer’s co-founder Steve Jobs purchased Lucas film’s Computer Division. The new venture was named Pixar. At Pixar, Catmull continued his tradition of attracting top-flight talent and pioneering new advances in computer graphics and animation.

In the 1980 s, personal computers and workstations came about, and thus came the silicon chip; which increased the power and reduced the prices of computers. Due to this silicon chip, commercial graphics had to reduce prices to match the computers competitive edge, to the point where graphics studios could no longer cover the growing debt that came from their highly expensive mainframe hardware. Eventually many of the independent graphics studios went out of business with the exception of PDI, which went on to become the largest graphics corporation to serve as a model for the next wave of studios.

The second wave; because of the failures of TRON and The Last Starfighter, as well as the financial failures of almost the entire industry, Hollywood opted to go in the opposite direction of computer graphics and stayed that way for many years. Then a man, by the name of James Cameron, came in with his creation of, The Abyss in 1989. George Lucas group Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) created the first completely computer-generated fully organic looking creature to be integrated with live action footage and characters. To create this realistic creature, ILM had to overcome two obstacles; they had to create an irregular, soft-edged object, and be able to anchor that object in a live-action sequence. The success of The Abyss finally pushed the computer graphics into the new age. From that point on, computer graphics and digital effects have spread rapidly and have created such movies as, Aliens in 1986, Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, and of course the Matrix in 1999.

The magic was made using computer graphics with essentially three things: modeling, animation, and rendering (page 12).

Although hardware is the brains of computer graphics, it is powerless without the right software. The software allows the idea of a person to be modeled, animated, and brought to life. Much of the computer software purchased by major studios cost in the high end of $20,000 to $50,000, although some studios use in-house programmers to create the software needed. Others use a combination of both purchasing and programming to create the software best suited for their needs.

Modeling is the first step in the process of creating three-dimensional models of animated objects. Typically, this is achieved by representing the objects using the following methods: wire-frame, surface, and solid.

Wire-frame representations are specified by a set of line segments, typically the objects edges and a set of points on the surface called vertices. While wire-frame representation often does not produce very realistic images, it is good for quick studies, such as how the object will move and fit in a particular scene.

Surface representations are specified by a set of primitive features, such as a collection of polygons to produce smooth curves and surfaces. While it is possible to perfectly model an objects surface as a collection of primitive features, it many not be practical to measure and store these features because complex objects may require an infinite number of features to create a perfectly smooth surface.

Solid polygons do not create smooth surfaces; detailed models require an extremely large number of polygons to create an image that looks natural. With simple techniques using computer graphics, the possibility to create entire worlds seems endless.

Instead of using 2-deminsional objects, which use color and light to create 3-demensional illusions, computer modeling is just the opposite. 3D software enables a user to possess the ability to view objects in 3D, in several different views. The software allows you to create, rotate, scale, and reshape, as well as add color and light. A user must be able to mentally visualize the object they are trying to create, as well as be able to pay particular attention to detail to finally make the idea a reality. All the elements of a particular model must be consistent with each other, which includes size and proportion.

Animation is creation of the illusion of motion by viewing a succession of computer-generated still images. While the modeler contains the power of creation, the animator is the on who gives the illusion of life. The animator uses the software to make objects move. The process of animation starts off just as traditional animation did, which is the creation or concept of an idea and then the idea is illustrated in the form of a storyboard (page 12). Using the storyboard, the animator sets the key points of movement for each object. The computer then produces the motion for each object one frame at a time. The final outcome, gives the form of fluid movement.

Rendering is the process of creating a realistic three-dimensional scene. The computer is given a detailed description of the objects that comprise the scene, along with the specifications of the camera. To create photographic like images, the computer must calculate the viewers perspective of the image, the visible objects and surfaces; add shading, by determining the available light on each surface; add reflections and shadows; provide surfaces with textures, patterns, and roughness to make objects appear more realistic; add transparency of objects; and remove surfaces hidden by other objects.

Once the objects and lights in a three-dimensional scene are rendered, the animator specifies their movement within the scene as well as the motions of the camera. Key frames synchronize the movement of the objects just as in the computer-assisted model, and the in-between frames must be created. One technique, algorithmic animation, controls motion by applying rules that govern how the objects move. When the objects and their behaviors have been specified, each scene is rendered frame-by-frame by the virtual camera and stored; then the final animated feature is played back.


The study of the history of computer graphics is an important part of our overall educational experience. It allows us 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 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 others as they tried to realize the potential of this new vision.

Despite the power of today s computers, and the innovations used to accelerate traditional animation processes, modern computer animations require still faster and more powerful computers to exploit new techniques and potentially photo realistic effects. Future visionaries will continue to come up with new ideas and technology to continue to make the computer graphics field grow and expand into unlimited possibilities.

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