An alternative history of rendering for animation

16.05.2018 Home >Blog >An alternative history of rendering for animation

YellowDog looks back over the CGI timeline

We have picked out something that revolutionised CGI and had a lasting impact on animation from every decade since the sixties. With this rate of progress, what will artists be using in fifty years from now?

The Sixties | 1963

Yes…we were rendering before we stepped foot on the moon. Back in 1963, Ivan Sutherland was at MIT and created a light pen capable of computer-rendered drawing: a little bit like a mouse and a stylus combined known as Sketchpad.  What he created wasn’t a digital drawing as we would understand it today, but circles, shapes, and lines were rendering on screen. Ivan and Sketchpad are credited with being the ancestor to Computer Aided Design (CAD).

The Seventies | 1972

Two students at the University of Utah created a project called A Computer Animated Hand, with a fully rendered human hand taking the starring role. Considered by many as the first 3D rendered animation, it may feel a little outdated when you watch it, but the techniques used here are the basis for almost all CGI now. And the creators of this little film? Well, Fred Parke now teaches Visualization Sciences at Texas A&M University and Edwin Catmull heads up a little company called Pixar…

The Eighties | 1982

Step aside everything else! Tron has arrived! Fantastic music and even more impressive CGI. Believe it or not, the state of the art computer used for the special effects had 2MB of memory and 330MB of storage. The live-action sequences used a technique called backlight compositing resulting in every frame of Tron comprising of seven layers. One minute of completed footage took a staggering two months to complete.

The Nineties | 1995

How could we miss it out?! Toy Story hits screens and breaks new ground in both style and storytelling for children’s animation, and still battled against the huge pit in the pipeline that is rendering and animation. Producer Galyn Sulsman is reported as saying that they thought they could animate the entire film with 8 animators; they ended up with 33. More crazy still is that they thought it would take them 20 months to render using 53 processors. In the end, they needed 300 because the average frame took 7 hours to render with some as much as 15 hours. With twenty four frames per second, the final film had over 114,000 frames and needed 800,000 machine hours to render the final shots.

Fast forward through The Matrix, Harry Potter, Star Wars Remakes, Disney Marvel Films, and much much more.  


We live in a world where animation software like Arnold, V-Ray, Redshift, RenderMan, Cinema 4D, (and we could go on) are commonplace. Artists have never had it as good as they have today so it is hard to imagine the frustrations studios faced in decades gone by; until you realise that for them, the tools that they were developing and working with were revolutionary. With each decade, the expectation of the possible is stretched  – so who knows what artists will have at their disposal to create their own legacies in a decade from now.

Readers who like this love our curated guest blog picking out the best CG short films in 2018

What would have made your list? Have we missed something out? Comment below


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