The History of 3D Rendering

24.10.2019
Iris Eggelmeijer Render Wrangler
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YellowDog Render Wrangler Iris, proudly presents CGIris – a series of informative blogs, each unpacking a different topic in the field of 3D and computer animation.

This is the first instalment in the CGIris series and to kick things off, Iris explores a brief history of 3D rendering.

What is 3D Rendering?

3D rendering generates a 2D image from a 2D or 3D model by calculating the way light behaves in a scene. To equate this to human sight, a render engine will, like our brain, process the appearance of objects based on the behaviour of light. It uses algorithms to determine where the light source is located, how strong the light is, how it bounces around and so on.

But where did it all begin?

How did 3D Rendering Start?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Computer generated animation was first seen at the cinema in the 1976 film Futureworld. The animation featured a human face and a hand. This particular animated hand model had originally appeared in the 1972 experimental short A Computer Animated Hand, created by Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke. More on those in a moment.

Who were Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke?

Edwin Catmull

After earning his doctorate in Computer Science, Edwin Catmull continued to attract attention in the advancement of 3D computer graphics, including interest from the great filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

Catmull went on to become the Vice President of the computer graphics division at Lucasfilm (the seminal Industrial Light & Magic) before becoming the Chief Technical Officer at Pixar. During his career, Catmull was instrumental in the development of both digital compositing technology – the process by which multiple images are seamlessly combined together – and RenderMan, Pixar’s own 3D rendering software.

During his time at Pixar, Catmull was a key developer in rendering hit films such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo. In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar and named Catmull president of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. He has since retired after a career spanning five-decades.

Fred Parke

Frederic Ira Parke is a physicist with degree, masters, and PhD honours from the University of Utah and University of Utah College of Engineering respectively. He is the creator of the world’s first computer generated three dimensional (3D) human face – based on his wife – which was first shown to audiences along with the computer generated hand in 1972 produced with Catmull. Parke and Catmull went on to work on the film, Futureworld together.

Whilst Catmull pursued his ambitions with Disney and Pixar, Parke – whose significant influence in the advancement of the industry is unquestionable – continues to teach at Texas A&M University, specialising in facial and speech recognition for visualisation sciences.

Who is Martin Newell and what is the Newell Teapot?

Is there anything that a cup of tea can’t solve?

Another prominent figure in the development of 3D visualisation and rendering was Martin Newell. He, along with his brother Dick and fellow researcher Tom Sancha, developed Newell’s algorithm. They tackled the hidden-surface problem. This concerns the visualisation of focal parts of a scene, based on a certain perspective. By cutting overlapping geometry away, the algorithm could correctly order separate parts by their depth, giving the appearance of shading.

To test the new principle, Newell chose an everyday object that was easy to measure and recognise. An object that could be the standard reference for 3D rendering and computer generated imagery. He chose the humble teapot. It became known as the Utah Teapot or the Newell Teapot.

A teapot’s shape contains a number of elements that make it ideal for graphics experiments. It’s round, has a saddle point (a flat point on a curved surface), a hole in the handle and can project a shadow of itself.

The teapot has become an in-joke in the CG community.

If you look carefully enough, you can see the celebration of this prolific symbol, in many animators’ work.

Let the 3D rendering game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ or ‘Where’s Waldo?’ commence…

The Utah Teapot in Toy Story
Can you spot Newell's Teapot in Window's 'Pipes' Screensaver?
The Utah Teapot is lurking in this three dimensional scene from The Simpsons

How Has 3D Rendering Changed Since The 1970’s

Since its inception back in the 1970s, 3D or three dimensional visualisation has gone from strength to strength. Technology has advanced significantly since Catmull and Parke’s work. You need only watch the recent remakes of The Lion King and The Jungle Book for evidence of this. The global animation, VFX and games industry market is expected to grow to 270 billion USD by 2020. So its safe to say that the animation industry has had a meteoric rise over the past 50 years, with no signs of slowing down just yet.

For a more in depth look at 3D rendering, look out for my next installment of CGIris.

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