hand-icon hand-icon

Pixar before Pixar

Anyone interested in the history of computer animation and the roots of Pixar is in for a treat. Headlining this post is a forty-year-old video created by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and classmate Fred Parke at the University of Utah. The animation of the hand, which is among the earliest examples of rendered 3D animation, was reused in the 1976 feature Futureworld. It was the first use of computer modeled animation in a feature film. The backstory of who had a copy of the entire film and why it’s posted on Vimeo is also fascinating and worth a read.

Next up is Vol Libre by Loren Carpenter. The film is considered a classic of early computer graphics and caused a huge stir when it debuted at SIGGRAPH in 1980. In fact, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith walked up to Carpenter after the screening and offered him a job on the spot in George Lucas’s Computer Division, which eventually became Pixar. Carpenter has been with the studio ever since. Here’s what he wrote about Vol Libre in the video description on Vimeo:

I made this film in 1979-80 to accompany a SIGGRAPH paper on how to synthesize fractal geometry with a computer. It is the world’s first fractal movie. It utilizes 8-10 different fractal generating algorithms. I used an antialiased version of this software to create the fractal planet in the Genesis Sequence of Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan. These frames were computed on a VAX-11/780 at about 20-40 minutes each.

I didn’t interview Catmull or Carpenter when I wrote The Art of Pixar Short Films, but I did speak to three of their colleagues on the technology side–Alvy Ray Smith, Eben Ostby and Bill Reeves. Of the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted over the years, I’ll admit that these were the only times I’d ever felt intimidated. These folks are brilliant minds who are smarter than I could ever hope to be. I have a layman’s understanding of how computer animation works, but I can’t pretend to grasp the nuances of how they write code that translates ones and zeros into fantastic computer animated imagery. I’d be willing to wager that very few of the artists who work in computer animation have any clue either. The technology is taken for granted; we simply accept that these programs enable the creation of wonderful images.

The software didn’t exist four decades ago though. Watching these early pieces of computer animation only heightens my sense of awe and admiration for the scientists and technologists who have made computer animation possible. In a mere blip of time, they’ve built the technological platform that makes possible every one of today’s computer-animated and effects-laden films. Not to mention that their discoveries have led to the development of entirely new forms of entertainment like video games. They are some very smart people indeed.

(Thanks, Brian Hoary, for the Ed Catmull link)

  • Martyn

    More things like this please Cartoon Brew, my inner geek is doing a jig. Also, and more importantly, thanks.

  • Hans

    Very interesting. Much appreciated!

  • These are great historical pieces. I got to know both of these artist/scientists when I worked at Pixar (it wasn’t so difficult to meet people, the studio was small when I was there). They are both very modest even self-effacing about their accomplishments. There had been some hard surface rendering prior to the Catmull/Parkes piece (like Evans & Sutherland’s work) but theirs was the first organic surface as far as I know.

  • The linked article is great. Old computer animation is so pleasing to watch for some reason. I still play the MIND’S EYE videos for entertainment. I actually like it better than more recent stuff…

  • Their discoveries are used in video games to be sure, but they didn’t lead “to the development of entirely new forms of entertainment like video games”.

    Video game development began long before this, with their simplest forms have been around since the 1940’s missile defense systems and simple games of the 1950’s. Early arcade games were sprite based, which (as 2D art) is completely different than the 3D work being done by those mentioned in the article.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Someone else said something about that when it came to where CGI animation was in the 1980’s when there was more imagination that went into these films that otherwise were only hindered by the limited technology in place.

    Reminded Ed Catmull appeared along with Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and others for a panel talk on the history of computer animation that was held at The Computer History Museum 6 years ago. If you have an hour and a half of time to spare, it might be wroth checking this out…

  • jordan reichek

    that, is absolutely incredible.

    ed catmull is my new hero. i’d say the man has street cred.

    thanks so much for posting!!

    • amid

      Catmull has more street cred than anybody. The man has even got a spline named after him: http://bit.ly/pC8U1R

  • It was great being able to speak with these amazing people back in the early days when Pixar was a very small company, and not the shrine it’s become today.

  • I’m amazed by the process Ed and Fred did to make a 3D hand. That must have took a lot of work mapping it out.

  • Tony

    I work at Pixar right now, and while I have not really met Ed Catmull, Fred Parke was my thesis chair at Texas A&M University. He can still be found teaching computer graphics and facial articulation in the Visualization Laboratory graduate program at A&M.


    • Fred Parke

      Some clarification on the content of this very old CG film. Ed did all the work related to modeling and animating the hand. My work was the face modeling and animation shown at the end of the clip. I don’t remember who did the heart valve animation.
      For those interested, there are two papers in the 1972 ACM National Conference proceedings (this was before the SIGGRAPH conference existed), one by Ed discussing his work related to the hand, and one by me talking about the facial animation.
      The posted film is, to me, obviously a video copy of a copy of the original 16mm film. The original film was of much higher quality.

  • Sat

    Nice! Thanks for posting this video. I’m pretty sure I heard about it before, it’s nice to see, early CGI is fascinating.
    It must be incredible to be someone like Ed Catmull today. It reminds me that one of the Wright brothers lived long enough that supersonic flight existed in his last years.

    To anybody interested in early CGI, this channel got a lot of 1970s-1980s stuff : http://www.youtube.com/user/VintageCG#g/u

    It reminds me, I’m looking for a very, very early CGI video with an helicopter… I can’t remember much more sadly.

    • GW

      [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

    • Chris Sobieniak

      I know what you’re talking about…

      • Sat

        That’s it! Thanks

  • Toonio

    They mention these videos on the way of Pixar book. This videos really add dimension to what you learn.

    Good stuff!

  • John Celestri has a good post about the early days of trying to work out a CG animation system at New York Institute of Technology, including a very interesting article by Ed Catmull on “The Problems of Computer Assisted Animation” (circa 1977) –


    • Chris Sobieniak

      You could thank “Tubby The Tuba” for that one!

  • Mark McD

    So, I am guessing that the computer generated titles and models would have been filmed off the computer monitor, like an old kinescope? Talk about standing at the intersectrion of two technological worlds.

  • Mark McD

    No, I take back my last comment. Adfter reading the blog p[ost linked above, I see it was indeed rendered to film.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      It seemed like in those days, it was more render each frame one at a time and snap a frame of film, that’s how it was done (since I’m sure doing so in realtime would be more like kinescope that way).

  • PixarFanBoy

    Well, I was a little disappointed in Cars 2 but honestly, this latest Pixar “film” makes that film look like a masterpiece. The animation and rendering of the hand was crude beyond belief and the human faces were almost lifeless. Next, and this is what really bothers me, Pixar has always prided itself on telling great stories. I could not begin to tell you what the story in this one was about. There was a hand, then the hand was bending and pointing, then we went inside the hand, then there was a girl making blow job mouth shapes, then two girls and then the girls turned African American. WTF Pixar? I have high hopes that Brave somehow gets the studio back on track.

  • heykidz

    It is simply another reminder that 3D Animation is a perfect blend of art and computer science. Artists and engineers co-exist, and depend on one another. Thank you brilliant scientists and engineers who have been breaking the boundaries of graphics capabilities – without you, the industry would not exist!! Thanks for posting this. I think most people forget the history sometimes.

  • This is really terrific. I’m absolutely fascinated by the pioneering work in computer graphics and animation in the 1960s and 1970s. This was literally the bleeding edge of technology, and there’s this incredible sense of freedom at the limitless possibilities. It’s such a shame that this medium has been narrowed down to the smallest possible bandwidth for the sake of global consumer capitalism. I’d really love to see more of these, and at least a few more essays on these pioneers.

    Now here’s a question that’s been lingering in my head for some time, and it’s an honest question: what is the role of psychedelics in early computer graphics? What influence did that play in the unfolding of the medium? How did these early engineers and artists envision this new medium? Did they see computer animation as “pure art,” as a means of showing people the inside of their heads? Am I wrong to think that there is an element of the surreal and the unconscious in early CG? I’m thinking of Loren Carpenter’s fractals, and of course, the Whitney Brothers are excellent examples, too.

    Of course, the mathematical engineering side shines through in these early works, especially Ed Catmull’s and Fred Parke’s hands and faces. You can see the brilliance of their young minds, and the sheer determination in realizing these visions. Remember that every single frame was painstakingly rendered, one by one. Real-time rendering was still a distant dream.

    Anyway, please excuse my endless questions. I’m sounding like a 19-year-old art major, heh heh.