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This Is What Computer Animation Looked Like In 1971

The documentary above offers a fascinating look at the Key Frame animation system designed by Marceli Wein and Nestor Burtnyk at the National Research Council of Canada. Besides the impressively futuristic vibe of their hardware setup, it’s also amazing to see the sophistication of their software. It may come as a surprise to many that shape tweens had been figured out as early as 1971.

The Key Frame software was used in Peter Foldes’ pioneering vector-animated shorts Metadata (1971) and Hunger (1974). Here’s my question for the CG historians: what happened to vector animation between 1974 and the early-90s? After the films by Foldes, were there any other vector animation films in the Seventies and Eighties because I’m having trouble finding many examples. It seems to me that not many artists explored the possibilities of vector animation until Web animation in the mid-Nineties brought it back into vogue.

(Thanks, Celia Bullwinkel)

  • Mac

    This is all the same digital medium. This didnt get forgotten and then lead to Flash. This literally shows a low level conceptual basis of all “computer animation”(the lowest being CPU executing instructions many times a second).

    They can’t turn those splines into a surface and give that normal data and do on, but they move in 3d space and relate to each other heirerchay in time. Once they calculate a surface and figure out how the computer can display it, they can’t move those vertices by hand all the time, so the vertice transforms (of the surface) get parented to a conceptual joint heirerchy that gets animated now much more simply in terms of only rotations. Then that has its limits so other logical constructs like IK and point weights and so on bring us to this point in the state of CGI.

    The thing keeping the kind of “web animation” style 2d interpolation technology from getting better than adobe flash is that it would quickly just turn into maya or blender. Once you try to use digital programming to create tools to deconstruct drawings of forms conceptually on the computer just to avoid redrawing, if you don’t stop you come to the conclusions of 3d cgi. Surfaces, hierarchies, transforms, rendering.

    I’m no historian.

    • GW

      It’s worth pointing out, since you brought that up, that the same thing happens with hand drawn animation and paint on cel animation. As soon as you desire to fully render something in a non-stylized way, you’re essentially painting instead of drawing. Sure, there’s things like charcoal, but when you want to fully exploit color values and everything, you end up taking the leap from hand drawn to hand painted animation. Of course, nowadays everything’s transitioning towards tablets and scanned drawings and cels have been eliminated nearly everywhere.

      I might as well come out and say the whole truth. Every animation medium is involved in an aesthetic reaction to all the others. Cutout animation tends to be primitive in terms of limited angles and moved pieces because if it grew sophisticated, it would be very similar to hand drawn animation.

      They’re all essentially applied aesthetic processes which strike different bargains with material realities. Every new medium is a chance to pursue a different bargain. Computer animation compared to drawn animation has the advantage of a consistent model with the possibility of subtle motion and high detail, but the disadvantage of less aesthetic nuance and creativity of motion expressed between the changing frames. Stop motion has more textural nuance than most computer animation, but it has the disadvantages of size and gravitational concerns.

      Mix the computer’s advantages with stop motion’s textural superiority and you get a whole new computer collage medium, and some people have experimented with that idea already.

      I’m probably boring everyone by saying the obvious. It’s fun to see though, the state of how different media formats evolve. I might start a sort of aesthetic encyclopedia so I can discuss it more, being an amateur who’s obsessed with aesthetics. From my perspective, everybody needs to have a deep sense of aesthetics and outside of context. The truth is that we’re all little ignorant robots who don’t know very much and blindly stumble over a unique realization of what are to some degree prewritten aesthetic milestones.

      Well that’s a long comment, and at this point nobody is likely to read it, so I’ll end it at that.

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    After watching “Metadata,” I could see where vector animation became at least the theoretical underpinning for morphing, which reached its zenith (for me, anyway) in the Michael Jackson “Black and White” video.

  • Wasn’t there some vector computer animation done in the original Star Wars by Dan O’Bannon?

  • AJ

    It’s not just that it’s vector-based math; it’s an actual vector display. Essentially, instead of pixel-based scan lines, it draws dots and lines directly on the tube surface (no phosphor dots, just a coating).

    The real issue is that there’s no pixel grid, just x/y coordinates, so it’s hard to draw anything precisely, plus, without RGB phosphors, representing different colors, shading etc. was difficult, and outside of uses like oscilloscopes or arcade games, vector displays fell by the wayside. I think that’s pretty much why vector animation of this type disappeared pretty quickly – which is a shame, because it has a lot of artistic potential.

    There’s the similar Scanimate System – hybrid digital / analog – which maintained a lot of the fluidity of this kind of animation. All the stuff done on early Sesame Street, broadcast graphics etc were done on it.

    • Yep… it wasn’t an aesthetic choice, it was a technological limitation that was seen as needing to be overcome. Nowadays when that limitation isn’t there, it becomes a matter of aesthetic choice again.

  • Joel

    Looks like Xerox didn’t invent the mouse after all…

    • Peter Tanner

      Actually the mouse was invented at Stanford Research Institute in 1966. The mouse used here was built using the SRI plans in 1968, we believe that it was the second mouse in the world. Interestingly, after this film was made, many of the mouse functions were taken over by a graphics tablet – which worked better for the fine muscle control that you use when drawing.
      (I worked in this lab as a summer student from 1970-1972 – and then full time from 1974 to 1985.)

  • The unique VECTREX vector-based video game system of the 80s offered an accessory light-pen and animation cartridge. Its output looked very similar to that shown in the “Key Frame Animation” video.

  • Tom T.

    In the mid-90s I went to a laser show competition where they had music “videos” with morphing shapes projected against a wall – I wonder if there’s some continuity in that field.

  • I vividly remember an ABC Nightly News report on the nascent art of computer animation right around this time, maybe as early as 1969. In the report students at a some facility (a university in Arizona or Utah maybe?) were demonstrating their process using Johnny Hart’s “B.C.” comic strip, digitally bending their limbs etc to make walk cycles and using some sort of traveling mattes to make them appear to talk. I don’t recall ever hearing anything about it again but I am pretty sure I didn’t dream it.

    Does anyone else remember it?

  • Michael

    I used to create short 2D vector films to entertain my friends using a program called Fantavision. I did mine on an Amiga, but apparently there were versions of the software for Apple II and MS/DOS as well.

    Here’s a collection of the demonstration projects the Amiga version came with:

    Periodically I think AmigaWorld magazine (?) would collect submissions from Amiga animators and release videotape collections of the best ones. I believe most were raytraced, or in the case of 2D the majority probably used bitmap based editors like the Deluxe Paint series, but there may have been some examples of vector animation in those volumes as well.

  • this was interesting. thanks Amid.

  • Toonio

    I thought for a moment I’d see the Dharma project logo at the end but cannot get any real than this.

    Very nice find!

  • Fantavision was a wonderful program — I wish there were a version for the iPad.

  • Bill Kroyer

    I seem to recall a Denver-based commercial house that was almost exclusively vector-based. The problem with vector animation, of course, was that the inbetweens were generated in a 2D space, with no consideration of the illusion of volume, making the motion seem “swimmy”.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Perhaps that was Computer Image Corporation, Bill.

  • Geo

    “Vector” in early CG describes the type of display. A vector display works more like an oscilloscope, with lines being traced on to the screen. It was a more efficient way of writing the screen because it used less memory.

    I remember early Tektronix displays used vectors in the mid-70’s. The original Asteroids is an example of an early video game that used this display technology.

    Modern displays use rasters/pixels to display the image. This method requires active video memory, which only became affordable in the late 70’s/early 80’s. The vectors in modern programs like Flash are simply ways to create pixels.

  • Flavio


    What do you think about this one ?
    According to the text, it’s a per line base render, but I read it as kind of vectorial display and render (to do it faster), and they where able to render it at epic sizes ( 7510 x 5460 ) because of that technique.

    In the other hand, when you look at games like Another World, it’s completly done with vectorials technics, right? But it’s already in the 90′

  • Annie

    From the historical point of view animation as a whole didn’t do very well during this time. The advent of TV (which really took off in the 1960s) meant that animation had to fit into scheduled time slots and animation was deemed to be children’s entertainment and was scheduled into children’s time slots. From then on pretty much all animation was made for children and for a long time it wasn’t taken seriously by anyone hence not much happened in any form of animation, let alone in experimental forms. This was also a pretty bland era for Disney when they left behind the successful fairy tale formula and didn’t return to it until the 1980s. So whilst there probably were people developing computer animation, they were few and far between and didn’t get much support from anyone as no one thought that animation was relevant to anything other than kids TV. Then in the late 1980s things like Luxo Jnr and The Simpsons made people realise that there were a whole host of other possibilities for animation, and art school experimental animators also started to emerge as the postmodern era got into full swing.

  • Someone mentioned the Scanimate and someone asked about vector graphics in the original Star Wars. Those belong together, because it was the Scanimate system that produced the analog 3D vector graphics of the Death Star shown in the original Star Wars.

    There were some digital 3D vector graphics of terrain in the film Aliens (2nd in the Alien franchise), shown on the screen of the landing vehicle as it was doing a fly over.

    I’ve got a bit of historical info about early computer graphics, though mostly focusing on the 3D shaded graphics we’re more familiar with today, here:

    All of these techniques are actually traceable back to Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad work in 1961 and 1962. There are some interesting YouTube videos that demo the system if you’re interested.