Skip to content
On this page

A brief history of the third dimension

When was the first time a 3d object was shown on a screen? One of the first displays of computer animation was Futureworld (1976), which included an animation of a human face and a hand that had originally appeared in the 1971 experimental short A Computer Animated Hand, created by University of Utah students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke. 1

The University of Utah

Utah was a major center for computer animation in this period. The computer science faculty was founded by David Evans in 1965, and many of the basic techniques of 3D computer graphics were developed here in the early 1970s with ARPA funding (Advanced Research Projects Agency). Research results included Gouraud, Phong, and Blinn shading, texture mapping, hidden surface algorithms, curved surface subdivision, real-time line-drawing and raster image display hardware, and early virtual reality work. In the words of Robert Rivlin in his 1986 book The Algorithmic Image: Graphic Visions of the Computer Age, "almost every influential person in the modern computer-graphics community either passed through the University of Utah or came into contact with it in some way".

First digital animation in a feature film

The first feature film to use digital image processing was the 1973 movie Westworld, a science-fiction film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton, in which humanoid robots live amongst the humans. John Whitney, Jr, and Gary Demos at Information International, Inc. digitally processed motion picture photography to appear pixelized in order to portray the Gunslinger android's point of view. The cinegraphic block portraiture was accomplished using the Technicolor Three-strip Process to color-separate each frame of the source images, then scanning them to convert into rectangular blocks according to its tone values, and finally outputting the result back to film. The process was covered in the American Cinematographer article "Behind the scenes of Westworld".


3D computer graphics software began appearing for home computers in the late 1970s. The earliest known example is 3D Art Graphics, a set of 3D computer graphics effects, written by Kazumasa Mitazawa and released in June 1978 for the Apple II. In 1980, Rhinoceros – The earliest commercial 3D software, and CAD (Computer Assisted Design) application software, was released. Cinema 4d, one of the earliest and well-known 3D animation platforms released in 1990, 4 years before the release of Blender, the 3d-graphics suite that we will mostly be using in this course.

Further reading