3D Production Pipeline: History of Computer Graphics and Inspirations

Sitting down and playing games like Witcher 3 or Alien Isolation with their buffet of realistic visuals, moody lighting and spectacular explosions, it’s easy to overlook how it all started.  The first computer graphic and how it evolved into what we see and experience today when powering up any electronic display.  Well like most things it all began with the military.

In 1951 the ‘Whirlwind’ computer was the first digital computer capable of displaying real time text and graphics on its large oscilloscope screen.  This was used as an interactive radar system where operators could visualize real time positional data received from the radar of air units within it’s range.  The operator’s could then use a ‘light gun’ on this visual data in order to request identification information about the aircraft.

whirlwind  sage

One of the biggest problems of the early computers was the barriers of usability.  It was only when Grace Hopper, a programmer on the Harvard I and Harvard II projects, created the concepts for language translation and compiler that these barriers were pulled down.  As a result general computer languages were enabled significantly increasing the amount of computer users and applications.  Apart of these computer users were artists and designers.  Using mathematical formulas the artists and designers were able to create complex visual geometry called ‘oscillons’ that have remained in our discipline as contributions of art.



The term ‘Computer Graphics’ was first credited in 1960 to a Graphic Designer named William Fetter which described the work he was doing at the time for Boeing Aircraft Co.  He is responsible for one of the most iconic images of early computer graphics which was a human figure dubbed, ‘Boeing Man’ or ‘First Man’.


In 1959, Lincoln Laboratory was paid by the Air Force to build a computer that used transistors instead of vacuum tubes as the basis of major computing systems.  It was believed at the time that this would make computers more reliable.  When Lincoln Laboratories created the TX-2 computer an MIT student by the the name of Ivan Sutherland looked at the interface and light pen and thought that a person should be able to draw on the computer.  With this epiphany, ‘Sketchpad’ was born and with it, interactive computer graphics.


In the same year General Motors and IBM got together for a collaborative project to create a ‘unified computer assisted design environment.’  This system which was considered the first ‘CAD’ system, introduced transformations on geometric objects, including rotation, zoom and a no-display(later referred to as ‘clipping’) function.


Most of the graphical innovations and advancements were made at the University of Utah.  After receiving a $5M/yr for 3 year grant from ARPA, the computer science department pushed the CGI discipline to where it is today.  To list some of the advancements achieved:

  • Hidden surface (Romney, Warnock, Watkins)
  • scan line coherence (Watkins)
  • Rendering (Crow, Blinn, Newell, Catmull, Clark, etal)
  • z-buffer (Catmull)
  • Patch rendering (Catmull)
  • Texture mapping (Catmull, Blinn, Newell)
  • Shadows (Crow)
  • Antialiasing (Crow)
  • Shading (Phong, Gouraud)
  • Lighting (Phong, Blinn)
  • Atmospheric effects (Blinn)
  • Environment mapping (Blinn, Newell)
  • Blobby surfaces (Blinn)
  • Facial animation (Parke)
  • Procedural modeling (Newell)
  • Splines (Riesenfeld, Lyche, Cohen)
  • Beta-splines (Barsky)

vw1-200 catmulltextures

While the University of Utah contributed much to CGI it certainly wasn’t the only one with many universities making their own contributions that would expand computer graphics uses into the realms of games, movies, military, medical and many many more.  As I write this we’re witnessing the birth of two more graphical innovations, augmented and virtual reality that can both transport us to new realms and experiences, opening up the door for many future applications.


Originally I never had myself picked for an artist of any sort when making the decision to become a game developer.  I had always thought of myself as a designer in some for or another.  I never really had the environment growing up as a kid that provided the avenue for art.  It was always sports, video games or dirt bikes(a typical male teenagers life i guess) with little room or desire for anything else.  It wasn’t until my second trimester in college that I had my first real taste of creating a visual landscape that gave me goosebumps from excitement.  This was the first moment that I realized I wanted to create the visuals of a game more than anything else and the biggest inspiration that helped me realize this was also my first.  A 3D Artist/ Art Director by the name of Tor Frick.  It was his ‘sci-fi lab’ project that inspired me to create my first level in UDK, and remarkably he only used one texture for all of it.


Unsurprisingly, it was this very project that gave him his first job in the industry I believe.  This was a project that Tor did for himself, to push himself to learn new things and perfect his craft and this is what really inspired me.  It was this initiative that has kept me building levels in both Unity and Unreal engines since and opened my eyes to the wonderful world of 3D, of which I am now studying.  Some other pieces of Tor’s that has also inspired me:

datacoreT mechT watchtowerT


Carlson, W. (2003). A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation. Accessed July 4, 2015. https://design.osu.edu/carlson/history/lessons.html

Frick, T. (2015). Tor Frick Portfolio. Accessed July 4, 2015. http://www.torfrick.com/

 Snefer(Tor Frick). (10/9/2011). An exercise in modular textures. Accessed July 4, 2015. http://www.polycount.com/forum/showthread.php?t=89682


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