World’s First 3-D Computer Animation

Robert Ingebretson, a friend of mine from high school, posted this video of the world’s first 3-D computer animation.

His father, the elder Robert Ingebretsen, was an important pioneer in the development of digital audio. Earlier he’d been a classmate of Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull at the University of Utah in the early 1970s. During that era, the U. was a hotbed of computer and digital graphic, audio, and video innovation. Its computer science department produced important pioneers in the field like Ingebretsen, Catmull, and Adobe founder John Warnock.

Ingebretsen helped Catmull make this 3-D computer animation in 1972:

The film fell into my hands because Ed and my dad were good friends and office mates at the University of Utah in the 1970s where they were both pursuing upper graduate degrees in computer science. My dad was focused on digital audio and Ed (of course) on computer graphics. Either because of their friendship or possibly because they were renting time on the same computer, my dad ended up being responsible for the 3D morphing titles at the beginning and end of the film (his credit is at 6:15). I guess that entitled him to a copy of the 8mm reel (it was rendered to actual film; this, of course, predated any kind of real time digital playback by many years).
A couple of years ago, Ed was speaking at the University of Utah (giving, I believe, some version of this talk) and ran into my uncle. They talked about my dad and that resulted in Ed inviting a handful of us to take a tour of Pixar.
A few months later we took a plane to SFO for the tour. I sort of expected to shake Ed’s hand and then take a tour with an intern. It wasn’t like that at all. Ed spent an hour with us. It was amazing and incredibly personal. He shared stories about the early days, gave advice about managing creativity, told stories about Steve Jobs, shared thoughts about the transition to Disney and even told stories about my dad.

Catmull later worked for Star Wars director George Lucas’ special effects shop Industrial Light and Magic. While there Catmull was instrumental in making the first computer generated animation used in a motion picture. A few years later ILM’s computer graphics division, along with Catmull, was purchased by a washed up former Silicon Valley executive turned cult leader noted for his obsessive concern for typography.

4 thoughts on “World’s First 3-D Computer Animation”

  1. It’s surprising if there weren’t experiments with 3-D computer graphics for flight simulation prior to this…no filming normally involved, but pretty much the same problems in creating the images though with a harder real-time constraint.

    Commercial flight simulators with visual capability worked in those days by moving a TV camera over a physical terrain model!..but surely there was experimental work based on computer graphics going on at DoD or airplane/simulator manufacturers?

  2. Evans and Sutherland, a long-time leader in computerized military flight simulators, was founded by two University of Utah computer science professors 1n 1968 and employed many U of U educated CGI pioneers like Warnock, Catmull, and SGI founder Jim Clark. This animation was part of the experimental work going on at DoD and simulator manufactures.

  3. I don’t think processors were big or fast enough to do the rendering. The techniques were there, just as Ada Lovelace was writing graphics programs for Babbage’s machine that was never built.

    I was writing simple programs in 1959 for a mainframe that had less processing power than the 1981 Texas Instruments digital watch that I used as a chronometer sailing to Hawaii.

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