History of 3D Animation

3D animation is a process that involves taking fully 3D objects (whether they are physical or digital) and making them animate and move. Most 3D animation today is done using CGI (computer-generated imagery). From something as simple as a short cartoon to something as complex as a feature-length film, a 3D animation is a complicated piece of art that takes lots of practice and skill in order to properly execute. The most famous company that creates CGI animations is Pixar Animation Studios. Founded in 1985, they created the very first all-CGI movie in 1995, Toy Story, and they have made a dozen full movies to date. Pixar created an entire business out of the art of 3D animation.

Although Pixar began CGI animation, they weren’t the first ones to do 3D animation. The first type of 3D animation is actually stop-motion/Clay-mation. This process, done as early as the 60’s, involves taking real-life objects (typically clay models of characters) and making them animate in real-life. This is done by posing the model, taking a picture, change the pose of the character slightly, and then taking another picture. This is done until you have dozens of different pictures. When stringed together, they form a smooth animation that brings the intimate objects to life. Some of the most notable stop-motion animations include Gumby, Shawn the Sheep, and Wallace and Gromit, created by Aardman. Aardman continues to have success with their animations. Most recently, they co-developed the film Arthur Christmas with Sony Pictures.

This type of animation is very rewarding to do, but is a very time-consuming process. It takes several hours of poses and photographs just to get a few second’s worth of film. It also requires that the hundreds of shots that are taken have the same lighting, colors, and camera angles, or else the animation will look inconsistent and choppy. Although stop-motion animation isn’t used as much as it was from the 60’s to the 90’s, it is still used to this day, most notably in TV shows such as Robot Chicken. If you have the patience for it, stop-motion animation is a fulfilling and entertaining hobby.

A booth for Aardman Animation, who frequently uses stop-motion animation.

Despite the success of stop-motion animation, many companies and artists have moved on to created 3D animations using computers, referred to as CGI Animation (meaning Computer Generated Imagery). CGI, when used in feature-length movies and short cartoons, usually refers to 3D animation, and not 2D animation. There are countless different programs out there for creating animations on a computer. Some of the most notable ones include Adobe Flash (for 2D animation), Blender (a freeware program for making 3D models), and Renderman (a professional 3D program developed by Pixar, creators of the Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. films.). Which program you decide to use all depends on the specs of your computer and on what you are wanting to do with your animations.

Films have been using CGI in their films for over two decades. Although it has been used in films since the 1980s, it wasn’t used in large quantities until 1995, when Pixar Animation Studios released the first all-CGI film ever made, Toy Story. This ground-breaking film is about Andy and the adventures that his various toys have as they spring to life. Many of the toys are ones that exist in real-life, including Mr. Potato Head and Slinky-Dog. The character models and animations were considered to be very complex for its time, with detailed lighting, various textures, and a wide variety of facial animations. After this film was made, several other films were created using only computers. Some of the most notable CGI companies include Pixar (who has made over a dozen films), DreamWorks (who created the Shrek and Kung-Fu Panda series) and Blue Sky (who makes the Ice Age films).

The gates to the offices of Pixar Animation Studios.

In the early 00s, several cartoon shows began to move towards CGI animation. One of the first ones was Jimmy Neutron, a cartoon show on the Nickelodeon channel. It was based on the CGI movie of the same name. These kinds of cartoons can be produced to air on a weekly basis. Similar to 2D animation for TV, short-cuts are taken in order to keep the costs down. Characters have simplified animation (such as stiffer movement and mouth flaps that don’t necessarily match the dialogue). Also, things such as fur are either simplified or nonexistent in TV CGI. One example of this is in The Penguins of Madagascar (a spin-off of the Madagascar movies). The main movies use several characters that have fur, such as lemurs and monkeys. But when those characters appear in the Penguins cartoon, simplified character models are used. These eliminate most of the fur on the animals, and instead give them a much smoother body and shape. Although they aren't as detailed, using these character models reduce many of the costs that it would take to animate fur.

3D animations are becoming more and more popular. Dozens of films each year are made in CGI. Many cartoon shows are completely made in 3D. Advertising, especially TV commercials, are aided by CGI. 3D animations are quickly turning into the most popular form of animation.

For an article on the process of CGI animation, click here.