The history of digitally produced animation, and animation produced through the use of a computer, begins outside the sphere of the entertainment industry, emerging out of the work of military and industrial research teams seeking to use computer graphics for simulation and technical instruction. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), created by the US army at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, was the world's first electronic programmable computer; although it was a vast contraption, it had little processing power. With the first silicon transistors, made in 1954, and integrated circuits in 1958, computers became more powerful, and their uses more various but still largely untouched by creative endeavors.

b. Prague, Czechoslovakia, 4 September 1934

Jan Svankmajer studied sculpture, painting, engraving, and the writings of the surrealist artists at the College of Applied Arts in Prague in the early 1950s, eventually entering the famed Prague Academy of Performing Arts in 1954 to study puppetry and filmmaking. These multidisciplinary skills earned Svankmajer a place as director and designer at the Czech State Puppet Theatre in 1958 and secured him work with the Semafor Mask Theatre in 1960. His first films— Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara ( The Last Trick , 1964), Hra s kameny ( A Game with Stones , 1965), and Rakvickarna ( Punch and Judy , 1966)—demonstrate Svankmajer's trademark synthesis of the arts and the particular relationship between animated puppets and objects, human actors, and automata within performance contexts and "psychological" spaces.

The most significant influence on Svankmajer is the authoritarian context in which he worked. Following the Prague Spring of 1968 and his implicit critique of communism in Leonarduv denik ( Leonardo's Diary , 1972), Svankmajer was banned from making animated films for seven years. When permitted to return to filmmaking, he agreed to make approved literary adaptations. His interpretations of Hugh Walpole's Castle of Otranto ( Otrantský zámek, 1977) and Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher ( Zánik domu Usheru , 1981), are nevertheless thematically similar to his later Poe adaptation, Kyvadlo, jáma a nadeje ( The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope , 1983) and his Lewis Carroll pieces, Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameného Huberta ( Jabberwocky , 1971) and the full-length feature Neco z Alenky ( Alice , 1988). All are strident surrealist critiques of authoritarian regimes and political repression using irrational images drawn from the unconscious.

Svankmajer's bleak masterpiece, Moznosti dialogu ( Dimensions of Dialogue , 1982), was banned in Czechoslovakia but enjoyed international success as a rich metaphor about the failure of personal and political communication. Do pivnice ( Down to the Cellar , 1983) was an autobiographical interrogation of Svankmajer's childhood, depicting the terrors of unknown and mutable objects in a dark cellar. Many saw a similarly frightening engagement with childhood in Svankmajer's Alice , which sees Carroll's Wonderland recast as a nightmare world of disturbing images suggesting death, decay, and detritus, propelled by unconscious and complex desires.

The eventual downfall of communism produced Tma/Svetlo/Tma ( Darkness/Light/Darkness , 1989), an absurdist fable about human endurance in the light of repression, and a short history of postwar Czechoslovakia, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), which retains a chilling scepticism about oppression even in the newly democratic state. Svankmajer'ssubsequent features, Faust (1994), Spiklenci slasti ( Conspirators of Pleasure , 1996), and Otesánek ( Little Otik , 2000), combine live action and animation, yet continue his preoccupations with the "life" within found objects, the reconfiguration of "the body," and the surreal and subversive prompts of the unconscious.


The Last Trick (1964), Leonardo's Diary (1972), Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), Alice (1988), Jídlo ( Food , 1992), Otesánek ( Little Otik , 2000)


Field, Simon, Guy L'Eclair and Michael O'Pray, eds. Afterimage 13: Animating the Fantastic . London: Afterimage/British Film Institute, Autumn 1987.

Hames, Peter, ed. Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer . Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Hosková, Simeona, and Kveta Otcovská, eds. Jan Svankmajer: Transmutation of the Senses . Prague: Edice Detail, Central Europe Gallery and Publishing House, 1994.

Pilling, Jane, ed. A Reader in Animation Studies . London: John Libbey, 1997.

Svankmajer, Jan, and Eva Svankmajer. Animus Anima Animation . Prague: Slovart Publishers and Arbor Vitae—Foundation for Literature and Visual Arts, 1998.

Paul Wells

Jan Svankmajer.

John Whitney (1917–1995) was a pioneer in this respect, establishing Motion Graphics Inc. and making analog computer–generated light effects. He, in turn, inspired his son, John Whitney Jr., who was aware of the more commercially oriented innovation prompted by Ivan Sutherland's invention of the Sketchpad in 1962. This device enabled "drawing with light" into the computer, and underpinned the establishment of Evans and Sutherland as the first company to promote computer graphics as a creative technology. Whitney Jr. worked for the company for a short period before joining Information International, Inc. ("Triple I"), specializing in 3D computer-generated (CG) simulations. By 1964, when the first digital film recorder became available, John Stehura had made "Cibernetik 5.3" using only punch cards and tape, imagining his abstract, computer motion picture in his mind, and only seeing its outcome onscreen for the first time when using the recorder at General Dynamics in San Diego.

Having worked on an analog videographic system for his projects in the early 1970s, Ed Emshwiller (1926–1990) made the pioneering Sunstone (1979), a three-minute 3D computer graphic work using traditional frame-by-frame transitions and color in motion to create movement in static images that preceded the development of any software or hardware to facilitate such work. Another pioneer, Larry Cuba, made First Fig in 1974, and later worked with John Whitney Sr. on Arabesque (1975). Both of these were not merely experimental films, but also research into the relationship between geometry, mathematics, and graphics as they could be expressed through the computer.

One of the most crucial developments in the field in the 1970s was George Lucas's (b. 1944) creation of the initial teams that later became the nucleus of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and, later, PIXAR—a company created by Steve Jobs (b. 1955), the founder of Apple Computers, following the purchase of Lucasfilm's computer research and development division in 1985. Robert Abel (1937–2001), a pioneer in motion-control camera techniques, joined Lucas's team, and as well as doing development work on Star Wars (1977), effected research with Evans and Sutherland on applications of computer animation in the entertainment industries. It was not until 1982, however, that the first fully persuasive applications of computer-generated imagery emerged, first in Disney's Tron (1982), and then in the "Genesis" sequence of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

It was clear, though, that the research and development undertaken by ILM aspired to move beyond using computer graphics as purely an effect, to prioritizing the technology as a new model for the filmmaking process per se, thus creating a postphotographic mode of cinema. John Whitney left Triple I to establish Digital Productions and was responsible for the next key development in CGI by creating over twenty-five minutes of material for The Last Starfighter (1984). In 1985 three works ensured that CGI would have a significant role to play in future production: John Lasseter's (b. 1957) ILM research project The Adventures of Andre and Wally Bee , which showed early signs of Lasseter's trademark combination of traditional cartoon-character animation with computer aesthetics; Daniel Langlois's (b. 1961) Tony de Peltrie , the first convincing CG character performance, here an aging pianist; and Robert Abel's Canned Food Information Council–sponsored commercial Brilliance , featuring a sexy robot employing some primitive but nevertheless effective motion capture. Though these works were in some senses primitive, they signalled the possibility of character-driven narratives in a new aesthetic context even while drawing upon filmic imagery from earlier cartoons made by Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. Tony de Peltrie used software, which would underpin the creation of Softimage, along with Alias-Waterfront, one of the major computer-animation software companies in the world.

Though initially the progress of CGI as a process was compromised by its cost, technical constraints, slowness of execution, and the lack of a standardized software package, James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) demonstrated that CGI could be used for effective storytelling and aesthetic ends and could work on a scale different from anything previously envisaged. With the increasing standardization of the requisite software, production facilities proliferated and CGI became an intrinsic tool of expression throughout the commercial and entertainment sector, in film, video games, and other multimedia applications.

Jurassic Park (1993) consolidated CGI as a crucial cinematic tool in the creation of its highly realistic dinosaurs, just as King Kong (1933) vindicated the importance of stop-motion animation as more than just a special effect in the creation of Kong, and Jackson's remake of King Kong progresses the field of visual effects once more in the contemporary era. The process of animated film practice itself also changed with the advent of computers, as much of the arduous work involved in cel animation (in-betweening, ink and paint) could now be done with a computer. Postproduction in most feature films was also revolutionized by the impact of computer applications and their intrinsic role as a special effect. Digital compositing and motion-controlled camera became a norm in feature production comparatively quickly, but it was the work of PIXAR that prioritized research and development in the service of creating a fully computer-animated feature—a model echoing Disney's desire to use the Silly Symphonies during the late 1920s and early 1930s as prototypes for the eventual creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Each year PIXAR made a short film— Luxo Jnr (1986), Red's Dream (1987), Tin Toy (1989), and Knick Knack (1990)—in anticipation of Toy Story (1995), the groundbreaking CGI feature featuring the now iconic Woody and Buzz.

Less heralded but also important is Reboot (1993), the first fully computer-generated television animation. Produced by Ian Pearson, Gavin Blair, and Phil Mitchell, it self-reflexively used the computer as its narrative subject, depicting the city of Main Frame where Bob, Enzo, and their friend, Dot Matrix, battle two viruses, Megabyte and Hexadecimal. Also, Chris Wedge (b. 1958), who worked initially for Magi, a company run by a group of nuclear particle scientists literally creating images from the data, went on to make the digital effects for Tron . Wedge and some Magi colleagues then formed their own company, Blue Sky, in 1987, making MTV logos, dancing cockroaches in Joe's Apartment (1996), swimming aliens in Alien Resurrection (1997), and Bunny (1998), which won an Oscar ® for the best animated short film. Blue Sky also wrote their own proprietary software for tracing light rays, which has enabled the company to achieve its own signature aesthetic in Ice Age (2002) and Robots (2004), and to work within the remit of Fox in a fashion similar to PIXAR's relationship to Disney.

Inevitably, with the success of CGI on the big and small screens, investment in the technology increased, and computer-generated images became the dominant aesthetic of animated features and children's programming. Equally inevitably, a variety of approaches to using computer animation have characterized the post– Toy Story era. While Dreamworks's SKG has emerged as a serious contender to PIXAR with films such as Shrek (2001), PIXAR has continued to innovate in features such as Finding Nemo (2002) and The Incredibles (2004), creating software to extend the range of the visual palette, incorporating underwater visualization and more cartoon-like aesthetics. With each new feature has come another innovation—even the holy grail of realistic-looking human hair in The Incredibles . Companies such as Rhythm and Hues specialize in animated visual effects for live-action animals in films such as Cats and Dogs (2001); Sony Pictures Imageworks advanced the complexity of special effects in films such as Spiderman 2 (2004); CORE Digital Pictures in Toronto, Canada, created a range of persuasive children's television with Angela Anaconda , The Savums , and Franny's Feet ; and individual artists such as Karl Sims, Yoichiro Kawaguchi, William Latham, Ruth Lingford, James Paterson, Amit Pitaru, Tomika Satoshi, Johnny Hardstaff, Marc Craste, and Run Wrake have challenged the dominant look and styles using the available range of computer software packages to create what might be described as the avant garde or experimental end of the CG form. It is clear that as different software packages become more affordable and user-friendly, and the use of the computer as a creative tool becomes both a domestic and industrial orthodoxy, the same degree of breadth and variety that has characterized all other approaches and techniques to animation will characterize computer-generated imagery. In many senses, in the same way as the term "new media" now seems redundant, it is possible that "CGI" will also become part of an assumed lexicon of creative practice in animation.

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