From personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa to immersive virtual reality glasses like Oculus Rift, technology has advanced incredibly. But, it has integrated so seamlessly into our daily lives that we sometimes forget how far it has come and the people that pushed it forward.

Today’s film and video game computer animations may seem effortless on screen, but it didn’t start out that way. We owe it to innovators, forward-thinkers that saw an opportunity to do something better and had the skills to create it. Here are three computer animations that were ahead of their time and laid the groundwork for the 3D animation we see today.

1. Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke's hand: 1972


In 1972, two students at the University of Utah introduced one of the first examples of computer animation. Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke produced a film called A Computer Animated Hand, which used Catmull’s left hand as a model. They used a plaster model of Catmull’s hand and rendered it with a coordinate measuring machine. The film demonstrated a human-like hand that could open and close, twist and point. It may seem like a basic animation today, but at the time, it was groundbreaking. Very few people even had access or knew how to use technology in this way. But, the techniques Catmull and Parke used laid the foundation for future animation.

Their 3D animation was also the first to be used in a feature film. A Hollywood producer used a clip of A Computer Animated Hand in Richard Heffron’s popular 1976 movie, Futureworld, which is the basis of HBO’s Westworld. Catmull went on to found Pixar, while Parke created other groundbreaking computer animations.

2. Fred Parke’s facial animations: 1974


Parke is known for his extensive research in the animation field. After his work with Catmull on the hand, Parke presented one of the first lifelike renderings of a face as his thesis at the University of Utah in 1974. Animating the face is one of the most challenging animations. Today, we have technology like NaturalFront that allows designers to model a 3D face in a minute. One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the uncanny valley, which happens when animated faces look creepy or have zombie-like expressions.

Parke made his animation of the face through linear interpolation. Parke would draw half of a face and divide it into sections that used polygonal shapes. He would then mirror the face so it made a full, symmetrical face. Today, linear interpolation isn’t used often because animations appear jerky. Over the years, more sophisticated techniques have been developed for smooth and natural movement. But, again, it was an incredibly innovative technique for the time. 

Parke’s facial animation is still considered one of the best in the industry and better quality than films that came 30 years after. Take The Polar Express from 2004 as an example. All of the characters looked unsettling due to the uncanny valley. Hulk from 2003 with Eric Bana ended up looking like a face made out of silly putty.

3. Toy Story: 1995

didn’t Pixar’s Toy Story just make its way into a generation’s heart, but it set records in the film industry. Toy Story was the first 3D animated feature film and topped the box office for three weeks in a row. It also won a Special Achievement Academy Award and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Toy Story’s success hinged on software that Catmull helped develop. The geometric shapes of many toys─like blocks and bouncy balls─lent themselves easily to this style of animation. Human characters like Andy were much more difficult to render, but did make their way into the film.

These incredible animations were created when home computers and 3D technology seemed like a fantasy.  Only a few select people even had access to these tools. Now, anyone can animate high-quality animations in seconds with software like NaturalFront.