Ten years ago, video games like Portal, BioShock, and Gears of War were stunning players with their animated graphics. Nearly twenty years ago, animated films like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., and Shrek were considered groundbreaking. Now, if you take a look back at computer animated games and films from one or two years ago, there is still an incredible improvement in quality.

Innovative technology and imaginative animators, artists and creators are responsible for the evolving animation industry. Yet, many still overlook the leaps and bounds that animation has gone through over the years.

Sometimes, it helps to take a look back and appreciate how far technology and animation have come. It can also give us insight into where animation is headed in the next decade. Here are some of the top ways that computer animation has evolved in the last 20 years and some key highlights that have shaped animation today:

The First Computer Animated Full-Feature - 1995

Toy Story was released in 1995, more than 20 years ago. However, it has since influenced thousands of other creators. It also took years for the technology to be developed and put into use. Because it was so novel and primitive in comparison to technology available today, it took an incredibly long time not just to create and animate but also to render.

This is crucial, because it led to an increased interest in how technology and coding can be used to make the animation and production process more efficient.

SGI Releases Maya - 1998

When SGI released Maya, now Autodesk Maya, it was quickly adopted by video game and film animation professionals. In 2000, Disney used it in the production of Dinosaur. Even though 3D animation software for home computers had been available in the 80s, the number of people that had access to both software and hardware were limited. Advances in 3D animation software and computing helped change that.

Maya became and is still one of the primary 3D software used in animation training and education programs. Industry-level tools like NaturalFront, Maya, 3ds Max and Unity are readily available to anyone with a computer, Internet connection and the will to learn how to use them.

Striving for More Realistic Animations - 2000s and Beyond

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001 was one of the first feature length films to really push towards photorealistic animation. Other films like 2004’s Polar Express and 2007’s Beowulf and video games like Call of Duty followed. New animation tools focused on improving facial, cloth and body design details to be more life-like. This put issues with the uncanny valley and facial animation front and center.

The Big Budget Animated Films

CGI and computer animated box office successes and a growing interest in pushing animation technology even further created an era of big budget films. Star Wars played a large role in creating this focus on visual effects and CGI. Since then, the interest has grown, along with the F/X and animation budgets. From 1995 to 2005, the budget for a feature film grew from an average of $5 million to $40 million. Today it can be five times that amount. For instance, Monsters University (2013) had a budget of around $200 million.

Today, many studios and developers are focusing on issues that have long plagued animators. For instance, facial animation has been one of the hardest and most painstaking elements of an animator’s job. Even the most highly sophisticated technologies and talented animators struggle with creating realistic facial expressions without crossing over into the realm of the uncanny valley. This is why NaturalFront’s software focuses on simplifying and accelerating the process to create professional facial animations within a few minutes.

There have been many breakthroughs in computer animation, but there is still room for progress and innovation and the need for talented animators that can weave technology, art and powerful storytelling together.