First Digital 3D Rendered Film (from 1972) and My Visit to Pixar

This is really neat. It’s a very very early digital 3D rendered film (family lore is that it’s the first, ever). It looks old because it is. It was created in 1972 by Ed Catmull (the founder of Pixar) and Fred Parke with a little help from my dad. I also think that this is the only digital copy of it.

The best part of this film is not even the 3D rendering itself, but the outtakes and “making of” footage that has been interwoven throughout, including footage of a plaster replica of Ed’s hand onto which he is meticulously mapping the polygon vertices that make up the three dimensional model (around 1:30). That’s really remarkable. The math that we take for granted for rendering 3D was being invented, real time, to create this video. (Ed’s credited for having working out that math to handle things like texture mapping, 3D anti-aliasing and z-buffering.)

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. It was moving. The creative energy at Pixar might be unbeatable and getting a tour from the man who made it happen was an unforgettable experience.

I mention that because at one point during the conversation, someone brought up the hand video. I said that we had an 8mm reel marked “hand” in the family archives and that I could digitize it and share and Ed gave his blessing! So here it is. Even if it’s not the first digital 3D rendered movie (it may be), it’s definitely one of the oldest, the first you can attribute to the genealogy of Pixar and the oldest 3D graphics you’ll find on the internet. It’s nearly 40 years old!

Update (Sep. 6, 2011)

I’m mostly trying to stay out of the comments and let this incredibly interesting conversation about the film, the people that made it and the technology of that era unfold on its own. I wanted to draw some attention to a couple of things though: first, there are some must-read comments below from Fred Parke himself and from the families of some of the other great pioneering men of that era (like Dave Evans and Ivan Sutherland). Make sure to find and read those stories. There are also a number of really interesting details that have emerged, one of my favorite is that apparently the facial animation ” took ~2.5/minutes to render each B&W; frame… on hardware that was probably in the ballpark of $400,000 in 1972 dollars.” Amazing to consider how far we’ve come. Today we render 3D that is an order of magnitude more complex in realtime (upwards of 60 frames per second) on commodity hardware. It makes you excited about what the future must hold.

Second, I wanted to address the question of this video being a hoax. It isn’t. The comments below will clarify that, including detailed stories directly from those who were involved in the production of this and related films. You can also check out a portion of this film in a Pixar documentary here. I applaud some healthy skepticism on the internet, but this one is legit!


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