3-D Animation: History & Definition

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
Three-dimensional/3-D animation has evolved from 'Gumby' (1956) to 'Grand Theft Auto'. Read about what 3-D animation is and the history of 3-D animation that has brought us some of the world's most beloved characters and stories.

Definition of 3-D Versus 2-D Animation

A Flipbook with 2-D animation.

Many of us may have drawn animated figures when we were younger when we created flip-books. Flip-books are those little scenes drawn on each page of a notebook that, when flipped through, give the illusion of movement. These flip-books are a basic form of two-dimensional (2-D) animation. 2-D animation is achieved when a flat object that has height and width appears to move either left or right or up and down. There is no depth to the object with 2D animation. When an artist creates 2-D animation by hand, he or she creates a drawing followed by another drawing with a slightly different pose. The artist keeps going until he or she has created 24 drawing or frames. All of that work equals one second of animation! That is a LOT of drawing!

An example of 3-D animation: After animators attach sensors to a human, computers can identify movement points. Animators add detail, using computers to move the sensor points, and CGI is born.

With computer technology, humans can generate and put together many more images in the same second, giving objects three-dimensions (3-D), not just two. 3-D animation creates objects with height, width, and depth. 3-D animation is the process of taking real 3-D objects and shaping them into moveable, animated objects. The complicated process involves recording each movement so that, when the individual images are played back together, they create animation. This can be done using sculptural materials like clay, but today's 3-D animation usually involves humans using computers. In fact, the term 3-D animation is now often used interchangeably with the term Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), which is 3-D animation created with the use of computers.

History of 3-D Animation

Before computers, early 3-D animation involved materials like clay being formed into shapes. The shapes were moved a little bit for every shot. Piecing all of the hundreds or thousands of shots together created the animation. This is called stop-motion, or claymation. Claymation is very time-consuming, but can be wonderful to watch. Favorite characters and shows like Gumby (which first aired in 1956), Wallace and Gromit (1990), Shawn the Sheep (1995) and Robot Chicken (2005) were all created this way.

While 2-D animation has been around since the 1800's, it was not until the 1960s that an employee at Boeing, (an airplane manufacturing company) started to experiment on the computer with early forms of 3-D imagery of airline pilots. Usually, this is attributed to William Fetter, a graphic designer and artist, who created the first real 3-D image of the human form to be used in short films for Boeing. Most people credit him with creating the term computer graphics.

3-D ant.

By the early 1970s, 3-D animation capabilities had evolved to include realistic human faces and hands created by the designers Frederic Parke and Edwin Catmull. They used both faces and hands in the first film to use CGI technology, Futureworld, in 1976. Edwin Catmull went on to be one of the founders of Pixar, along with George Lucas of Star Wars fame. In 1977, a small scene in George Lucas' Star Wars IV: A New Hope showed the android C-P3O fighting it out with Chewbacca in what looked liked a 3-D version of chess. This ignited the imagination of many people about 3-D animation and what it could do. Even though 3-D animation was used throughout the film, it was this little scene in the movie that fueled public interest in the great possibilities of 3-D animation.

In 1986, George Lucas of Lucasfilm sold its computer graphics division to Steve Jobs. Jobs renamed this division 'Pixar Animation Studios.' This independent studio went through a remarkable transformation, creating now-famous 3-D short films like Luxo Jr. (1986), Tin Toy (1988), and Knick Knack (1989), and becoming a leader in 3-D animation.

Even more 3-D animation came in the early 1990s. Terminator 2 in 1991 was followed by Jurassic Park in 1993; while not amazing by 3-D standards today, the public went crazy to see those realistic dinosaurs. 3-D animation was now firmly established.

3-D cat.

In 1995, Pixar Studios (later bought by Disney in 2006) revolutionized 3-D with the release of Toy Story, the first full-length 3-D animated film. The breath-taking, human-like quality of a group of toys fighting for survival is the hallmark of Pixar animation: a good story with cutting-edge 3-D animation. Toy Story was followed by the much-loved 3-D megahits like A Bug's Life (1998), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Wall E (2008) and Up (2009). Where would we be without Woody, Buzz, Dory, Sully and Mike?

By 1999, George Lucas used 3-D animation in nearly every scene in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, including creating the well-done, but not very popular, Jar Jar Binks. This work led to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), which was the first real attempt at photo-quality, computer-generated humans. Then the ultimate CGI-generated character, Gollum, was created in The Hobbit series of movies.

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