What was the first released film to use CGI? That was a question I asked a while back and got some ‘interesting’ answers. 1993’s Jurassic Park was one of the answers. A good call as it did feature some early CGI work, but not the first. Someone mentioned the owl in the intro to Labyrinth from 1986 too. Yup, that was CGI, not the first though. The stained glass window scene in Young Sherlock Holmes from 1985 is another one often mentioned, and still not the first.
So then, what was the first released film to use CGI? Well, before I get to that (and other notable flicks), I just want to get my feelings on CGI down. Today, people seem to be quick to dismiss CGI work as being ‘easy’ or ‘lazy’ when compared to practical effects. ‘It looks fake’ is one comment I see popping up a lot in regards to CGI. Well yeah, it does look fake… because it’s fake. Practical effects are fake too, that is why they are called effects. CGI is far from easy or lazy and, more often than not, actually takes up a great many more man hours to produce than practical effects work.
Yes, some CGI can look pretty poor. Some practical effects can look dire too. That is because it is not the medium of the effects being used that is the issue. It is the time, money and talent that work on it. You can have really great CGI work, just as you can have really great practical effects. You can also have some truly awful CGI and practical effects work. It all depends on what went on behind the scenes. Some of my favourite effects work is practical. The werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London is one example, there’s a reason Rick Baker won an Oscar for it. Just as CGI work is also some of my favourites. I still think the T-1000 effects from Terminator 2: Judgment Day is impressive now.
In short, I’m not one of those ‘CGI sucks’ people. I don’t think that one is ‘better’ than the other and it all depends on what the effects are being used for. I don’t think there is such a thing as an overuse of CGI in a film, depending on what the film is, CGI is often the only viable option. Just going back to Jurassic Park for a second. I don’t expect the film-makers to invent time travel and go back to when dinosaurs ruled the Earth to capture real footage. So, in cases like that, CGI is a must. Yes, they use practical effects too and there had been examples of such effects in previous films with dinosaurs. Still, as much as I adore and respect Ray Harryhausen, growing up watching his work. Jurassic Park’s CGI looked better than anything he ever did on a practical level.
Anyway, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent now. I’m here to look at the history of CGI in films. So then, where did it all start and what was the first film to use CGI? We know it wasn’t the 90s, many people think the first film to use CGI came from the 80s. Possible, there were some great examples of CGI in 80s flicks. Tron, Flight of the Navigator? How about the 70s? Sounds a bit far-fetched to younger readers who didn’t even know that computers existed in the 70s. But yeah, there was CGI in films in the 70s. The awesome and classic Westworld from 1973 used CGI. For those not in the know or have only seen the recent TV show. Westworld was a film about a futuristic theme park going wrong when the attractions kill the visitors. Think Jurassic Park but with androids. Well, they were both written by Michael Crichton.
So yeah, CGI existed in the 70s. Westworld used computers to depict the vision of Yul Brynner’s gunslinging android. If you do a Google search for ‘first CGI in film’, then Westworld is the answer you will get. Many places have written articles similar to this one and credit Westworld as being the first too. Here’s one from Empire, one from Insider and YouTube is full of people making videos stating that 1973’s Westworld was the first film to use CGI. So, there you go, CGI in film dates back to the early 70s, many sites and even Google are happy to tell you that too. Except for one tiny problem, they’re all wrong. CGI in film dates back before 1973 and before Westworld was released. I’m not talking about a few days or weeks before Westworld either.
What if I told you that the first film to use CGI was pre-70s? What if I told you it was pre-60s? Yup, you’ll have to go back to the 1950s to find the first film that used CGI. 1958, in fact. The Alfred Hitchcock directed Vertigo used CGI first. John Whitney was the man who came up with the effect too. He used a World War II targeting computer (yes younger readers, computers existed back then) to create the film’s opening titles. Working with Saul Bass, the opening featured various spirals and they were all created using that WW II targeting computer.
There you go folks, the first use of CGI in a film. One could get pedantic and say that the CGI is not ‘in’ the film but just used for the title sequence. Still, the first film to use CGI was 1958’s Vertigo. Kind-of-CGI dates back even further though. There were few proto-computer animated short films that used oscilloscopes to create visuals. Titles like Around is Around (1951) Eneri (1953) and Abstronic (1954, which I couldn’t find a good video for) all used an oscilloscope. I think these three earlier examples really boil down to if one thinks that a short animation is a ‘film’ or even if an oscilloscope is a computer. Those last three may be debatable but one can not deny that Vertigo was the first to use CGI in a feature film.
What was the first fully CGI animated film? Pixar’s Toy Story, right? Again, debatable. If we were to say the first fully CGI animated ‘feature’ film, then Toy Story seems to be the rightful claimant. However, there were animated CGI short films way before Pixar even got into the game. As far as I can tell, Catalog (1961) seems to be the first fully CGI animated (short) film. It looks more like a basic screensaver by today’s standards but back in 1961, this was groundbreaking and made of very early and simple computers.
I don’t know if this counts but also from 1961 was Rendering of a Planned Highway. Again, not a feature film. This was actually a computer generated animation to show what a proposed new highway in Sweden would look like and was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. It was the world’s first fully digitally created ‘real’ environment. So impressive was it, at the time, that it was even broadcast on Swedish national TV on the 9th of November 1961. So ‘technically’ it was publicly released.
There’s actually a slew of released CGI created short films in the 60s. I’m not going to name them all here, but here are a few. Hypercube (1965) was the first stereoscopic 3D computer animation. Computer Ballet (1965) had the first ever CGI human animation. Mr. Computer Image (1968) had the first voiced CGI character. Even the 70s, before Westworld, had some impressive CGI shorts. Computer Animated Hand (1972) was the first film to feature polygonal 3D animation and shading. As a side note, the creator of this animation, Edwin Catmull, went on to co-found Pixar. So technically, this was the first ever Pixar film. Then we get into 1973 and Westworld.
Of course, those examples were all short films. Still, my initial question was: What was the first released film to use CGI? I never said feature film. In terms of CGI in released films, there were a lot before Westworld was released through the 60s and 70s. Around 25 or so short animated CGI films before Westworld reached the cinemas, in fact. In terms of feature films, then Hitchcock’s Vertigo definitely predates Westworld though and Google need correcting.