By Karen Moltenbrey
Computer-generated imagery showed signs of becoming a viable competitor on the small screen during the 1980s, although most of the innovation at the time was reserved for Olympic moments. Since then, digital imagery on television has evolved from simplistic still graphics to cartoon-like product pitchmen to realistic human models such as Eve Solal who mingle seamlessly with real actors. Through television, we've welcomed computer graphics technology into our homes by way of commercials, music videos, virtual sets, and more, as it becomes an increasingly powerful broadcast tool.
November 1982 Graphic design takes a new twist as artists experiment with three-dimensional logos such as this Olympic ski symbol. This new technique gives depth to otherwise simplistic images and text.
October 1983 Modeling and animation technology from the New York Institute of Technology's Computer Graphics Lab appears in commercial applications such as this LifeSaver spot, as a way of testing R&D in a real-world project.
July 1984 Various UK design firms and production companies form partnerships to explore the new roads offered by computer animation within the broadcast arena. Digital Pictures, formed in 1982, combines the talents of producer Pete Florence and graphic designer Steve Lowe, who use customized software to create this Michelin Man commercial image.
October 1984 Start-up Pacific Data Images (PDI) uses its in-house software to create animated computer-generated promotional spots for ABC's coverage of the 1984 Winter Olympics.
April 1985 Dick Shoup, known as the "father of paint systems" for his research at Xerox in the 1970s, founds the Aurora system, used to generate this news graphic. The system, which is intuitive for artists, supports real-time animation by assigning and cycling colors so the design appears to be moving.
July 1985 Robert Abel achieved two computer graphics "firsts" for a TV commercial by creating a character, Sexy Robot, that looked as though it were made from reflective metal and by animating it with natural, human-like motion.
February 1987 European computer graphics vendors break free of the US-dominated market with software such as Espace from Thomson Digital Image, which was used to generate this image of a virtual Olympic torch bearer. Espace is touted as the first all-European-created 3D animation software.
November 1988 Digital tools light up NBC Sports' coverage of the Summer Olympic games with this 10-second promotional spot created by ReZ.n8 Productions using a Prime PXCL 5500 workstation, Wavefront design software, and proprietary programs such as ReZ.n8's Dv8 sculpting package.
July 1989 French studios show that creating computer-generated cartoon characters can be an art form. While most artists used 2D tools to achieve their results, Fantome illustrated the power of 3D with this New Year's announcement for a TV station. The innovative animation received the Pixel-INA d'Imagina prize.
January 1990 3D imagery moves into weather forecasting with software such as WSI's Cloudscape, used to produce realistic 3D cloud images to enhance weather maps.
March 1990 The efficiency of 2D systems still offers an advantage over the powerful new 3D programs. For this Bank Atlantic ad, which required a quick turnaround, Time Arts' Lumena 2D system was the product of choice.
July 1991 Rocker Todd Rundgren, known in computer graphics circles for taking his musical talents to the digital realm, creates the video "Change Myself" almost entirely on his own, using NewTek's newly released Video Toaster on a Commodore Amiga 2500 PC.
January 1992 PDI takes the tiger by the tail to show the importance of morphing as a film and broadcast production tool. For this Exxon commercial, the studio transforms a moving car into a running tiger.
July 1992 Computer animation lends a psychedelic air to the Grateful Dead's latest music video, as the band's logo transforms into a spaceship. The video contains three and a half minutes of CG created with software from Xaos.
November 1993 Moxy, the result of a collaboration between Colossal Pictures and the Cartoon Network, is television's first full-body 3D cartoon character to be animated in real time.
September 1994 Animators at PDI mapped data from Ascension's Flock of Birds magnetic motion capture system onto a Viewpoint skeleton model for "The Late Lenny Chat."
April 1997 Digital characters appear more frequently on television after artists find that it's often easier to animate 3D models by applying motion-capture data than by keyframing them. One of the more compelling examples of this trend is employed for a Nike commercial, in which a realistic virtual Andre Agassi shows that he's got the right moves with some help from Digital Domain and The House of Moves.
April 1998 As computing power becomes affordable for television budgets, 3D characters step out from their novelty acts and into the spotlight with their own shows. No place is this new concept embraced more than in children's television, where most of the groundbreaking work occurs in programs such as ReBoot from Mainframe Entertainment.
June 1998 Digital imagery takes center stage as designers begin creating virtual sets, 3D environments rendered in real time into which live actors filmed in front of a blue screen are composited. The virtual backdrops become popular as news sets and game show sets, such as for VH-1's My Generation.
November 1998 Children's television, where animation is fully accepted, becomes a test bed for digital techniques. To create The Disney Channel's Rolie Polie Olie, animators at Nelvana and Sparx use a variety of off-the-shelf and customized software to bring to life all the show's 3D objects, which interact with the main characters.
April 1999 With the onslaught of sophisticated CG tools, digital effects in innovative commercials begin to rival those in film. Using a volumetric lighting tool originated for a movie, along with depth-of-field filming, Blue Sky create a photorealistic ladybug for a Nature's Resource commercial.
August 1999 Sesame Street's "Elmo's World" segment mixes real-time animation and puppeteering. The physical elements and models are swapped seamlessly during a live shoot using DreamTeam's Typhoon real-time animation software.
December 1999 Broadcast and gaming become linked when PDI creates commercials to announce Sega's Dreamcast. Using Maya, PowerAnimator, and Softimage, the artists generate a virtual environment into which they import 3D characters from Sega games to star in the spot.
April 2000 Music videos become the proving grounds for studios looking to adopt radical, new digital techniques but unwilling to risk testing them in a feature film or commercial setting. Here, mannequins modeled in Side Effects' Houdini star in a video for the Yazoo song "Only You."
February 2001 This quirky character is created with Houdini by Realise Studio for a series of bank commercials. Because the model is the sole object on the screen, it has to express a wide range of emotions through facial movement.
July 2000 ILM Commercial Productions incorporates techniques used for the film The Lost World: Jurassic Park to create a digital basketball-playing raptor as it takes on a real Raptor, the NBA's Vince Carter.
April 2001 Tony the Tiger received a modern, updated look after undergoing a 3D makeover by Smoke & Mirrors. Since then, Tony has appeared in a series of television commercials in which some portions of his body, such as the back of his head, are shown for the first time since his origination decades ago.
April 2001 Realistic digital human characters such as Attitude Studio's Eve Solal project a unique stage presence as they star in various television series, commercials, and films.