Computer Animation


Digital Media; Graphic Design


Computer animation is the creation of animated projects for film, television, or other media using specialized computer programs. As animation projects may range from short, simple clips to detailed and vibrant feature-length films, a wide variety of animation software is available, each addressing the needs of animators. The computer animation process includes several key steps, including modeling, keyframing, and rendering. These stages are typically carried out by a team of animators.



Since the early twentieth century, the field of animation has been marked by frequent, rapid change. Innovation in the field has been far reaching, filtering into film, television, advertising, video games, and other media. It was initially an experimental method and took decades to develop. Computer animation revitalized the film and television industries during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in many ways echoing the cultural influence that animation had decades before.

Prior to the advent of computer animation, most animated projects were created using a process that later became known as “traditional,” or “cel,” animation. In cel animation, the movement of characters, objects, and backgrounds was created frame by frame. Each frame was drawn by hand. This time-consuming and difficult process necessitated the creation of dozens of individual frames for each second of film.

As computer technology developed, computer researchers and animators began to experiment with creating short animations using computers. Throughout the 1960s, computers were used to create 2D images. Ed Catmull, who later founded the studio Pixar in 1986, created a 3D animation of his hand using a computer in 1972. This was the first 3D computer graphic to be used in a feature film when it appeared in Futureworld (1976). Early attempts at computer animation were found in live-action films. The 1986 film Labyrinth, for instance, notably features a computer-animated owl flying through its opening credits. As technology improved, computer animation became a major component of special effects in live-action media. While cel animation continued to be used in animated feature films, filmmakers began to include some computer-generated elements in such works. The 1991 Walt Disney Studios film Beauty and the Beast, for instance, featured a ballroom in one scene that was largely created using a computer.

In 1995, the release of the first feature-length computer-animated film marked a turning point in the field of animation. That film, Toy Story, was created by Pixar, a pioneer in computer animation. Over the following decades, Pixar and other studios, including Disney (which acquired Pixar in 2006) and DreamWorks, produced numerous computer-animated films. Computer animation became a common process for creating animated television shows as well as video games, advertisements, music videos, and other media.

In the early twenty-first century, computer animation also began to be used to create simulated environments accessed through virtual reality equipment such as the head-mounted display Oculus Rift. Much of the computer-animated content created during this time featured characters and surroundings that appeared 3D. However, some animators opted to create 2D animations that more closely resemble traditionally animated works in style.

From designing the original animation model to creating algorithms that control the movement of fluids, hair, and other complex systems, computer software has drastically

From designing the original animation model to creating algorithms that control the movement of fluids, hair, and other complex systems, computer software has drastically changed the art of animation. Through software that can manipulate polygons, a face can be rendered and further manipulated to create a number of images much more efficiently than with hand-drawn illustrations. Thus, the detail of the imaging is increased, while the time needed to develop a full animation is reduced.

Creating a feature-length computer-animated production is a complex and time-intensive process that is carried out by a large team of animators, working with other film-industry professionals. When creating a 3D computer-animated project, the animation team typically begins by drawing storyboards. Storyboards are small sketches that serve as a rough draft of the proposed scenes.

Next, animators transform 2D character designs into 3D models using animation software. They use animation variables (avars) to control the ways in which the 3D characters move, assigning possible directions of movement to various points on the characters’ bodies. The number of avars used and the areas they control can vary widely. The 2006 Pixar film Cars reportedly used several hundred avars to control the characters’ mouths alone. Using such variables gives animated characters a greater range of motion and often more realistic expressions and gestures. After the characters and objects are modeled and animated, they are combined with backgrounds as well as lighting and special effects. All of the elements are then combined to transform the 3D models into a 2D image or film. This process is known as 3D rendering.


Various animation programs are available to animators, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some animation software, such as Maya and Cinema 4D, are geared toward 3D animation. Others, such as Adobe Flash, are better suited to 2D animation. Adobe Flash has commonly been used to produce 2D cartoons for television, as it is considered a quick and low-cost means of creating such content. Animation studios such as Pixar typically use proprietary animation software, thus ensuring that their specific needs are met.

In addition to animation software, the process of computer animation relies heavily on hardware, as many steps in the process can be taxing for the systems in use. Rendering, for example, often demands a sizable amount of processing power. As such, many studios make use of render farms, large, powerful computer systems devoted to that task.

—Joy Crelin

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