I mentioned this on my Facebook and Google+ pages, but thought I’d highlight it here, because I think it’s an interesting question. I’ve done some research on the history of computer graphics in the past (and some on my blog here), and what I’d always read was the first use of computer graphics in a movie was in 1976’s Futureworld.
As I read in this Wikipedia page, it was not the first use of CGI in film. Instead, it was the first use of 3D graphics in a feature film. The computer graphics are displayed on a monitor, showing a rotating hand, and a human face. The sequence was originally created by Ed Catmull (someone I’ve talked about before) in 1972, for a short film called, obviously enough, A Computer Animated Hand. There are earlier examples of computer animation in short films going back to the 1960s on the Wikipedia page.
However, what if CGI in films went back even further, to
1957 1958? I heard about this possibility through a video presented by John Hess on some film special effects history. He mentioned that a computer was used in creating the opening sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo. I watched it, and was amazed! Yes! These look like computer graphics!
An article in Rhizome describes it, saying that John Whitney programmed these graphics using a computer that was originally designed to aim artillery during WW II. A pendulum (which contained pressurized paint) was placed above a drawing surface that was attached to a platform. The platform was moved by the computer according to mathematical equations as the pendulum swung back and forth across it. This created precise spiral designs. There’s a part of the opening sequence where you can see these spiral designs change shape. These changes were created by altering the formulas for each frame that was drawn by the computer/pendulum combination. In my mind, this is similar to how computers interacted with oscilloscopes in the earliest visual computer displays, though it sounds like the computer could not turn the paint on and off.
Considering this, I’m wondering why this isn’t considered by historians as the first use of computer graphics in a feature film.