I know Willow used digital effects to handle the "Morph" scenes when the characters transform. That's the first definite "CGI" example I can think of though, as opposed to other special effects methods that did not involve digital processing of the image.

I'm not talking about images appearing on monitors inside a program. I mean actual digital manipulation of the image being shown. Modification of the final frame by a computer algorithm rather than by a human with a paintbrush or all the other pre-computer technologies.

So what was the first use of digital "CGI" in film?

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    I think there is still confusion about what you're asking, Tim. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're essentially asking about computer-graphics being used to mimic reality "seamlessly" in film, not computer graphics that are seen as computer graphics. Right?
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:54
  • In other words, like the morphing in Willow, which was an early CG effect incorporated "seamlessly" as part of the scenery and characters.
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:00
  • @CRGreen Yes, that's right.
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 10:15
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    I'm still confused about what the question is. The explanation talks about digital manipulation, which the Westworld answer nails, but CGI is literally "computer generated imagery," which seems fundamentally different than digital manipulation of a live-action shot. Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 17:20
  • Do the light sabers in Star Wars (1977} count?
    – iMerchant
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 5:15

6 Answers 6


The question leaves a lot of room for interpretation:

  1. First digitally made image for a screen (tv or cinema) vs first ever digitally created image that was not publicly broadcast?
  2. Or - first photorealistic CG for screen (which means you cannot tell it is not real)?
  3. First moving image? Or still image?
  4. First in commercial production (e.g. Hollywood film)? Or any type of animation or effect, regardless of the market and final destination?
  5. 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional? (or 2d or 3d?)
  6. And finally: hardly ANY image ever is created by "computer algorithm". Human hand has quite an input, unless we are talking random number generators which influence some fractals and particles perhaps... So, all of these were created by actual programmers and artists, and algorithms were mere help in the process, usually for rendering. Models, animations, textures, and so on are all done by hand, albeit, on the computer. Even things such as motion capture (or performance capture) have heavy input from an animator.

The first character animation that was ever made on a computer was actually done in Russia as an analysis of cat walk cycle around 1968. It was done on a computer, then output on hundreds of sheets of paper and shot on film. This was not photo-realistic, but motion was excellent.

The first animation done on a computer, that was not character was done in Sweden, and broadcast on TV in 1961. I believe it was black and white, lines (vector graphics), simulation of a highway.

The first use of 3D was in Futureworld, but it was created earlier at University of Utah. Soon after we saw the death star animation in Star Wars (a year later).

Westworld had the first 2D effect, raster graphics, a few years earlier 1974 I think. Not nearly as complex to do as 3D and it was computer processed (not entirely computer generated as it used filmed footage as a starting point).

The first use of photorealistic effects created on a computer, depending on how we define "photo-real" was probably original TRON (1984). Most of the effects work was actually in-camera work (with UV lights and such), but those light-bikes were CG entirely.

First ever fully animated photo-real 3D character on TV screen was Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985. Soon followed by series of excellent TV commercials done by the same studio (Robert Abel and Associates) for Benson & Hedges.

The first use of 2D photo-realistic effect was in Willow (1988). That was also the first use of morphing effect.

The first use of fully photo-realistic 3D effect which included the hardest thing to do - humans faces blended with bodies and environment - was "Death Becomes Her". This was the true revolution in Computer Graphics and VFX.

And then there are more firsts that come to mind:

  • The first fully animated 3D short in full color, using squash and stretch, motion blur, plenty of procedural models and all other things that make it truly entertaining was probably "Andre and Wally B" by ILM/Pixar.

  • The first fully animated 3D short with all the great qualities of good animation that also won an Oscar was Tin Toy by Pixar (1988). This short inspired the film Toy Story which came out much later (illustrating well how long it can take to take an idea from script to screen when you are creating everything using computers).

  • The first music video using 3D animation was "Hard Woman " by Mick Jagger

  • The first fully 3D animated music video was "Money For Nothing" by Dire Straights (also the first production that I know of that had to be done twice as all their data was lost toward the end of the production).

  • The first TV commercial that was fully 3D was "sexy robot" inspired by Hajime Sorayama, for canned foods (available on youtube). You can also see the making of there.

  • The first fully animated 3D CG feature length film was "Toy Story" - 1996.

  • The first 3D morph that still looks stunning was "Black or White" music video by Michael Jackson, effect created by PDI (today known as Dreamworks, unfortunately, N. Cal office which was PDI was closed recently)

  • The first use of CG water and liquid effects was Terminator 2 done by ILM.

  • The first use of photo-realistic, fully integrated 3D CG characters with live plate was probably Jurassic Park, courtesy of the same person who did T-2 - Spaz Williams.

There are other firsts, like the work that was not as well known but certainly important for this industry, like the work of Evans and Sutherland who pioneered interactive 3D CG, and all the good stuff that was going on at NYIT and University of Utah.

  • Great answer. I was at ILM and worked on T2 in the art dept., and, interestingly, Abyss was being worked on concurrently - and it had some serious water simulation as well. Perhaps T2 beat out the Abyss release date. They really were done at the same time, though.
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 2:55
  • You could argue that the Young Sherlock Holmes scene could be described the way you describe Jurassic Park - "fully integrated 3D CG character with live action plate" (the stained glass knight was the character, arguably). But nothing compares to the quality of Spaz' work. The guy is amazing.
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 2:59
  • Oh, and "Willow" was first to use morph effects before "Black or White" by a few years. (of course in the music video the effect was extensive and thoroughly refined. Morphing was truly the "flavor of the month" -- for about 4 years).
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 3:14
  • Your description of the Death Becomes Her effect is a little misleading. It was essentially a patch of realistic CG skin that bridged other elements (live-action and prosthetics). It was cool, though.
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 3:25
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    Do you have sources for any of these, especially the early ones like "done in Sweden, and broadcast on TV in 1961", which sounds pretty vague. Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 17:39

From Wikipedia:

First digital animation in a feature film

The first feature film to use digital image processing was the 1973 movie Westworld, a science-fiction film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton, in which humanoid robots live amongst the humans. John Whitney, Jr, and Gary Demos at Information International, Inc. digitally processed motion picture photography to appear pixelized in order to portray the Gunslinger android's point of view. The cinegraphic block portraiture was accomplished using the Technicolor Three-strip Process to color-separate each frame of the source images, then scanning them to convert into rectangular blocks according to its tone values, and finally outputting the result back to film. The process was covered in the American Cinematographer article "Behind the scenes of Westworld".

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    Wow, that's way earlier than I was expecting!
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:14
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    And topical, too, with the remake fresh in our brains! Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 12:06
  • Yeah, but I don't think this answer fits the question as I understand (or misunderstand) it.
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 3:28
  • "I mean actual digital manipulation of the image being shown" - so they scanned the film and digitally manipulated it into a pixellated version to simulate the robot vision. I think it's what was asked. Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 4:07

In Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), digital effects were used to animate the stained glass hallucination scene. In "Howard the Duck" (1986), the first digital "wire-removal" was used.

[edit:] I'd like to add that "film-out" technology (now an anachronism) was important, and I think essential for the criteria of this question. A digitally animated sequence had to be recorded onto film in those days. You had to scan film images into a computer (if necessary - and this was necessary for the examples above), then animate and composite and "film out".

  • Where I used to work, we used (and they still use) the term "CG" (for "computer generated"), not "CGI", so that always sounds awkward to my ear. But it is way more popular to say "CGI". To make it a little weirder, "CGI" is also a ubiquitous internet scripting technique (common gateway interface, I think).
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 18:14
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    Even though it looks like the answer was removed, it mentioned "Tron", and even though the movie and the effects were a weird hybrid, it qualifies as an answer. See cgw.com/Press-Center/Web-Exclusives/2011/Original-TRON.aspx
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 18:50

Some sources say the demo of Genesis transforming a lifeless planet in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was the first computer generated images in film.

Other sources say the computer graphics animation in the briefing scene before the battle of Yavin in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977) is the first. It depicts a proton torpedo entering the ventilation shaft and exploding the power core of the Death Star.

Both scenes are not realistic special effects of events. One is a demo showing how the Genesis effect would transform a lifeless planet and one is a computer animation showing how the Death Star could be destroyed by a proton torpedo in the exhaust port. But both are computer generated animated images seen in commercial motion pictures.

An early example of computer generated realistic special effects scenes in a movie is The Last Starfighter (1984) where the space battle scenes were computer generated images.

  • Remind me, was the genesis device video shown as a thing happening, or was it a simulation displayed on a viewscreen to the people watching in the film?
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 16:37
  • It was a simulation shown to/seen by the characters on a computer screen. So even though it is an early success in computer-generated imagery, it really isn't an example of scene or character generation used in film (and it has to be on film, ultimately, because of the era in which these things were done).
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 2:51
  • What evidence do you have that the torpedo entering the shaft from 1976/77 is a digital effect??
    – CRGreen
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 3:05
  • CRGreen - it is during the briefing scene before the actual battle. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 4:43

2010: The year we make contact from 1984 utilized some serious Cray supercomputer horsepower to animate and create the effects of what happened to Jupiter.

There's a very nice article on it here: http://2010odysseyarchive.blogspot.com/2014/12/creating-giant.html

I could swear there used to be an entry in IMDB trivia on it, but I couldn't find it.

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    "In order to get convincing footage for one of the most majestic vistas in the Solar System - the gas giant Jupiter - the production team quickly realized it would not really be feasible to shoot on location." -.- Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 12:07
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    1984 also saw Tron and The Last Starfigher. Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 17:16

Although I cannot find my source now, I read somewhere that Xanadu (1980) was the first movie in which computer generated pictures were used in scenes in which actors also appeared. It was said that doing so was a great challenge at the time. In fact, although there are not many digital special effects, they look better than the ones in Tron (1982).

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