017 > TRUE or FALSE
What's the first computer animated character animation?

017 > TRUE or FALSE

Over the last few months I’ve realised that researching the early days of CG isn’t easy.

A lot of the animation history on the web is USA influenced and doesn’t really document earlier stuff too well either. On top of that you have that problem with the internet: the one where if you say something enough times it becomes true.

In this blog post I’m going to try to debug something that’s been bugging me, which is the fact that there’s some incorrect facts floating around the ether about who created the first computer-animated character and when.

Also, just to say that I’m not on a rage-fuelled ‘vigilanimator’ mission here. I’m just calmly setting a few records straight. (Oh dear, now I sound like HAL).

Anyway moving on – I’m going to make a statement:

> Tony Pritchett created the first computer-animated character in the world.

> This is TRUE.

The Flexipede was created in 1967. I have many documents (correspondence, listings etc) showing that it was created over a 6 month period. The master negative (made from the cutting copy) is dated 18/12/’67.

Schrödinger’s Kitty – I would say this cat appears to be ‘alive’. It’s what us animators call, ‘character animation’. More about this later.

However, there’s a lot of content on the web stating that some pesky Russians got there first.

Apparently in 1968 a group of Soviet physicists and mathematicians lead by Nikolai Nikolaevich Konstantinov, created ‘Kitty’ using a BESM-4 computer. The Computer printed hundreds of frames on paper that were later filmed in sequence  – thus creating…

“…the first computer animation of a character, a walking cat.”

I’ve spoken to a few British people who were around at the time and don’t recall the film being mentioned until around 1971. The earliest mention of it that I can find is in a paper published in 1974 but I don’t speak Russian so I’m not the best equipped when it comes to researching early Russian cat cartoons.

Anyway, it was of course a GREAT ACHIEVEMENT whenever it was made.

Nb. Unlike with Flexipede, I reckon that FORTRAN wasn’t used and instead, most probably, a derivation or augmentation of ALGOL which allowed programming in languages with the larger the character sets seen in the Cryillic alphabet.

Was Hummingbird the first computer-animated character? According to some of the internet, yes.

In 1967 the brilliant Chuck Csuri together with programmer James P. Shaffer, created several animations, using Fortran in the Ohio State University’s IBM 360.

People name Sine Curve man as being the first, but the duo made other animations too – including arguably the most famous one, ‘Hummigbird’. Where as Sine Curve Man was output via pen plotter, Hummingbird was output onto a Calcomp 835 Microfilm recorder. Then there’s Hummingbird II, too.

TP loved the original ‘Hummingbird’ and created a piece of animation based on it– which I will tell you more about some day. There’s 16 and 35mm prints of it in the archive. It’s lovely. I watched the 16mm version with TP at No.W.Here lab a few years back, but recently got to watch the 35mm version at The University of East London, as they have a 35mm Steenbeck. Cor! Also just to say that I’m also a great admirer of Csuri ’s artwork and if you’ve never seen any I recommend taking a look.

‘Aerial’ by Tony Pritchett. More about this clip at a later date.

Anyway, back to Hummingbird, the digitised creature drawn with outstretched wings, was ‘cut up’ into lines. These lines were transformed by the program written in FORTRAN, but whereas TP used FORTRAN to create what us animators call ‘character animation’, Csuri used it to do a thing called ‘morphing’.

Csuri took a line and told the computer to transform that line’s x/y co-ordinates over time, whereas what TP did was say to the computer, okay – this frame you draw these co ordinates…the next frame these… and so on – and he did this in such a way as to create, ‘the illusion of life’.

Morphing is a technique in the character animators tool kit, but Csuri didn’t use it to create character animation. The bird does not appear sentient like Kitty and Flexipede do. That hummingbird is dead! It doesn’t even blink. “‘E’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!” It’s a manipulated still drawing, not a cartoon character. Does it care? Probably not. It’s in the MoMA.

Csuri never claimed to have created the first computer-animated character. He agrees that he created the words first morphing images – (although at the time, the term hadn’t been coined.)

And so it looks like Flexipede is still in the running as the world’s first computer animated character… But OH NO! Drat and double drat Muttley! Here comes Michael Noll with his Computer Ballet, made way back in 1965!!!

Computer Ballet (1965) by A. Michael Noll at Bell Labs. Nb. Both a 3D stereographic and a 2D version were created.

Noll used FORTRAN IV to program an IBM 360/65 (with 1MB of memory!) using the same technique as TP used to create Flexipede, whereby the film was output to a microfilm recorder. (SC4020 for Ballet. Benson Lehner for Flexipede).

In Noll’s film we see white lines on black – this is effectively a positive print – you see the white lines ‘drawn’ by the microfilm recorder. The Flexipede is a duplicate negative – so that’s why you see black lines in white.

Anyway, the point is, is that Noll did all this in 1965.

🙁

My initial statement, ‘Tony Pritchett created the first computer-animated character in the world’, is FALSE.

But hang on… Those dancers… I just don’t see them as appearing ‘alive’…

> I reckon that Noll’s Computer Ballet is motion graphics, not character animation

Anyway – does it really matter who got there first in the first place? All the films I’ve mentioned are amazing achievements!!!!!! And who am I to judge? Just some animator who’s learned how to press few Adobe software buttons.

BUT – because the last thing I want to do is write any ‘fake news’, so:

> As a character animator, I believe The Flexipede to be the first computer-animated character in the world.

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