3D Artist

The Evolution of CG Software

News & Features
Larissa Mori

From wireframes to Avatar, the pioneering founders of the most prominent CG software reveal where the tools came from, and how they got to where they are today

The Evolution of CG Software

We may not think about it often, but it’s difficult to go even one waking day without some form of CG somehow making its way past your eyes. Whether it’s adverts, music videos, YouTube streams, screensavers or any other number of computer generated imagery, the art form has fully entrenched itself in our day-to-day lives. Strange then, to think that just 50 years ago there was effectively no such thing.

By the late 1960s, the few computers in the world capable of producing any form of line drawn animation costed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even computer science itself was still so unheard of that when computer graphics pioneer and inventor of bump mapping Jim Blinn attended the University of Michigan in 1967, it wasn’t offered as a subject.

During the early 70s hubs such as the University of Utah began to showcase such imagery as the first examples of shaded 3D CGI, produced with early frame buffers for display on TV monitors by pioneers such as Blinn, as well as 3D computer animated graduate shorts like A Computer Animated Hand by future founder of Pixar Ed Catmull and Fred Parke. However, CG remained something only a programmer could realistically develop, and would need to be implemented from scratch.

Also bizarre by today’s standards was the fact that special effects in the movie industry were by no means prevalent. In fact, when George Lucas began to produce Star Wars in 1973, he quickly discovered that the Special Effects Department at 20th Century Fox was actually no longer operational.

In order to create the effects required to match Lucas’ vision, Industrial Light and Magic was born in 1975, and the result of its work is hailed today as one of the first examples of the modern day blockbuster. Star Wars even included 3D effects: a year after a brief 3D digitized representation of a face and hand by early visual effects company Triple-I was first seen with Futureworld, Star Wars Episode IV contained the first extensive use of 3D computer generated imagery and animation ever seen in a feature film during a very basic, untextured wireframe sequence of the Death Star trench.

“Harry Cuba back in the 60s and 70s single-handedly completed the wireframe of the Deathstar simulation in the original Star Wars,” explains Terrence Masson, author of CG101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference. He tells us that by 1982, ILM had produced the first entirely computer generated sequence for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and that barely a month later, a huge 20 minutes of full 3D CGI created by Information International Inc, Robert Abel and Associates, MAGI, and Digital Effects was revealed within Disney’s Tron release.

It was only a matter of time before commercial software companies with products made specifically for computer generated imagery started to trickle into the public sphere. From there, many began co-developing their computer graphics software based on the in-house software at successful studios such as ILM. As the hardware too began to lower in price, the early 80s marked the introduction of the first start ups, successes and failures of businesses such as Autodesk, Alias Research, Wavefront, and Omnibus – a company that ended up controlling most of the American Computer Graphics industry by 1986.

The Evolution of CG Software


“My big break came in 1985,” begins Kim Davidson. “I was hired at Omnibus Computer Graphics in Toronto as a programmer, helping them to develop their internal 3D animation software.” The largest computer graphics company in the world, Omnibus was already using mainframe computers to create flying logos and station IDs as well as boasting state of the art computer animation studios in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. It was here that Davidson first met Greg Hermanovic, who after a background as a programmer working on everything from real-time flight simulators to a training simulator for the Space Shuttle’s robot arm, was hired as the new head of the Toronto R&D team. Together, they began developing the early version of Houdini’s predescessor: Production of Realistic Image Scene Mathematical Simulation, or PRISMS; but their time at Omnibus was short-lived. In 1987, after having swallowed both Digital Productions and Robert Abel & Associates, the company that had seemed so powerful went bankrupt under the weight of its many debts.

“I don’t think of myself as entrepreneurial, nor a risk taker, but I loved it so much that when Omnibus went bankrupt in 1987, I didn’t hesitate to jump into starting a company so I could continue working on computer graphics in Toronto,” explains Davidson. “There was nothing close to what we had created at Omnibus and that was the reason for starting Side Effects.” Luckily, the struggling Omnibus had taken the decision to license PRISMS to other companies in Japan and the UK a few months earlier to bring in revenue, so when Davidson and Hermanovic acquired the rights to PRISMS, they had their first licensed customers from the start.

The Evolution of CG Software

In their first years running Side Effects, the co-founders continued to not only keep coding the software but also to use and test it themselves as a production company, which allowed PRISMS to improve all the more quickly.

“The procedural version of PRISMS started to see the light of day around 1989,” explains Hermanovic. “It became popular because it automated and visualised what computer graphics artists were doing blindly and non-interactively before.” With their client base growing, the pair soon made the decision to pull away from production to focus solely on developing software, and by the 90s PRISMS had been used to create the visual effects for feature films as impressive as Apollo 13, Twister and Titanic. Even so, Side Effects had already been developing its new replacement years before.

“Although Houdini 1.0 shipped in December of 1996, we had started the design of Houdini in 1991,” reveals Davidson. The 90s saw the start of exponential growth in the 3D industry thanks to further advancements in affordable graphics, and all of a sudden, Side Effects found themselves in competition with three public companies all vying for market share. With Houdini, the co-founders aimed to shift from PRISMS’ C to C++ and take advantage of the advancements in hardware graphics, but they also made the conscious decision to switch tactics to rise above the competition by focusing on a segment of the market where they felt they could make the most difference: film VFX.

“It was a good move for us,” Davidson concludes. Houdini has since become used by leading film studios, and Side Effects has won three academy awards in recognition for its work. “It is satisfying to see how well the overall architecture and procedural paradigm has stood the test of time. While we have rewritten some big chunks of Houdini and added tons of features, the basic architecture and data flow have remained the same,” he continues, telling us that still today, many of the PRISMS commands have equivalent Houdini node operators.

The Evolution of CG Software


Before Greg Hermanovic took over as head of R&D at Omnibus, Will Anielewicz had the job. After having studied a Masters program in which his computer science advisor declared his project was not viable due to there being no future in computer art, Anielewicz set out to prove him wrong. “In 1979 I was hired by Omnibus Video to head up their computer animation division,” he tells us. “Although I knew nothing about animation they hired me anyway since they got no replies for their want ad, ‘required: Experienced Computer Animator.’ I was actually the only employee for almost the first year.”

It was only three years later, when Omnibus was starting to become the powerhouse it would be in the mid-eighties, that he first heard of a tiny startup founded by Stephen Bingham, Nigel McGrath, Susan McKenna and David Springer, named Alias Research. “They welcomed me with open arms. I now had three years of experience in computer animation, in those days, a relative lifetime,” Anielewicz explains.

The Evolution of CG Software

Working in a run-down warehouse where the computers would serve as room heaters during the harsh winter months of Toronto, desperation due to lack of funds lead to a new change in focus: Alias 1. The team aimed to produce a system that would allow users with minimal training to achieve complex computer animation. However, plans changed when in 1985 Alias signed a landmark deal with car manufacturer GM, receving a sizeable investment out of an interest in using the spline-based software for design. “I designed the first prototype graphic interface for this system in a few days,” Anielewicz says. “Our first demo was mostly smoke and mirrors but we won the contract.”

Chris Landreth was hired and started working at Alias in 1994. “It was a good time to start there because they really wanted to show their potential market that the software they were developing could be used to do production.” Alias’ profits had soared throughout the late 80s and early 90s as their second and third generation Alias and PowerAnimator software began to be used extensively not only in the field of CAD, but by high profile studios for Academy Award winning visual effects for films such as The Abyss, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, and The Mask. “What my job turned into was to use their developing software, which was to become Maya, in an actual animated film to test the software on,” Landreth continues.

The Evolution of CG Software

In 1995 Silicon Graphics bought Alias Resarch and Wavefront Technologies, merging the two companies together, and the following year, Landreth’s work testing new features that were to be added to the development of Maya on his short film, ‘The End’, earned him an Academy Award nomination. In 1998, the new Alias|Wavefront finally released the first version of Maya, which quickly became a new industry standard. The team continued to develop it until 2006, when Autodesk acquired the company.

“I did not expect Maya to still be in use,” reveals Anielewicz. “It’s been almost 30 years. I use it every day.”


“I’d been going to Siggraph since 1986 and drooling over the SGI Iris workstations and software from companies like Wavefront, Alias and Vertigo,” begins Gary Yost. “However, those solutions cost upwards of $40-$50,000 per seat at the time and were totally unavailable to mere mortals like me and my friends,”

Yost had already founded Antic Software in 1984 and, together with fellow developer Tom Hudson, been working on the creation of a set of 3D tools before becoming limited by the graphics capability of what they could afford.  Then, in 1987, they were asked if they would be interested in developing 3D software for the PC under license to Autodesk.

By 1988 the Yost Group was formed with Gary Yost at the helm, and the small team began working on a modelling and rendering applications internally, code-named THUD after Tom Hudson, who was the only programmer on the project. Impressively, the first version of 3D Studio DOS was released only two years later. “The response to DOSr1 was huge,” remembers Yost. “There was just a lot of pent-up demand for something like that. Once it took off, we just got on the train and didn’t look back.”

The Evolution of CG Software

There were two huge shortcomings with 3D Studio DOS, however. There was no such thing as an undo functionality, and there was a lack of animatable controls, meaning that once the user created something, the mesh would be fixed aside from scaling, rotation or morphing. The core group made up of Yost, Hudson, Dan Silva, Rolf Berteig, and Don Brittain were soon joined by   Mark Meier and Gus Grubba, and together, they spent the next seven years working up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week obsoleting the entire code base of 3DS DOS, and restarting again with would ultimately become 3ds Max.

“We were motivated by a lot of things, not the least of which was our royalty-based license with Autodesk,” explains Yost. “We were in our 30s, and if what we did became popular we’d see enough financial reward to make all the intense work worthwhile. We were on what we called the “deferred life plan” for so long.”

In addition to financial benefits of a royalty agreement would bring, the team was also motivated by their users. At the start of each 18-month development cycle, Yost would spend three months collecting user feedback to help develop the feature set for the next version of the software before embarking upon development over the next 14 months, a period in which he would usually take only two or three days off. “That allowed me to develop ideas for new features very rapidly, and Tom, Don, Rolf and Dan took every suggested new function as a personal challenge. I don’t remember any of them ever telling me that something couldn’t be done. Our motto was “it’s only software, so why not?’”

With each member of the group working from home in different cities and then sending data files back and forth over slow modems before the days of high speed internet, the main goal for the developers was to essentially democratise 3D software, making it possible for creative people who were working for others to be able to begin working for themselves. “I think a huge part of 3D Studio’s legacy that continued into 3ds Max is the concept of making easy-to-use software that is priced at an affordable level,” explains Hudson. After unveiling the new software at SIGGRAPH in 1995 to an incredulous audience, the Yost Group delivered 3ds Max in 1996, and by 1997, they decided it was time to actually start living out their previously deferred life plan.

The Evolution of CG Software

“Between 97 and 99 we transitioned the code to a great in-house development team at Autodesk and by end of ’99 we were on to other things,” Yost continues, “I tear up a bit when I remember how exciting it was to wake up every morning after only 4 hours sleep and get to work. Never did so few developers make so many people so happy.”


When Tim Jenison founded NewTek in 1985, he too aimed to develop sophisticated yet affordable tools that everyone could use. In 1990, the company first began to enjoy widespread fame with it’s release of the Video Toaster for the Commodore Amiga personal computer, which also incorporated the first version of LightWave 3D. Replacing video processing software that had previously cost around $100,000 for less than a tenth of the price, Jenison is still today considered the visionary force behind the desktop video revolution that followed.

Despite the huge success, however, NewTek ran into problems after the failure of the Commodore Computer Company and the Amiga computer, which the Video Toaster was based on. “This caused NewTek to port LightWave to Windows and Mac computers as a stand-alone product no longer associated with the Video Toaster,” explains president of the LightWave 3D Group, Rob Powers.

 NewTek survived the challenge, and the standalone version of LightWave has since enjoyed worldwide success.  “The founder Tim Jenison is one of those unique genius personalities that easily inspire others,” Powers continues. “While I was in school, “Babylon 5” premiered on television and it showcased all of this amazing new computer generated imagery created with LightWave 3D software. The genius behind those cutting-edge images was Ron Thornton who subsequently released video tutorials that were excellent learning tools. They helped me build my LightWave 3D skill set, which made it very easy to get work in Hollywood at that time because computer generated graphics were essentially in their infancy. It was a golden opportunity for a student fresh out of film school.”

The Evolution of CG Software


“In 1988, when I was 13 years old, my parents bought an Amiga computer. I was instantly fascinated by its graphics capabilities,” begins Philip Losch.  “Shortly after my brother and I decided to write our own raytracing software.” Aiming to convince MAXON Computer of their newly written software’s potential, the brothers entered it into a monthly contest run by MAXON‘s Kickstart magazine and promptly won the competition. Incredibly, they had just developed the very beginnings of what would become Cinema 4D.

The Losch brothers were hired as developers and in 1991, FastRay was born. “To be honest I would say FastRay was just a big learning exercise!” says Losch. “Everything we did was self-taught and at the time it was very hard to come by any real information. We often went to the library and ordered books or scientific papers that then would arrive weeks later.” He explains the developers faced significant challenges at the start – not least because though they had entered a very new industry, by the early 90s many competitors had already existed for five or even 10 years and were already established in the field.

The Evolution of CG Software

However, as the team began to get more access to literature and several examples of the competing software itself, Losch realized there were several crucial ways their software could stand out. “20 years ago I never understood why in most applications you had to define a light source, a camera and material before rendering. If you left out any of those steps your render would show up pitch black,” he explains, “So we implemented a different behavior in CINEMA 4D.” MAXON‘s new software became focused on avoiding the same difficult UI and many illogical steps required to do even basic tasks in other software, making 3D more accessible, inexpensive and as fun to use as possible – something that is still crucial for the developers with Cinema 4D today. “Pretty much every time you need to consult the manual it is a “fail” on our side, because we didn’t design an interface or component obvious or intuitive enough,” Losch reveals.

As the years passed and other competitors began to fail, he tells us it was a matter of persistence coupled with a committed team and healthy working environment that led to Cinema 4D being a success today. “Most developers that started to work for us 5, 10 or even 15 years ago are still on board,” Losch continues. He himself is still one of the most important developers at MAXON. “Everyone on our team works from home in a relaxed atmosphere and loves 3D – it’s not just a normal job.”

 The Evolution of CG Software

As exciting as it can be to theorise on what’s next for computer graphics, it’s incredibly important to remember the past. To think on the people and the processes that brought us to where we are today. “The people that have made this industry – they’re just the smartest, the most creative, and the most friendly, it’s so humbling,” praises Masson.

It’s interesting to consider that, despite his years of research on the history of the computer graphics industry for his CG:101 books, when Mike Warman, a friend who used to work at Wavefront, asked Masson whether he knew who first wrote the standard .obj file format, he had had no idea. Together, they had asked everybody who had worked with Masson in the 80s and, despite how widely used .obj is today, nobody could remember.

“Just about everybody who started this industry in the 60s and 70s is still alive and active but it’s getting to the age now that we’re starting to lose some of our founding members. They’re just going to start to pass away and even before they do memories go as well; like the obj file – somebody made an obj file but nobody knows who it is,” Masson continues. “You know it would be a horrible tragedy to have some of these folks pass away with these histories in their head – and I’m not just talking about really practical Wikipedia facts like who created obj – I’m interested in the people behind the pixels. I want the stories of how all this happened.”

See more of the history behind the development of CG software  in 3D Artist Issue 61

  • Vincent Auditore

    Fascinating read.

  • Qato Qntonio Qarcía

    And Softimage 3d, XSI? and the Actor module? :(

  • Julien Schleiffer

    Credit where credit is due, it wasn’t Maya but Softimage 3d that helped produce Jurassic Park… Nice article anyway.