#135) A Computer Animated Hand (1972)


#135) A Computer Animated Hand (1972)

OR “Digital Digits”

Directed by Edwin Catmull & Fred Parke

Class of 2011

The Plot: A demonstration for a graduate project at the University of Utah, Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke show the step-by-step process of digitizing a real hand (Edwin’s left, to be exact) and rendering it as three-dimensional computer animation. Remember, this is the early ‘70s; they didn’t even have “Pong” yet. This is revolutionary.

Why It Matters: Both the NFR write-up and the supplemental essay by Andrew Utterson discuss the film’s place as “the foundation for computer graphics that followed.”

But Does It Really?: From a technical viewpoint, absolutely. This is the “Gertie the Dinosaur” of computer animation. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this in the early ‘70s. Plus it’s only a minute long. What are you, too busy to watch?

Everybody Gets One: Edwin Catmull wanted to be a Disney animator, but realized early on that he didn’t have the drawing skills required. While at the University of Utah he studied computer graphics, and hoped of one day marrying the new field with traditional animation. Not a lot of details are known about Fred Parke, but he currently teaches at Texas A&M. Anybody know his office hours?

Wow, That’s Dated: Early ‘70s computer graphics: you gotta love them.

Other notes

  • Does anyone know what grade these two got on this project? I hope their professor wrote something incredibly shortsighted like, “Well you’ll never see this in the Library of Congress.”
  • Nice jazz score, fellas.
  • What’s up with Edwin’s pinky? It’s a little out of whack. Sports injury?
  • If they had shaded that hand differently they could have called this film “A Computer Animated Turkey”.
  • I don’t care what anyone says: this is Thing’s finest performance.
  • Be sure to watch the full version, which also includes a computer-rendered heart valve and a computer-animated face (Fred Parke’s wife).


  • Footage from “A Computer Animated Hand” was recycled into the 1976 “Westworld” sequel “Futureworld”. But if it’s not gratuitous nudity or Anthony Hopkins saying the name “Arnold” I don’t care.
  • Edwin Catmull went on to found the Computer Graphics Lab, renamed Pixar in 1986. He eventually became the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, and finally got to realize his passion project: “Cars 2”.
  • While Catmull stayed with animation, Fred Parke continued to work on computer graphics outside the limelight. He is currently a professor in the Visualization Department at Texas A&M University.
  • And of course, this film is responsible for all of the computer animation that has followed in the last 45 years. But the main takeaway from all of this is the dancing baby on “Ally McBeal”.

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