Look How Far We’ve Come: Modeling Then and Now

By Steven Schain

CAD software has been in use since the mid-1960s, when Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad while at MIT. The ability to use 3D modeling for visualization and animation, however, wouldn’t come around until the early 1970s, when some of the earliest 3D models were created by individuals like Ed Catmul and Fred Parke. Since then, 3D modeling has come a long way, with the tools and capabilities improving in every new software release.

The Early Days

In the beginning of computer graphics development, modeling 3D objects was a painstaking task. One of the earliest examples of 3D modeling and animation was created at the University of Utah which, to interject a little trivia, is also the birthplace of the Utah Teapot – a standard model available in 3ds Max. Created by Ed Catmul and Fred Parke, this early animation used a physical model and a 3D digitizing rig to craft a digitized hand. The digitizer captured individual points that were then connected by lines to create discreet 3D faces. The faces were then rendered, using one of the only two methods available: flat or smooth shaded.

Issue 12 - Modeling Then and Now 01

Ed Catmul digitizes and animates a model of a human hand.


Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, there was a flurry of activity around the development of modern 3D modeling and animation software. Companies like Autodesk, Alias Research, Wavefront, and Omnibus were leading the way. Some early 3D software used a series of written scripts to generate 3D models point by point, creating a shell; while others were developing tools that used solids to define a volume. Most of the visual modeling software worked by using a shell model to generate a visual representation. Now, however, the solid modeling tools have been integrated into most modern CAD software and shell modeling has become the standard in most 3D modeling and animation software packages.

3D Modeling Software Matures

After years of development by a number of companies, 3D modeling software began to make its way to the market.

Platforms Evolve

The mid-1980s saw the growth of the animation software onto a variety of platforms. Initially, high-end computer systems like SGI’s IRIS series workstations were required to run many of the available programs at the time. Then, in 1987, the Commodore Amiga ushered in an era of low-cost 3D animation with software like Videoscape 3D, Sculpt and Turbo Silver. The early 1990s saw the use of the PC and software like Autodesk 3D Studio running on DOS for more and more 3D animation. These advancements ushered in the era of democratized 3D animation and modeling.

Functionalities Improve

Until the mid-1980s when the advances in graphical user interfaces made major leaps in quality and interactivity, modeling across all software was a tedious process.  3D Studio release 1 had several separate modules that worked together to allow you to build a 3D model. This was all using the shell surface modeling tools available in the software.


The 3D Editor available in 3d Studio DOS.

The 3D Editor available in 3d Studio DOS.

3d Studio became a huge success and made modeling easier as it evolved, but it was in 1996 that 3ds Max made interactive polygon modeling available to the masses. Software such as Power Animator, Houdini, and other high-end programs had real-time modeling, but costs kept most people from accessing their powerful modeling tools. 3ds Max was not alone in delivering real-time, low-cost 3D modeling; Lightwave and Caligari Truespace were just a couple of competitors.

These programs provided several alternate modeling options in addition to polygon shells, many of which are still in use today.

NURBS, or Non-uniform Rational Bezier Spline, modeling is a highly flexible method that works with mathematically defined and user-defined curves and surfaces. This allows for the easy creation of fine detail, complex surfaces, and very high fidelity models. NURBS works by defining a series of points and bending the curve to fit those points using the smoothest possible shape. When combined with advanced features like the cut, combine, and join surfaces functions that allow a modeler to use one curve or surface to create another, NURBS is still a powerful modeling option.

An example of a NURBS surface.

An example of a NURBS surface.

Surface modeling also works with curves and surfaces, and can use either NURBS or Coons surfaces. The main difference between the tools available for Surface modeling versus NURBS modeling is that surface models are defined by control points and associated patches. Curves and surfaces are defined by their degree, where 1 degree would be flat and 3 degrees could be curved. Surface Modeling is best at defining how surfaces connect to one another, which is why they work so well for automotive surfaces.

Surfaces modeled in Blender

Surfaces modeled in Blender

Polygon modeling is still the most popular method for modeling, and over the years, the tools have steadily evolved to become better and better. In the early days of polygon modeling, artists were also programmers and technicians. At first, polygon editing was done one polygon at a time. However, those days are—thankfully—over. Today’s versions of 3ds Max, Maya, and other 3D animation software have highly developed polygon editing tools, along with the ability to interactively sculpt using brushes and images to create texture and detail. 3D modeling has finally become a tool for artists.

Sub-division surface modeling in 3ds Max.

Sub-division surface modeling in 3ds Max.

Hope you enjoyed this walk down modeling memory lane!

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