Motion capture, or "Mocap", records the movement of external objects or people and has applications for medicine, sports, robotics, and the military, as well as for animation in film, TV, and games. The earliest example would be in 1878, with the pioneering photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge on human and animal locomotion, which is still a source for animators today.

One of the first programmable digital computers was SEAC (the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer), which entered service in 1950 at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Maryland, USA.

In 1957, computer pioneer Russell Kirsch and his team unveiled a drum scanner for SEAC, to "trace variations of intensity over the surfaces of photographs", and so doing made the first digital image by scanning a photograph. The image, picturing Kirsch's three-month-old son, consisted of just 176×176 pixels. They used the computer to extract line drawings, count objects, recognize types of characters, and display digital images on an oscilloscope screen.

In 1960, a 49-second vector animation of a car traveling down a planned highway was created at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on the BESK computer.

Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, was a leading research contributor in computer graphics, computer animation, and electronic music from its beginnings in the early 1960s. Initially, researchers were interested in what the computer could be made to do, but the results of the visual work produced by the computer during this period established people like Edward Zajac, Michael Noll, and Ken Knowlton as pioneering computer artists.

Ivan Sutherland is considered by many to be the creator of Interactive Computer Graphics and an internet pioneer. He worked at the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1962, where he developed a program called Sketchpad I, which allowed the user to interact directly with the image on the screen. This was the first Graphical User Interface and is considered one of the most influential computer programs ever written by an individual.

Edward Zajac produced one of the first computer-generated films at Bell Labs in 1963, titled A Two Gyro Gravity Gradient Attitude Control System, which demonstrated that a satellite could be stabilized to always have a side facing the Earth as it orbited.

Ken Knowlton developed the Beflix (Bell Flicks) animation system in 1963, which was used to produce dozens of artistic films by artists Stan VanDerBeek, Knowlton, and Lillian Schwartz. Instead of raw programming, Beflix worked using simple "graphic primitives", like draw a line, copy a region, fill an area, zoom an area, and the like.

In the 1960s, William Fetter was a graphic designer for Boeing at Wichita and was credited with coining the phrase "Computer Graphics" to describe what he was doing at Boeing at the time (though Fetter himself credited this to colleague Verne Hudson). Fetter's work included the 1964 development of ergonomic descriptions of the human body that are both accurate and adaptable to different environments, and this resulted in the first 3D animated "wireframe" figures.

In 1965, Michael Noll created computer-generated stereographic 3D movies, including a ballet of stick figures moving on a stage. Some movies also showed four-dimensional hyper-objects projected to three dimensions.

Utah was a major center for computer animation in this period. The computer science faculty was founded by David Evans in 1965, and many of the basic techniques of 3D computer graphics were developed here in the early 1970s with ARPA funding (Advanced Research Projects Agency). Research results included Gouraud, Phong, and Blinn shading, texture mapping, hidden surface algorithms, curved surface subdivision, real-time line-drawing, and raster image display hardware, and early virtual reality work.

Around 1967, Noll used the 4D animation technique to produce computer-animated title sequences for the commercial film short Incredible Machine (produced by Bell Labs) and the TV special The Unexplained (produced by Walt DeFaria). Many projects in other fields were also undertaken at this time.

In 1968 a group of Soviet physicists and mathematicians with N.Konstantinov as its head created a mathematical model for the motion of a cat. On a BESM-4 computer, they devised a program for solving the ordinary differential equations for this model. The Computer printed hundreds of frames on paper using alphabet symbols that were later filmed in sequence thus creating the first computer animation of a character, a walking cat.

The Atlas Computer Laboratory near Oxford was for many years a major facility for computer animation in Britain. The first entertainment cartoon made was The Flexipede, by Tony Pritchett, which was first shown publicly at the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1968.

In 1968, Ivan Sutherland teamed up with David Evans to found the company Evans & Sutherland—both were professors in the Computer Science Department at the University of Utah, and the company was formed to produce new hardware designed to run the systems being developed in the University. Many such algorithms have later resulted in the generation of significant hardware implementation, including the Geometry Engine, the Head-mounted display, the Frame buffer, and Flight simulators.

In July 1968, the art journal Studio International published a special issue titled Cybernetic Serendipity - The Computer and the Arts, which cataloged a comprehensive collection of items and examples of work being done in the field of computer art in organizations all over the world and shown in exhibitions in London, UK, San Francisco, CA. and Washington, DC. This marked a milestone in the development of the medium and was considered by many to be of widespread influence and inspiration. Apart from all the examples mentioned above, two other particularly well known iconic images from this include Chaos to Order by Charles Csuri (often referred to as the Hummingbird), created at Ohio State University in 1967, and Running Cola is Africa by Masao Komura and Koji Fujino created at the Computer Technique Group, Japan, also in 1967.

The first machine to achieve widespread public attention in the media was Scanimate, an analog computer animation system designed and built by Lee Harrison of the Computer Image Corporation in Denver. From around 1969 onward, Scanimate systems were used to produce much of the video-based animation seen on television in commercials, show titles, and other graphics. It could create animations in real time, a great advantage over digital systems at the time.

The National Film Board of Canada, already a world center for animation art, also began experimentation with computer techniques in 1969. The most well-known of the early pioneers with this was artist Peter Foldes, who completed Metadata in 1971. This film comprised drawings animated by gradually changing from one image to the next, a technique is known as "interpolating" (also known as "inbetweening" or "morphing").

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.

A major step forward to the goal of increased realism in 3D animation came with the development of "fractals". The term was coined in 1975 by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who used it to extend the theoretical concept of fractional dimensions to geometric patterns in nature, and published in the English translation of his book Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension in 1977.

The first use of 3D wireframe imagery in mainstream cinema was in the sequel to Westworld, Futureworld (1976), directed by Richard T. Heffron. This featured a computer-generated hand and face created by the University of Utah graduate students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke which had initially appeared in their 1972 experimental short A Computer Animated Hand. The Oscar-winning 1975 short animated film Great, about the life of the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, contains a brief sequence of a rotating wireframe model of Brunel's final project, the iron steamship SS Great Eastern. The third movie to use this technology was Star Wars (1977), written and directed by George Lucas, with wireframe imagery in the scenes with the Death Star plans, the targeting computers in the X-wing fighters, and the Millennium Falcon spacecraft.

3D computer graphics software began appearing for home computers in the late 1970s. The earliest known example is 3D Art Graphics, a set of 3D computer graphics effects, written by Kazumasa Mitazawa and released in June 1978 for the Apple II.

The NFB's French-language animation studio founded its Centre d'animatique in 1980, at a cost of $1 million CAD, with a team of six computer graphics specialists. The unit was initially tasked with creating stereoscopic CGI sequences for the NFB's 3-D IMAX film Transitions for Expo 86. Staff at the Centre d'animatique included Daniel Langlois, who left in 1986 to form Softimage.

Silicon Graphics, Inc (SGI) was a manufacturer of high-performance computer hardware and software, founded in 1981 by Jim Clark. His idea, called the Geometry Engine, was to create a series of components in a VLSI processor that would accomplish the main operations required in image synthesis—the matrix transforms, clipping, and the scaling operations that provided the transformation to view space. Clark attempted to shop his design around to computer companies, and finding no takers, he and colleagues at Stanford University, California, started their own company, Silicon Graphics.

In 1979–80, the first film using fractals to generate the graphics was made by Loren Carpenter of Boeing. Titled Vol Libre, it showed a flight over a fractal landscape and was presented at SIGGRAPH 1980. Carpenter was subsequently hired by Pixar to create the fractal planet in the Genesis Effect sequence of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in June 1982.

The first cinema feature movie to make extensive use of solid 3D CGI was Walt Disney's Tron, directed by Steven Lisberger, in 1982. The film is celebrated as a milestone in the industry, though less than twenty minutes of this animation were actually used—mainly the scenes that show digital "terrain", or include vehicles such as Light Cycles, tanks, and ships.

In 1982, Japan's Osaka University developed the LINKS-1 Computer Graphics System, a supercomputer that used up to 257 Zilog Z8001 microprocessors, used for rendering realistic 3D computer graphics. According to the Information Processing Society of Japan: "The core of 3D image rendering is calculating the luminance of each pixel making up a rendered surface from the given viewpoint, light source, and object position. The LINKS-1 system was developed to realize an image rendering methodology in which each pixel could be parallel processed independently using ray tracing.

In 1983, Philippe Bergeron, Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, and Daniel Thalmann directed Dream Flight, considered as the first 3D generated film telling a story. The film was completely programmed using the MIRA graphical language, an extension of the Pascal programming language based on abstract graphical data types. The film got several awards and was shown at the SIGGRAPH '83 Film Show.

The LINKS-1 was the world's most powerful computer, as of 1984.

In 1985, Pierre Lachapelle, Philippe Bergeron, Pierre Robidoux, and Daniel Langlois directed Tony de Peltrie, which shows the first animated human character to express emotion through facial expressions and body movements, which touched the feelings of the audience. Tony de Peltrie premiered as the closing film of SIGGRAPH '85.

Flocking is the behavior exhibited when a group of birds (or other animals) move together in a flock. A mathematical model of flocking behavior was first simulated on a computer in 1986 by Craig Reynolds and soon found its use in animation. Jurassic Park notably featured flocking and brought it to widespread attention by mentioning it in the actual script[citation needed]. Other early uses were the flocking bats in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992), and the wildebeest stampede in Disney's The Lion King (1994).

In 1989 James Cameron's underwater action movie The Abyss was released. This was the first cinema movie to include photo-realistic CGI integrated seamlessly into live-action scenes. A five-minute sequence featuring an animated tentacle or "pseudopod" was created by ILM, who designed a program to produce surface waves of differing sizes and kinetic properties for the pseudopod, including reflection, refraction, and a morphing sequence. Although short, this successful blend of CGI and live-action is widely considered a milestone in setting the direction for further future development in the field.

The 1990s began with much of CGI technology now sufficiently developed to allow a major expansion into film and TV production. 1991 is widely considered the "breakout year", with two major box-office successes, both making heavy use of CGI.

In 1993, J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5 became the first major television series to use CGI as the primary method for their visual effects (rather than using hand-built models), followed later the same year by Rockne S. O'Bannon's SeaQuest DSV.

Another significant step came in 1993, with Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, where 3D CGI dinosaurs were integrated with life-sized animatronic counterparts. The CGI animals were created by ILM, and in a test, scene to make a direct comparison of both techniques, Spielberg chose the CGI. Also watching was George Lucas who remarked: "a major gap had been crossed, and things were never going to be the same".

In 1995, there came the first fully computer-animation feature film, Disney-Pixar's Toy Story, which was a huge commercial success.

Another breakthrough where a cinema film used motion capture was creating hundreds of digital characters for the film Titanic in 1997. The technique was used extensively in 1999 to create Jar-Jar Binks and other digital characters in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

In 2000, a team led by Paul Debevec managed to adequately capture (and simulate) the reflectance field over the human face using the simplest of light stages. which was the last missing piece of the puzzle to make digital look-alikes of known actors.

The first mainstream cinema film fully made with motion capture was the 2001 Japanese-American Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, which was also the first to use photorealistic CGI characters. The film was not a box-office success. Some commentators have suggested this may be partly because the lead CGI characters had facial features that fell into the "uncanny valley".

In 2002, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was the first feature film to use a real-time motion capture system, which allowed the actions of actor Andy Serkis to be fed directly into the 3D CGI model of Gollum as it was being performed.

In 2010, the US Film Academy (AMPAS) announced that motion-capture films will no longer be considered eligible for "Best Animated Feature Film" Oscars, stating "Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique."