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How Mars photos inspired the first CGI

It all began with a simple transmission of binary code.

Mars Mariner started it all.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The first computer graphics in a movie came from another historic first: flyby photos of Mars.

In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards explores the history behind the groundbreaking CGI (computer-generated imagery) in 1973’s Westworld. The film drew inspiration from a surprising source: the photographs taken by the Mars Mariner flyby of the red planet in the mid-1960s.

Designer and artist John Whitney saw the Mariner photos and thought their distinctive appearance was a good template — as well as technical model — for the computer vision of a robot character in Westworld. In replicating the NASA achievement, he notched his own historic first for CGI in film.

Watch the above video to learn more.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s Almanac series on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.

Further Reading

  • If you want to learn about how mechanical computers created a form of CGI even earlier that Westworld, check out this article about the earliest experiments.
  • Digital Harmony explores the trippy work of John Whitney (which also shaped early CGI efforts).
  • Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood is another extensive catalog of early efforts to integrate art and machine.
  • The most extensive article about Westworld’s CGI appears in American Cinematographer, Volume 54, Number 11, from November 1973. You can find it on some magazine archival sites and at American Cinematographer.