Science & Technology

The Most Important Object in Computer Graphics Is the Utah Teapot

Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Netflix and chill. Animation and ... a teapot. Like any other famous pairing, the field of computer graphics wouldn't be the same without its iconic counterpart: the Utah teapot. This unlikely household object changed the game in the '70s, undoubtedly becoming the most famous teapot in the world. It's okay if you're still confused.

A modern rendering of the Utah teapot model.

I'm a Computer Algorithm, Short and Stout

The story starts in the home of computer scientist Martin Newell in 1974 when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah. Armed with ideas for new ways to make 3D computer graphics look more realistic, Newell was at a standstill. The usual reference objects used for 3D rendering (chess pieces, donuts, urns) weren't complex enough to demonstrate the algorithms Newell wanted to create and test. Imagine trying to create the Mona Lisa with nothing but finger paints at your disposal. Newell's wife, Sandra, suggested using their plain white Melitta teapot. Cue the a-ha moment.

The teapot was perfect: It had concave and convex surfaces, it could cast shadows on itself, it's immediately recognizable (someone could tell just by looking if the rendering got screwy), it didn't need a texture to look real — unlike, say, a tennis ball — and it's not too simple or too complicated. For expanding the horizons for new animation experiments, Newell's teapot was it.

The teapot soon became a beloved staple. "Anyone with a new idea about rendering and lighting would announce it by first trying it out on a teapot," writes animator Tom Sito in Moving Innovation. "We saw the teapot rendered as if made of alabaster, red brick, leopard skin, and animal fur." Newell had successfully created for animators what lab rats are for biologists.

I Spy a Teapot

The Utah part of the title stems from the University of Utah, where Newell studied at the time. The Graphics Lab at the University of Utah Computer Science Department in the '60s and '70s led the charge in computer graphics research. Adobe and Pixar got their start there. Today, the original, physical Metilla teapot lives at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. (Not Utah, but close enough.)

If you're not out in Cali, that doesn't mean you'll miss your chance to see the legendary teapot. Something of an in-joke for computer graphics designers and animators, references to the teapot are hidden in projects as little Easter eggs for those in the know. You can find teapots in that episode of "The Simpsons" when Homer turns into a 3D computer animation, "Toy Story," and in Microsoft's classic 1995 pipes screensaver.

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Dive into the history of animation in "Disney's Nine Old Men: A History of the Animators Who Defined Disney Animation" by Fergus Mason. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto September 9, 2017

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