The most important object in computer 3D graphics animations is a very peculiar teapot.

Whether its Netflix and Chill, pumpkin spice and latte, peanut butter and jelly (PB ‘n J), and, animation and … well, a “teapot.” It seems that these pairings are quite fair, but come on, what the heck in the name of computer engineering does a teapot have in common with animations? Short answer: Everything! This unlikely household object in computer science revolutionized what has become computer three dimensional (3D) animation today. Dear friends, if you’re about to have breakfast, let’s savor from the Utah teapot.

Related media: The World’s Most Famous Teapot

Once Upon A Teapot

In 1974, the story of the Utah teapot started in the home of Martin Newell, a computer scientist while he was a Ph.D student at the University of Utah. While having thoughts of making computer 3D graphics look a lot more realistic, Newell got to a grinding halt. At the time, the usual reference objects used for 3D animations — like chess pieces, donuts, urns — weren’t that complex enough for Newell to create and run his new algorithms. Let’s imagine that you want to create something like the … with nothing at your disposal, just …

Newell even wasn’t the one who had that stroke of genius. One fateful day over tea, Newell asked his wife, Sandra, that he needed to try some new models. She suggested that he digitize the shapes of the teapot they were using — it was the simple kaolin (plain white) Melitta teapot. It seemed to be an auspicious choice: The curves, handle, lid, and spout of the teapot all conspired to make it an ideal object for graphical experiment. Newell quickly took a graph sheet and a pencil, and sketched it.

(You now know why its always important to listen to your wife).

I’m An Algorithm, Not Just A Teapot

Image: Sketchapixel | Martin Newell’s original sketch of his Melitta teapot in 1974

Newell got back to his lab and entered the sketched coordinates — also known as Bézier control points, which was originally used in designing automobiles — onto a Tektronix storage tube, an early text and graphics computer terminal. The result was a lovely virtual teapot, more versatile (and probably cuter) than any 3D model to that date. The new model quickly caught the attention of one of Newell’s colleagues, Jim Binn. Newell was demonstrating how his software could adjust an object’s height one day, when Binn remodeled the digitized version by flattening the teapot a bit, and the new remodel was what they decided to work with. Hence, the distinctive Utah teapot was born.

The teapot was perfect: It had both concave and convex surfaces, it could cast shadows on itself, it’s easily recognized — you could easily tell just by looking at it — it didn’t need any texture to look real, for instance a football, and it’s not too simple or not that complicated, either. For creating and testing algorithms for new animation experiments, Newell’s teapot was like the Holy Grail of computer animations. Soon enough, Newell’s teapot from Utah became a beloved iconic figure. Newell had successfully created for computer 3D graphics animators what lab rats are for biologists.

The new model was really useful throughout Newell’s research which featured in a few of his publications. Him together with Binn, took the important step of sharing their model publicly. Eventually, other researchers were very much interested in 3D models, and the digitized teapot was exactly the experimental test bed they needed; and it’s form was simple enough for Newell to input and for computers to process. (Rumor has it some researchers even had the data points memorized!)

“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.”

I See You, I See Pot

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus | 3D Graphic Animation of The Utah Teapot

The teapot was eventually dubbed the title “The Utah Teapot,” because of the fact that the idea came from the University of Utah, where Newell studied at the time. The Graphics Laboratory at the University of Utah’s Computer Science Department in the 1960s and ‘70s led the revolution in computer 3D graphic animations. Animation companies like Adobe and Pixar had their start there. Unfortunately, today, the original Metilla teapot resides at the Computer History Museum in (can you guess?) Mountain View, California. Sorry, it’s not in Utah.

So does that mean if you’re not in California you’ll ever miss the opportunity of seeing (wait for it…) the legendary teapot of Utah?! Not at all. That’s something like an in-joke in computer 3D graphic animation; where graphic designers and animators leave digital signatures of the teapot in their projects for you tech nerds in the know. You can find excerpts of the Utah teapot (if only you’re a ‘90s kid) in an episode of “The Simpsons,” “Toy Story,” and Microsoft’s classic 1995 pipes screensaver.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, Mar 28, 2019.


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