3D computer graphics

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3D computer graphics, or three-dimensional computer graphics (in contrast to 2D computer graphics), are graphics that use a three-dimensional representation of geometric data (often Cartesian) that is stored in the computer for the purposes of performing calculations and rendering 2D images. The resulting images may be stored for viewing later (possibly as an animation) or displayed in real time. Unlike 3D film and similar techniques, the result is two-dimensional, without the illusion of being solid.


3D computer graphics rely on many of the same algorithms as 2D computer vector graphics in the wire-frame model and 2D computer raster graphics in the final rendered display. In computer graphics software, 2D applications may use 3D techniques to achieve effects such as lighting, and, similarly, 3D may use some 2D rendering techniques.

The objects in 3D computer graphics are often referred to as 3D models. Unlike the rendered image, a model's data is contained within a graphical data file. A 3D model is a mathematical representation of any three-dimensional object; a model is not technically a graphic until it is displayed. A model can be displayed visually as a two-dimensional image through a process called 3D rendering, or it can be used in non-graphical computer simulations and calculations. With 3D printing, models are rendered into an actual 3D physical representation of themselves, with some limitations as to how accurately the physical model can match the virtual model. [1]


William Fetter was credited with coining the term computer graphics in 1961 [2] [3] to describe his work at Boeing. One of the first displays of computer animation was Futureworld (1976), which included an animation of a human face and a hand that had originally appeared in the 1971 experimental short A Computer Animated Hand , created by University of Utah students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke. [4]

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. [5] [6]


3D computer graphics creation falls into three basic phases:

  1. 3D modeling – the process of forming a computer model of an object's shape
  2. Layout and animation – the placement and movement of objects within a scene
  3. 3D rendering – the computer calculations that, based on light placement, surface types, and other qualities, generate the image


The model describes the process of forming the shape of an object. The two most common sources of 3D models are those that an artist or engineer originates on the computer with some kind of 3D modeling tool, and models scanned into a computer from real-world objects (Polygonal Modeling, Patch Modeling and NURBS Modeling are some popular tools used in 3d modeling). Models can also be produced procedurally or via physical simulation. Basically, a 3D model is formed from points called vertices that define the shape and form polygons. A polygon is an area formed from at least three vertices (a triangle). A polygon of n points is an n-gon. [7] The overall integrity of the model and its suitability to use in animation depend on the structure of the polygons.

Layout and animation

Before rendering into an image, objects must be laid out in a scene. This defines spatial relationships between objects, including location and size. Animation refers to the temporal description of an object (i.e., how it moves and deforms over time. Popular methods include keyframing, inverse kinematics, and motion capture). These techniques are often used in combination. As with animation, physical simulation also specifies motion.

Materials and textures

Materials and textures are properties that the render engine uses to render the model. One can give the model materials to tell the render engine how to treat light when it hits the surface. Textures are used to give the material color using a color or albedo map, or give the surface features using a bump map or normal map. It can be also used to deform the model itself using a displacement map.


Rendering converts a model into an image either by simulating light transport to get photo-realistic images, or by applying an art style as in non-photorealistic rendering. The two basic operations in realistic rendering are transport (how much light gets from one place to another) and scattering (how surfaces interact with light). This step is usually performed using 3D computer graphics software or a 3D graphics API. Altering the scene into a suitable form for rendering also involves 3D projection, which displays a three-dimensional image in two dimensions. Although 3D modeling and CAD software may perform 3D rendering as well (e.g., Autodesk 3ds Max or Blender), exclusive 3D rendering software also exists (e.g., OTOY's Octane Rendering Engine, Maxon's Redshift)

Examples of 3D rendering
Engine movingparts.jpg
Dunkerque 3d.jpeg
Cannonball stack with FCC unit cell.jpg
Experience curiosity1.png
Far left: A 3D rendering with ray tracing and ambient occlusion using Blender and YafaRay

Center left: A 3d model of a Dunkerque-class battleship rendered with flat shading

Center right: During the 3D rendering step, the number of reflections "light rays" can take, as well as various other attributes, can be tailored to achieve a desired visual effect. Rendered with Cobalt.

Far right: Experience Curiosity, a real-time web application which leverages 3D rendering capabilities of browsers (WebGL)


3D computer graphics software produces computer-generated imagery (CGI) through 3D modeling and 3D rendering or produces 3D models for analytic, scientific and industrial purposes.

File formats

There are many varieties of files supporting 3D graphics, for example, Wavefront .obj files and .x DirectX files. Each filetype generally tends to have its own unique data structure.

Each file format can be accessed through their respective applications, such as DirectX files, and Quake. Alternatively, files can be accessed through third party standalone programs, or via manual decompilation.


3D modeling software is a class of 3D computer graphics software used to produce 3D models. Individual programs of this class are called modeling applications or modelers.

3D modelers allow users to create and alter models via their 3D mesh. Users can add, subtract, stretch and otherwise change the mesh to their desire. Models can be viewed from a variety of angles, usually simultaneously. Models can be rotated and the view can be zoomed in and out.

3D modelers can export their models to files, which can then be imported into other applications as long as the metadata are compatible. Many modelers allow importers and exporters to be plugged-in, so they can read and write data in the native formats of other applications.

Most 3D modelers contain a number of related features, such as ray tracers and other rendering alternatives and texture mapping facilities. Some also contain features that support or allow animation of models. Some may be able to generate full-motion video of a series of rendered scenes (i.e. animation).

Computer-aided design (CAD)

Computer aided design software may employ the same fundamental 3D modeling techniques that 3D modeling software use but their goal differs. They are used in computer-aided engineering, computer-aided manufacturing, Finite element analysis, product lifecycle management, 3D printing and computer-aided architectural design.

Complementary tools

After producing video, studios then edit or composite the video using programs such as Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro at the mid-level, or Autodesk Combustion, Digital Fusion, Shake at the high-end. Match moving software is commonly used to match live video with computer-generated video, keeping the two in sync as the camera moves.

Use of real-time computer graphics engines to create a cinematic production is called machinima. [8]


There are a multitude of websites designed to help, educate and support 3D graphic artists. Some are managed by software developers and content providers, but there are standalone sites as well. These communities allow for members to seek advice, post tutorials, provide product reviews or post examples of their own work.[ citation needed ]

Differences with other types of computer graphics

Distinction from photorealistic 2D graphics

Not all computer graphics that appear 3D are based on a wireframe model. 2D computer graphics with 3D photorealistic effects are often achieved without wireframe modeling and are sometimes indistinguishable in the final form. Some graphic art software includes filters that can be applied to 2D vector graphics or 2D raster graphics on transparent layers. Visual artists may also copy or visualize 3D effects and manually render photorealistic effects without the use of filters.

Pseudo-3D and true 3D

Some video games use restricted projections of three-dimensional environments, such as isometric graphics or virtual cameras with fixed angles, either as a way to improve performance of the game engine, or for stylistic and gameplay concerns. Such games are said to use pseudo-3D graphics. By contrast, games using 3D computer graphics without such restrictions are said to use true 3D.

See also

Graphics and software

Fields of use

Related Research Articles

Rendering (computer graphics) Process of generating an image from a model

Rendering or image synthesis is the process of generating a photorealistic or non-photorealistic image from a 2D or 3D model by means of a computer program. The resulting image is referred to as the render. Multiple models can be defined in a scene file containing objects in a strictly defined language or data structure. The scene file contains geometry, viewpoint, texture, lighting, and shading information describing the virtual scene. The data contained in the scene file is then passed to a rendering program to be processed and output to a digital image or raster graphics image file. The term "rendering" is analogous to the concept of an artist's impression of a scene. The term "rendering" is also used to describe the process of calculating effects in a video editing program to produce the final video output.

Computer animation Art of creating moving images using computers

Computer animation is the process used for digitally generating animated images. The more general term computer-generated imagery (CGI) encompasses both static scenes and dynamic images, while computer animation only refers to moving images. Modern computer animation usually uses 3D computer graphics to generate a two-dimensional picture, although 2D computer graphics are still used for stylistic, low bandwidth, and faster real-time renderings. Sometimes, the target of the animation is the computer itself, but sometimes film as well.

Voxel Element representing a value on a grid in three dimensional space

In 3D computer graphics, a voxel represents a value on a regular grid in three-dimensional space. As with pixels in a 2D bitmap, voxels themselves do not typically have their position explicitly encoded with their values. Instead, rendering systems infer the position of a voxel based upon its position relative to other voxels.

Autodesk 3ds Max, formerly 3D Studio and 3D Studio Max, is a professional 3D computer graphics program for making 3D animations, models, games and images. It is developed and produced by Autodesk Media and Entertainment. It has modeling capabilities and a flexible plugin architecture and must be used on the Microsoft Windows platform. It is frequently used by video game developers, many TV commercial studios, and architectural visualization studios. It is also used for movie effects and movie pre-visualization. For its modeling and animation tools, the latest version of 3ds Max also features shaders, dynamic simulation, particle systems, radiosity, normal map creation and rendering, global illumination, a customizable user interface, new icons, and its own scripting language.

Scientific visualization interdisciplinary branch of science concerned with presenting scientific data visually

Scientific visualization is an interdisciplinary branch of science concerned with the visualization of scientific phenomena. It is also considered a subset of computer graphics, a branch of computer science. The purpose of scientific visualization is to graphically illustrate scientific data to enable scientists to understand, illustrate, and glean insight from their data.

In computer graphics, level of detail (LOD) refers to the complexity of a 3D model representation. LOD can be decreased as the model moves away from the viewer or according to other metrics such as object importance, viewpoint-relative speed or position. LOD techniques increase the efficiency of rendering by decreasing the workload on graphics pipeline stages, usually vertex transformations. The reduced visual quality of the model is often unnoticed because of the small effect on object appearance when distant or moving fast.

Non-photorealistic rendering

Non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) is an area of computer graphics that focuses on enabling a wide variety of expressive styles for digital art, in contrast to traditional computer graphics, which focuses on photorealism. NPR is inspired by other artistic modes such as painting, drawing, technical illustration, and animated cartoons. NPR has appeared in movies and video games in the form of cel-shaded animation as well as in scientific visualization, architectural illustration and experimental animation.

Real-time computer graphics

Real-time computer graphics or real-time rendering is the sub-field of computer graphics focused on producing and analyzing images in real time. The term can refer to anything from rendering an application's graphical user interface (GUI) to real-time image analysis, but is most often used in reference to interactive 3D computer graphics, typically using a graphics processing unit (GPU). One example of this concept is a video game that rapidly renders changing 3D environments to produce an illusion of motion.

Low poly

Low poly is a polygon mesh in 3D computer graphics that has a relatively small number of polygons. Low poly meshes occur in real-time applications as contrast with high-poly meshes in animated movies and special effects of the same era. The term low poly is used in both a technical and a descriptive sense; the number of polygons in a mesh is an important factor to optimize for performance but can give an undesirable appearance to the resulting graphics.

Software rendering

Software rendering is the process of generating an image from a model by means of computer software. In the context of computer graphics rendering, software rendering refers to a rendering process that is not dependent upon graphics hardware ASICs, such as a graphics card. The rendering takes place entirely in the CPU. Rendering everything with the (general-purpose) CPU has the main advantage that it is not restricted to the (limited) capabilities of graphics hardware, but the disadvantage that more semiconductors are needed to obtain the same speed.

Clipping, in the context of computer graphics, is a method to selectively enable or disable rendering operations within a defined region of interest. Mathematically, clipping can be described using the terminology of constructive geometry. A rendering algorithm only draws pixels in the intersection between the clip region and the scene model. Lines and surfaces outside the view volume are removed.

Graphic art software

Graphic art software is a subclass of application software used for graphic design, multimedia development, stylized image development, technical illustration, general image editing, or simply to access graphic files. Art software uses either raster or vector graphic reading and editing methods to create, edit, and view art.

3D rendering

3D rendering is the 3D computer graphics process of converting 3D models into 2D images on a computer. 3D renders may include photorealistic effects or non-photorealistic styles.

Computer graphics (computer science) Sub-field of computer science

Computer graphics is a sub-field of computer science which studies methods for digitally synthesizing and manipulating visual content. Although the term often refers to the study of three-dimensional computer graphics, it also encompasses two-dimensional graphics and image processing.

Computer graphics Graphics created using computers

Computer graphics deals with generating images with the aid of computers. Today, computer graphics is a core technology in digital photography, film, video games, cell phone and computer displays, and many specialized applications. A great deal of specialized hardware and software has been developed, with the displays of most devices being driven by computer graphics hardware. It is a vast and recently developed area of computer science. The phrase was coined in 1960 by computer graphics researchers Verne Hudson and William Fetter of Boeing. It is often abbreviated as CG, or typically in the context of film as computer generated imagery (CGI). The non-artistic aspects of computer graphics are the subject of computer science research.

A variety of computer graphic techniques have been used to display video game content throughout the history of video games. The predominance of individual techniques have evolved over time, primarily due to hardware advances and restrictions such as the processing power of central or graphics processing units.

3D modeling

In 3D computer graphics, 3D modeling is the process of developing a mathematical representation of any surface of an object in three dimensions via specialized software. The product is called a 3D model. Someone who works with 3D models may be referred to as a 3D artist or a 3D modeler. A 3D Model can also be displayed as a two-dimensional image through a process called 3D rendering or used in a computer simulation of physical phenomena. The 3D model can be physically created using 3D printing devices that form 2D layers of the model with three-dimensional material, one layer at a time. In terms of game development, 3D modeling is merely a stage in the entire development process. Simply put, the source of the geometry for the shape of an object can be 1. A designer, industrial engineer or artist using a 3D-CAD system, 2. An existing object, reverse engineered or copied using a 3-D shape digitizer or scanner or 3. Mathematical data stored in memory based on an numerical description or calculation the object.

Computer-generated imagery Application of computer graphics to create or contribute to images

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is the application of computer graphics to create or contribute to images in art, printed media, video games, simulators, computer animation and VFX in films, television programs, shorts, commercials, and videos. The images may be dynamic or static, and may be two-dimensional (2D), although the term "CGI" is most commonly used to refer to the 3-D computer graphics used for creating characters, scenes and special effects in films and television, which is described as 'CGI animation'. It was first used in the 1986 film Flight of the Navigator (film).

This is a glossary of terms relating to computer graphics.


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