Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is the process of creating still or animated visual content using computer software. CGI is most frequently used to refer to the three-dimensional computer graphics used to generate characters, scenes, and special effects in motion pictures, television, and video games. Additionally, technology is applied in a variety of fields, including advertising, architecture, engineering, virtual reality, and even art.
CGI is often employed these days since it is frequently less expensive than physical methods that rely on intricate miniatures, employing extras for crowd scenes, and most frequently, when the visuals are simply not safe or physically viable to construct.
CGI is made in a variety of ways. Algorithms can be used to generate complicated fractal patterns. Vector forms can be created with 2D pixel-based picture editors. 3D graphics software may be used to produce a wide variety of shapes, from simple primitive shapes to complicated formations constructed from flat triangles and quadrangles. Even more advanced 3D software can model how light interacts with a surface and generate particle effects.
When computer-generated imagery is overlaid onto digital film footage via a process called compositing, CGI becomes truly spectacular. People are becoming more familiar with this method, which is frequently referred to as a green screen.
For those interested in a chronological overview, you can read the timeline of computer-generated imagery in film and television. For the remainder of you, I’ve compiled a list of what I believe are the most significant milestones in the evolution of CGI.
The history of computer-generated imagery dates all the way back to the 1950s when mechanical computers were repurposed to make patterns on animation cels that were subsequently included into a feature picture. The first film to incorporate computer-generated imagery was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
Alfred may have gotten the ball rolling early with some 2D trickery, but it wasn’t until 1972 that Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke introduced the world to 3D computer graphics with their computer-animated short film A Computer Animated Hand. Edwin accomplished this achievement by hand-drawing 350 triangles and polygons and then digitizing and laboriously animating the data in a 3D animation program that Catmull created.
A few years later, with the assistance of Hollywood, CGI made another leap forward. In 1973, Westworld tested its muscles with the first two-dimensional computer-generated imagery scenario demonstrating “Gunslinger” vision – a depiction of how robots may see. The film was such a hit that it spawned a sequel.
Futureworld pushed the bounds of computer-generated imagery even further when it rendered a three-dimensional head using the same techniques as Edwin Catmull. The kicker is that studio bosses integrated Edwin’s original hand animation into the film. About a decade later, the Oscars recognized this incredible effort with a Scientific & Engineering Academy Award.
Edwin Catmull’s hand was subsequently included in the hit film FutureWorld.
Soon after robot cowboys assailed the world, Industrial Light & Magic developed a classic piece of cinema history that showcased the true power of computer-generated imagery. In Star Wars: A New Hope’s Trench Run Briefing, a wireframe representation of the Death Star was shown to assist the Rebel Alliance with some last-minute preparation. Directed by George Lucas, the film and its stunning imagery would ultimately be credited with indirectly ushering in the era of computer graphics.
Let’s go ahead and kick Darth Vader’s buttocks.
Years passed before computers fully harnessed the power of computer-generated imagery and enabled directors to bring their visions to life. By the late 1970s, computer-generated imagery began to appear in a few of science fiction films, including The Black Hole (for more wireframe goodness) and Alien (another wireframe).
As the 1980s approached, Industrial Light & Magic shifted into high gear and forever altered cinema with the release of Tron in 1982. Due to the film’s anticipated complexity and the fact that it would include a first-time Producer and Director, Disney nearly passed up the opportunity. While the film did not shatter box office records, it did go on to win an Academy Award fourteen years later.
CGI continued to push the bounds of computer power in the 1980s – just look at how brilliant The Last Starfighter (1984) and The Abyss (1989) were – and more companies jumped in to experiment with this mesmerizing fusion of technology and art.
In the 1990s, computers enabled CGI masters to take their ideas and newly discovered techniques to new heights. Numerous ground-breaking films were released during this decade, including Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Toy Story (1995), Star Wars Special Editions (1995), and, of course, The Matrix (1999). (1999).
ILM, Stan Winston Studios, and Phil Tippett led the way with several of these films, including probably the best computer-generated imagery of all time – Jurassic Park (1993). With this achievement, many CGI artists say Jurassic Park offers the best visual effects to date. What really changed at this point was how they employed a combination of actual performers, animatronics, and CGI to successfully bring dinosaurs to life alongside the actors.
After 2000, CGI accelerated exponentially. The requirement for increased computer power, improved software, and novel concepts aided in the development of an abundance of computer-generated imagery films, the most noteworthy of which being Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Avatar, and Up.
CGI is now a necessary component of all feature films – even those you might not expect to include it. There is simply no pixel that is unaffected by CGI these days. Consider Jurassic Park once more; director Steven Spielberg and his team created a total of 63 visual effects shots for this film. By comparison, one of the most successful films of all time, The Avengers, contains almost 2,200 visual effects shots created using computer generated imagery. Additionally, 90 minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction’s running duration features computer-generated imagery. Even the critically acclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy depended on computer-generated imagery for 2,750 shots. In other words, 90% of Guardians contains CGI in some form.