CGI Developments in Film


CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is a visual effect that creates animations and objects in 2D or 3D. 2D imagery includes text, objects, backgrounds, and environments; 3D imagery includes figures, spaces, and environments. CGI can be used to render films, television programs, video games, and simulations. We are only going to focus on the film section of CGI because it is such a vast topic. 

CGI was first introduced to film in the 1960s and is now used in almost every movie released. The people behind CGI are simply called CGI artists. These people have a very tedious job to do and work on the film in many ways. They can use imagery to manipulate the eye into believing the illusion displayed. If the CGI artists do a poor job, they destroy the illusion. Although, it is unlikely that the blockbuster movies you have seen have terrible CGI work. Being, it requires fine precision and attention to detail, big movie franchises do not settle for poor artists. 

Now, we will dip our toes into the wide world of CGI to understand how it has developed over the years. We will take a look at the first film to feature CGI and some of the most recent films. We will also understand how it has transformed the film industry. 

(Westworld Film Image 1973)

To look at some of the first CGI we have to go back almost 70 years. “Mechanical computers were repurposed to create patterns onto animation cells which were then incorporated into a feature film.” (The Ultimate History of CGI in Film) This was the first-ever computer animation and was shown in the movie Vertigo (1958). An 850-pound mechanical computer was used to produce the opening of the movie. 5 people had to operate the bulky piece of equipment. Overall, Vertigo was a trailblazer when it came to animation in films. 

Another film that was revolutionary in the cinema industry was Westworld (1973). This was the first digital animation in a feature film. Unlike Vertigo, which was done with a pendulum and then turned into an animation, Westworld was created all on a computer. Westworld was a blend of CGI and live-action. As seen in the image above, CGI was very pixelated. Even though the quality is what it is today, it was still a very tedious process. “Because [they] didn’t have a color scanner, the workload was tripled: M.G.M.’s optical department made color separations of the film—one set of black-and-white footage for each of the three primary colors—that [they] needed to process separately, image by image. The computer processing itself took about eight hours per ten-second sequence” (How Michael Crichton’s “Westworld” Pioneered Modern Special Effects).  Westworld walked into uncharted territory with the use of digital animation.

Since 1958 and 1973, CGI has advanced in countless ways. The process of creating a digital image is faster and much better quality. CGI now has much better equipment than in previous decades. It also is used in almost every big blockbuster movie now. RenderThat claims that the average cost of CGI, animation, and 3D effects amounted to 33.7 million dollars per movie in 2018 (CGI Animated Movie Production Costs). The use of digital effects is so expensive because of the concentration required and the material needed is not cheap. 

Many movie franchises use CGI to take their films to the next level. Superhero movies are notoriously known for their massive amounts of CGI. The 3 most expensive movies with CGI are Spider-Man 3 (2007) with a $258 million total, Superman Returns (2006) $270 Million, and Avengers: Endgame (2019) sitting at a whopping $356 million. The uses of CGI are now endless, they can allow for an action-packed movie with insane special effects, or a simple adding of more textures to the background of a scene. The limitless possibilities empower producers and artists to push the limits.  

We have only touched the surface of what CGI is and how it has advanced. There is so much more to discover. But, we now know what CGI looks like and who is behind it. From the tedious job of putting together digital pixels to watching it on the big screen, it takes a lot of time, work, and money to get the job done. The computer-generated images in Westworld may seem archaic compared to the Marvel movies but, that is what has gotten the industry where it is. The pioneers of previous decades were brave enough to take a risk that paid off immensely.

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