Since the beginning of cinema near the end of the 19th century, cinematographers have always used diverse and creative tools to bring their ideas to life. From such humble tricks as simple splicing and multiple exposures, cinema effect production has come a long way with innovative tools. Computers would prove to be one of the most revolutionary tools for the future of cinema.
In the late 60s, the first CGI animation was created by Charles Csuri. His short film, known as Hummingbird, was awarded a prize at the 4th annual International Experimental Film Competition. While the animations of the time were short and simple, CGI would go on to play a major role in cinema ever since, as is evident throughout modern media.
Just about everyone is familiar with Star Wars, one of the most popular and beloved franchises of all time. The first film used some of the most state of the art CGI at the time, which helped elevate the cinematography of this space opera to new levels. In turn, it also inspired countless others to find novel applications of CGI.
Today, CGI plays a prominent role in cinema and it’s hard to find a movie that doesn’t incorporate it in some way. After all, it’s an incredibly diverse tool that can be used for anything from giant robots and scenic backdrops to the de-aging of an older actor.
The impact ofCGI is clear as day, and it’s something students learn in film schools early on. One of the key questions is—how has CGI affected the movie industry of today? More importantly, what can we expect from CGI going forward? Here, we’ll try to answer these questions.
Replacing practical effects
It goes without saying that practical effects are still an integral part of cinema. Plenty of directors pride themselves on being able to create realistic effects without a touch of CGI, and some wear it as a badge of honour. With that in mind, CGI can and has replaced many different practical effects simply because it is, in fact, practical. Computer generated backgrounds, gadgets, and many other things are now relatively easy to create, though that depends on the level of quality you want to achieve, as well as the scope of a scene. No one is arguing that the lava fight scene or alien cities from Revenge of the Sith would be easy to recreate using standard effects.
Today’s movie production can pick and choose where to use practical effects and computer generated ones depending on the needs of a scene. It’s worth noting that CGI is often used alongside other assets to build on them and create more realistic depictions. This allows for massive flexibility in terms of bringing a scene to life.
Entire movies made with CGI
There’s been a lot of progress since Charles Csuri’s Hummingbird. Instead of ten-minute animations and short CGI sequences, movie studios of the 90s were thinking big. It was only a matter of time before they would create a movie entirely in CGI—which is exactly what Pixar Animation Studios did with Toy Story. It was a massive achievement for computer generated graphics, and its success would only further bolster the studio to continue working with CGI. As we all know, the pioneers at Pixar continue to create excellent movies that are entirely CGI.
The implications of this success were clear from the start—it’s possible to create an enticing and successful film from scratch using CGI. While this may not be the direction of all future movies, it shows that the technology has limitless potential, as long as it’s backed by a good vision and talented animation studio.
While animation was always a handy way to create characters, it was hard to imagine that it could truly recreate the expressions of a real human. Even with advanced CGI, recreating the subtle, natural movements and expressions of an individual’s face was quite the challenge. At least it was, until Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: A Phantom Menace introduced CGI motion capture to the world.
The iconic character Gollum came face-to-face with other actors in the movie, even though he was made with CGI—though not entirely. Andy Serkis was used as a model for motion capture, which allowed Gollum’s expressions and mannerisms to look as natural as the actor that was portraying them indirectly.
It took until Avatar for this to go a step further. In James Cameron’s massive box office hit, CGI took a pioneering turn. Motion capture was joined with facial capture to record actors’ facial expressions so that they can later be rendered. With its cutting-edge CGI, Avatar took the world by storm—and it wouldn’t be the last time a film used this level of CGI technology, either.
Affordable special effects
We’ve talked about CGI in the context of large-scale, record-breaking movies, but that’s not all that CGI is made for. While it may have been an expensive tool in the past, it’s only getting cheaper with time. As a result, today’s CGI can be used in everything from small-scale ads to indie movies. Obviously, the scale of the project and the time it takes to complete it will impact the price of the computer generated content.
While plenty of CGI studios exist today, it can be difficult to find one that does high-quality animations. If you’re working on a film or other kind of project and you want to incorporate CGI elements, you should try to contact a reputable CGI artist and review their portfolio. That way, you can be sure that you will receive quality work.
Recreated historical scenes
One of the great things about CGI is that it can bring historical events to life as well. One of the most notable applications of CGI in this context is the 2001 movie Pearl Harbour. Shots of the USS Arizona were used alongside computer generated images to model the sequence, making for realistic and eye-catching views.
The technology has the potential to bring any kind of historical scene to the big screen without issue. Whether it’s long-gone civilizations and monuments that were destroyed or interesting backdrops, CGI can make it happen. The classrooms of tomorrow might look different if historically-accurate CGI movies come into play.
The world of cinema was shaken by the rapid advance of CGI, and opinions of the technology range from polarized to overwhelmingly positive. The negative reactions tend to be directed at bad and tasteless usage of CGI, so they should be taken with a grain of salt. One thing’s for sure—CGI has revolutionized the film industry, and it’s likely here to stay. It’s hard to argue against it, especially considering how much progress it has made so quickly.
As the technology improves, it may become more advanced and reliable than some visual effects. The increased accessibility will help in this regard. It won’t ever replace real actors or settings, but it can bring extra flair and charm to any movie if used correctly. Studios like Pixar may continue to use it to make movies from scratch, while others will use it as a supplementary technology. What this means for the future of cinema isn’t certain, but it’s poised to become one of the most important tools for filmmakers everywhere.