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Filmmaking 101: What is CGI in Movies and Animation?

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer
Updated

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) encompasses a significant part of what we see as 3D graphics in video games, films, and television. It's used to create characters, environments, backgrounds, special effects, and even entire animated films. In the world of filmmaking, these computer-generated visuals fall under the domain of the visual effects (VFX) team. 3D computer graphics are a critical component of CGI, enabling the creation of lifelike and fantastical elements in digital media. The process of creating these computer-generated images involves sophisticated software and skilled artists to bring virtual worlds to life.

We'll explore the components of CGI in the context of cinema and animation, delve into the functioning of this technology, trace its development over time, and highlight some well-known examples of CGI.

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What is CGI and CGI animation: Understanding computer-generated imagery in film and media

CGI, short for computer-generated imagery, extends beyond just animation and visual effects in movies. It's a versatile technology that finds application in various fields such as art, print media, video games, simulations, architectural and anatomical modeling, advertising, news, television, and animated visual content. Innovations like AI image generators, including DALL-E, MidJourney, and Deep Dream, harness deep learning to create artificial images in a multitude of styles from text prompts.

CGI leverages computer graphics to produce both 2D and 3D content for print, screen, film, television, video games, simulations, and virtual reality. In animation and film, CGI may be the sole technique used, or it might be combined with live-action footage in blockbuster movies to generate composite scenes. CGI is capable of producing everything from simple flat shapes to intricate 3D models, complete with diverse lighting, reflective surfaces, particle effects, and physics that mimic reality. This process involves sophisticated software, potentially supplemented by 3D capturing techniques, and significant computing power for a process known as rendering, which finalizes the sequence of frames.

In the context of filmmaking, CGI is crucial for producing both two-dimensional elements like text, objects, backgrounds, or environments, and three-dimensional elements such as characters, landscapes, and complete scenes. High-quality, detailed CGI is used to create visual effects and composite images that are either highly realistic or convincing enough to engage viewers' suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, poor quality rendering can lead to visual inconsistencies and unconvincing effects. Animated films, while often adopting a stylized, cartoon-like appearance, can also utilize advanced and detailed computer generated imagery to achieve realistic effects.

Computer animation and CGI: Understanding the scope and limitations of CGI effects

Computer-generated images can be static, yet they transform into computer animation when they form a sequence of frames, thereby creating motion. Such animations result in dynamic images or movies without viewer interaction. Unlike these, virtual reality and video games also employ CGI but uniquely allow user interaction with their virtual environments.

In filmmaking and animation, CGI has evolved distinctly from traditional frame-by-frame animation, which involved hand-drawn illustrations, stop-motion, or claymation techniques. It's important to note that CGI effects do not encompass these older methods. However, contemporary animated films often creatively combine CGI with these traditional animation techniques.

It's also essential to distinguish the term CGI in other contexts. In the world of web development and computer science, CGI stands for Common Gateway Interface, a standard for data exchange between web servers and applications. This distinction is crucial to avoid confusion, especially in professional settings where specifying the need for a CGI specialist in computer graphics, as opposed to CGI programming, is vital for a film project.

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Exploring CGI animation: How filmmakers use CGI for visual effects

CGI has revolutionized the field of visual effects (VFX) in filmmaking. Before CGI, VFX artists relied heavily on practical effects using props, lighting, and models. Today, CGI has expanded the horizons of what's possible in film production:

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    Pre-visualization: VFX artists employ CGI for pre-visualization, using 3D computer models to simulate live-action shots. This allows directors and cinematographers to preview and experiment with visual approaches and narrative elements without the need for physical staging.
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    2D Animation: CGI animation is not just about creating three-dimensional worlds. It also enables animators to create 'flat' characters and environments, suitable for simpler visualizations or cartoon-like animated movies.
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    3D Modeling: Within the VFX department, CGI is used to craft 3D objects, characters, and entire scenes from scratch. These can be integrated seamlessly into existing footage, such as placing CGI characters alongside real actors.
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    3D Animation: CGI animation can bring to life entire worlds and characters, allowing the creation of full-length films set entirely in virtual environments. This aspect of CGI has been pivotal in modern animation cinema.
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    Special Effects: CGI's versatility extends to modifying elements like lighting, backgrounds, or even altering an actor's appearance, including techniques like de-aging. Furthermore, CGI effects can be used to simulate environmental conditions like rain, storms, or snow, and more dramatic effects like fire and explosions. These capabilities have significantly enhanced the scope and realism of special effects in movies.

CGI techniques and departments in film production

In modern film production, the application of CGI moves beyond the boundaries of just the visual effects (VFX) department. CGI's diverse techniques and uses permeate various roles and stages of the production process:

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    Art Department: Concept artists in the art department and storyboard creators play a crucial role. They translate the script and the director's vision into preliminary visuals, which later inform and influence the style of the CGI created by the visual effects team.
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    Pre-viz Artists: These artists specialize in pre-visualization, crafting basic 3D computer graphics or low-resolution renders to plan out scenes, including camera placement and other vital production aspects.
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    FX Simulation: Artists in this category tackle the creative and technical challenges of realistically simulating particles and fluids. Their work is pivotal in creating believable CGI effects like water, fire, explosions, and textures, as well as simulating hair and other complex materials.
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    Lighting: Critical for composite scenes, lighting artists ensure that the CGI elements match the lighting of live-action footage. They create virtual light sources that mimic real-world lighting, ensuring a seamless blend between digital and real elements.
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    Asset Department: This team focuses on creating models, textures, and shaders for virtual assets. These assets might match real-world objects or be entirely fantastical creations that couldn't exist physically.
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    Research and Development: The R&D team works on optimizing rendering processes, which are both time and resource-intensive. They develop or improve software, tools, and hardware to aid VFX artists in their work.
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    Motion Tracking: Also known as matchmove, this technique involves integrating live-action footage with digital surroundings. It includes aligning virtual camera movements with real camera movements to ensure that virtual and real elements blend smoothly.
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    Rotoscoping: VFX artists in this area create mattes or masks for specific objects, allowing those elements to be altered separately from the rest of the footage, such as for color adjustments.
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    Matte Painting: This digital painting technique produces backgrounds and scenes that are either fantastical or replicates of real locations that are inaccessible for on-location filming.
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    Compositing: The final stage in the process, compositing involves layering various elements like live-action footage, mattes, lighting, computer graphics, animation, and other effects. The end product of this process is a photorealistic shot that combines all these elements seamlessly.

Brief history of technology and CGI in movies and animation

The journey of computer-generated imagery in film and animation began in the 1960s. The early instance of CGI in cinema was Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in 1958, which utilized 2D animated patterns. A significant milestone was the 1972 short film A Computer Animated Hand by Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke, which showcased 3D graphics by digitizing a hand with 350 triangles and polygons. The first feature film to incorporate CGI was Westworld in 1973, featuring a Gunslinger robot vision in 2D.

Advancements continued with the introduction of wire-frame models in films like Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), and The Black Hole (1979). The 1980s, marked by the influence of visual effects pioneers like Industrial Light & Magic, founded by George Lucas in 1975, witnessed a surge in CGI's use in movies. This period saw films like Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and The Abyss (1989) integrating CGI technology.

The 1990s represented a golden era for CGI, with CGI masters maximizing the potential of the technology. Groundbreaking films from this era include Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Toy Story (1995), and The Matrix (1999), each setting new benchmarks for CGI.

In the new millennium, advancements in software and hardware accelerated CGI development. A notable example is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which featured Gollum, a groundbreaking CGI character interacting with live actors. In contemporary cinema, movies like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy have heavily relied on CGI, with some using the technology in up to 90 percent of their shots.

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Examples of CGI in movies

This collection of films, exemplifying the evolution of CGI movies, highlights the progress and creative potential of computer-generated imagery, illustrating the various techniques employed by filmmakers and marking significant advancements in the journey of CGI in cinema.

Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan's venture into space travel showcases a supermassive black hole and a tesseract. The film creatively uses slit-scan photography, a technique reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to digitally create a room representing interlinked timelines, allowing the protagonist to communicate across time.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking Jurassic Park not only spawned a successful franchise but also introduced audiences to lifelike, large-scale computer-generated dinosaurs. The film's VFX team achieved highly realistic movements and textures for the dinosaurs solely through CGI.

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's Avatar stands as a powerhouse in the world of CGI movies, featuring an intricately designed world complete with fantasy creatures, all crafted from scratch and brought to life with detailed models and composites.

The Matrix (1999)

Known for the iconic "bullet time" effect, where time seems to slow down while the camera moves normally, The Matrix set new standards for action movies and their use of CGI.

The Irishman (2019)

Martin Scorsese's epic, spanning over three and a half hours, might not immediately seem CGI-heavy. However, it's renowned for its use of de-aging technology, naturally rejuvenating actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.

Titanic (1997)

Another James Cameron classic, Titanic exemplifies effective use of CGI. The film cleverly blends live-action footage with digital backgrounds and models to recreate the ill-fated ship and its journey.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003)

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is notable for its extensive use of CGI, particularly in bringing the character of Gollum to life. This was one of the earliest uses of 3D motion capture, involving a complex process to align actor Andy Serkis's performance with the CGI character.

Toy Story (1995)

Pixar's debut feature pioneered 3D computer animation in full-length films. Its success established 3D animation as a new standard for animated movies, a trend consistently upheld by Pixar.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

James Cameron's vision of the T-1000, a more formidable adversary than the original Terminator, was realized through extensive use of CGI, creating a villain with unique, liquid metal properties.

Transformers (2007)

Michael Bay's Transformers showcases the intricate detail achievable with CGI. Rendering individual frames sometimes took up to 38 hours due to the complexity of the models, which comprised thousands of parts. This film marked a significant step in CGI evolution, setting the stage for even more complex creations.

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