Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) plays a hugely important part in the success of modern films. CGI is the creation of moving or still graphics and is used in everything from TV and films to games and AR or VR. CGI is now so flawless that it can be integrated within live-action without being able to tell the difference, or it can be used stand-alone to create something incredibly realistic; take The Lion King (2019) for instance, the animals in the film were so realistic that you could almost believe that they were real. But it hasn’t always been that effective. So we thought we’d dive into the history of CGI by studying some of our favourite CGI in movies.
One of the earliest films to combine film and animation is the 1963 classic, Jason and the Argonauts. Watching the film now, it’s hard to see how an audience was ever captived enough by this early ‘CGI’ to see it as believable! Ray Harryhausen was brought in to work on the animation in the film, he chose to use stop-motion animation and CGI to tell the Greek epic. One of the best uses of CGI in the film is the terrifying appearance of the skeletons. The 5-minute stop-motion attack of the skeletons took over 3 months to film.
In 1982 Tron took it one step further by mixing live-action and CGI fluently. Just under 20 minutes of computer-generated moving images were used during the film, alongside this, there were over 200 scenes in which the buildings, vehicles and general backgrounds were created using CGI.
Photorealistic CGI was used in 1989 for The Abyss. In the film, the characters interact with a ‘pseudopod’ water creature which was made using CGI. Industrial Light and Magic, a motion picture visual effects company set up by George Lucas, had to build new software that generated random wave and shape movement, especially for the film. The actor’s expressions were then scanned and software re-created the face in a moving liquid form. The 75 seconds clip of the ‘pseudopod’ took over 6 months to produce and was initially written into the script in a way that allowed for it to be easily edited out if the CGI didn’t work.
The software used in The Abyss returned again in 1991 for the Terminator 2. In the film, the T1000 robot is able to shapeshift, which allows him to emerge through the floor, walk through walls and become different people. To make this possible the Abyss software and motion capture was used to turn Robert Patrick into a CGI person that was able to shapeshift.
Forrest Gump is an iconic film in more ways than one, but specifically when it comes to CGI. Several scenes in the film rely on CGI. One of the most obvious CGI clips was when Forrest meets JFK at the Whitehouse and is able to interact with him. But one of the less well-known uses of CGI in the film was to improve Tom Hanks ping pong playing! In the film, Gump represents America in a game against China: but to achieve the level of skill needed to make the scene look believable they relied on CGI. Both Tom Hanks and his opposition had to pretend to hit the ball in time to a metronome beat of the ping pong ball bounce, the ping pong ball was then added in post.
You can’t talk about CGI classics without mentioning James Camerons’ 2009 blockbuster, Avatar. Cameron initially came up with the concept in 1990 but had to wait until technology was good enough to support his ideas, as 70% of the film relied on CGI. Cameron was able to achieve such realistic CGI characters was making the actors wear skull caps fitted with tiny cameras position in front of the actor’s face. This method allowed the filmmakers to transfer 100% of the actor’s physical performances onto the CGI character. But with Avatar 2 and 3 due to be released in the coming years who knows what Cameron has up his sleeve in terms in CGI, but we’re sure that it will be phenomenal.