Editor’s Note: This is a previous post that we revamped and augmented in June 2021 to celebrate our new video services. while we do not offer cgi, we do offer video production services for a variety of marketing purposes.
Computer generated imagery (cgi) is a broad term that, strictly speaking, covers all types of computer graphics used in a variety of applications, from science to engineering, medicine, and art. Today, the term “cgi” generally brings to mind movies, and specifically their fantastically impressive computer-generated visual effects (vfx).
Film footage can be entirely computer generated (think toy story) or seamlessly integrated into live action footage. You may not even be able to see it, but CGI is used in almost every modern movie, across a wide range of film genres, from science fiction to period films. cgi can be used to create, manipulate, or enhance images to create environments that appear realistic or create characters that appear completely real and ordinary or completely real and out of this world.
Early examples of cgi don’t include realistic creatures from outer space, but you might be surprised at how early computer-generated imagery began to appear in movies. we take a look at some notable cgi achievements from each decade, starting with the 1950s.
cgi in the 1950s
vertigo (1958) — first computer animation
Experimentation with computer graphics and animation began in the 1940s. At the forefront was John Whitney, a pioneer in digital art and animation, who experimented with mechanical animation techniques on custom-made devices built on machinery. antiaircraft ww ll. John Whitney collaborated with Saul Bass, a graphic designer, to create the animated opening sequence for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
the vertigo opening sequence shows a series of spirals emerging and dissolving and actually inducing a sickening vertigo sensation. The design was created by Saul Bass based on the stairway motif from the film that causes the protagonist (Scottie) to feel dizzy. bass insisted that the animation made from the drawings should be extremely precise and therefore not hand-drawn. John Whitney was hired to create the computer animation. He combined the rotation of an m5 pistol director used in World War II with a pendulum holding a paint reservoir with an attached pen to create the spiral drawings for the opening sequence.
cgi in the 1960s
The 1960s were pretty exploding with creativity and innovation judging by the number of “firsts” in the cgi realm. while the results may not seem spectacular to our jaded eyes, they really were at the time.
in the sixties, we saw the first realistic computer animation, the first 3d wireframe animation, the first aircraft simulation, the first digital transformation, the first motion capture, and the first talking cgi character, to mention only some. here are a couple of examples.
catalogue (1961) – first experimental computer-animated film
john whitney is back to create this demo animation with his ww ll flak computer/animation device. The film inspired the visual effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), although the Space Odyssey’s portrayal of floating weightlessly in space was created with cinematic techniques, not a computer.
sine curve man (1967) – first digital transformation of a face
transformation is the combination of images drawn with lines so that they smoothly change into something else. the first morphing was a little movie called hummingbird (csuri – 1967). the sine curve man from the same year takes the transformation one step further, creating a smooth transition from one face to another. The movie was created by Mark Gillenson, using sine curve mapping on a mainframe computer (IBM 360). Since then, the transformation of the face of the computer has appeared frequently, the first most popular application was the 1991 Michael Jackson music video, in black or white.
cgi in the 1970s
Building on the innovation of the 1960s, cgi continued to grow in sophistication and burst onto the world of feature films.
westworld (1973): first combination of digital animation and live action in a feature film
john whitney, jr and gary demos collaborated to produce the altered reality view of the android, gunslinger, achieved with the use of 2d cgi. Westworld, directed by Michael Crichton, was so popular that it merited a sequel, Futureworld (1976), which also incorporated innovative CGI, namely the rendering of a 3D head.
star wars (1977)
This new technology was used for the trench race briefing sequence in the first star wars movie. George Lucas brought digital to Hollywood with Star Wars. it moved the industry from 8mm film to digital filmmaking as we know it now, and that ultimately led to the incredible visual effects we have today.
Larry Cuba, who worked at the University of Illinois Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL), explains his part in the computer graphics of Star Wars I in the following video.
The first alien movie depicted the navigation monitors in the landing sequence using a wireframe model.
cgi in the 1980s
Even as computer power increased exponentially, CGI continued to push the boundaries of what was possible. while there are still plenty of “firsts”, like this first live action/combination with cgi in tron (1982), or the liquid metal transformation in 1985, this decade really shined in the way it improved the finesse of cgi, providing the experience. to a whole new level.
dire straits: money for nothing (1985)
the first computer generated music video.
The video used computer animation to illustrate the song’s lyrics and was one of the first uses of computer-animated human characters. The animators subsequently founded the computer animation studio Rainmaker Animation (formerly Mainframe Entertainment) which is responsible for Reboot, the first CGI animated series.
The 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth featured the first use of a realistic CGI animal. a flying digital owl is seen in the opening credits.
star trek iv: the journey home (1986)
star trek iv featured the first 3d morphing and contained the first use of the cyberware 3d scanner. Cyberware’s 3D scanner produced the heads of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as disembodied cyber sculptures.
watch the video below to see how it was done.
the abyss (1989)
In the 1989 sci-fi movie The Abyss used the first 3D digital water effect. the aquatic alien creature was the first example of digitally animated cgi water and was the first computer generated 3d character.
indiana jones and the last crusade (1989)
used the first fully digital composite, the process of digitally assembling multiple images to make a final image. The fully digital composition was used to show the rapid aging and eventual death of Walter Donovan. (starting at 3:27 in the video clip below)
cgi in the 1990s
Technology, art, live action, and computer-produced characters blend seamlessly this decade in a breakthrough in the sophisticated use of the computer to create believable alternate worlds.
total memory (1990)
The governor’s 1990 film total removal included motion capture for cgi characters. motion capture is the process of recording movement and translating it into a digital model. this was used for the skeletal cgi characters behind an x-ray screen in a subway shooting scene.
backdraft included the first use of photorealistic cgi fire.
terminator 2: judgment day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day features the first realistic human movements in a CGI character and the first use of a computer to create 3D special effects in a major motion picture.
jurassic park (1993)
The first installment in the Jurassic Park series featured the first photorealistic CG creatures. the film used a mix of animatronics and computer generated dinosaurs.
toy story (1995)
The first film in the Toy Story series was the first feature film made entirely with CGI animation. This was the first film for Pixar Animation Studios, a California-based CGI computer animation production company that went on to produce many groundbreaking animated films in association with Disney.
titanic at the time of its release was the most expensive film ever made. it was the first use of open source linux rendered elements in a movie. the film also included unprecedented advances, especially in the depiction of flowing water. CG and miniature models were used to represent the ship as it sank at the end of the film.
the matrix (1999)
The 1999 science fiction film Matrix included the first use of cg interpolation in bullet time effects. bullet time refers to the slowest rotating action sequences. cg interpolation was used to enhance actors in wires shot with motion capture and multiple still cameras shooting from all angles.
cgi in the 2000s
We’ve gotten so used to cgi and it’s become so well done by now that we barely even notice it. technology is truly the servant of art.
the lord of the rings: the fellowship of the ring (2002)
Lotr’s first movie gave us the first use of AI for digital actors. The Gollum character later seen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was the first photorealistic motion-captured character for film. a motion capture suit recorded movements which were then applied to the digital character.
the polar express (2004)
The Polar Express was the first film to use character motion capture technology for each of the actors in the film.
the dream of the elephants (2006)
elephants dream, released in 2006, was the first completely open source cgi short film released. All 3D models, animations, and software are included on the DVD release for free to use under the Creative Commons license.
monsters vs aliens (2009)
monsters vs aliens was the first computer-animated feature film to be shot directly in stereoscopic 3d. 3d cgi movies were previously made in a non-3d version and then dimensionalized.
cgi in the 2010s & beyond
The field continues to expand as software and computers advance to bring to life the imaginative worlds of countless filmmakers.
rise of the planet of the apes (2011)
A couple of movies were released in a row using photorealistic animal cgi. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar, the lead ape, combined with CGI work to create a believable animal that is not only realistic, but conveys a fully developed character with emotion and intelligence.
the life of pi (2012)
all shots of tiger on ship were created with very advanced cgi. The actor, Suraj Sharma, has never been near a real tiger.
gravity’s stunning photorealistic zero gravity rendering was achieved through cgi.
blade runner 2049 (2017)
In one scene, the replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), appears exactly as she did thirty-five years ago in the original Blade Runner (1982). actress loren peta acted in the scene and her features were changed with the help of cgi to recreate rachael.
Of course, this is only a partial list, but we hope you’ve enjoyed exploring cgi’s growth journey from vertigo-inducing spirals to the computer-generated world of outer space gravity.