Special effects were initially created for movies by building detailed miniatures and using those to film what was not possible on a larger scale. A well-known example of this technique is the epic spaceship battle scenes from Star Wars and other movies of that time. CGI is the application of computer graphics to produce these special effects, most commonly used in movies, video games and commercials.
Early examples of CGI application can be seen in Westworld (1973) and the sequel Futureworld (1976). Graduates Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke used animation to create a hand that could be seen moving on a TV screen. This may seem minor to us now but it was revolutionary at the time and started a movement that would transform film and advertising. The hand was a mould of Catmull’s left hand which was built by drawing 350 triangles and polygons on to the model. It was then digitised and slowly animated in a 3D animation program written by Catmull. Ed Catmull later became the co-founder of Pixar which has gone on to dominate the animated content on our big screens.
The first notable CGI investments were in Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984). Both were, unfortunately, financial failures but they were instrumental in showing movie makers what was possible. The Abyss won the Academy Award for Visual Effects in 1989 for the sea creature that appeared in the film. CGI initially came at a high cost but is now more affordable than building the miniatures or hiring big crowds. One person can now do all of this without the aid of actors which has led to CGI playing a big role in a large number of films today.
1995 saw the first completely CGI made film, Toy Story, come to life on our screens. It has been named as one of the best films of all time and in a way signalled an end to the traditional methods of animation. While this is a sad loss it is also an inevitable progression.
While CGI is now the obvious way forward it still presents some challenges. Monster’s University, another Pixar creation, took over a year to render even with Pixar making use of render farms to aid the process. These render farms housed approximately 2000 computers with 24 000 cores which is an incredible amount of computing power used solely to render a 100-minute animation film.
The boundaries are regularly being challenged with incredible lifelike CGI being used to make movies like ‘Avatar’ and the latest Marvel installation ‘Avengers: Endgame’. It is difficult to imagine what is still to come.