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"How'd you do this?"

Computer-generated graphics have been a revolution in filmmaking. From a slow start in the late seventies, through the eighties where they were seen as a less-than-fully-practical utility, to the nineties and beyond when they started to become nearly ubiquitous in all blockbusters and even many less Special Effects-heavy films and became cheap enough to appear on TV.

Computer-generated images have given us Serkis Folk, extreme slow motion, and the only chances at effective screen adaptations of Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. On the other hand, its early days were full of very obvious clashing, Special Effect Failure, and Narm. In fact, it still can be, depending on how powerful the machines are and how skillful the renderers are.

For this reason, some filmmakers have had a sort of Hype Aversion to the use of computer-generated effects, proudly sticking to Practical Effects, while others have leapt on it as a chance to realise what they were imagining all those years before.


See also All-CGI Cartoon.

Note: Due to the extensive use of CGI, try to keep examples to the really interesting ones.


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    Films — Animation 
  • Kitty, a 1:24 minute long Soviet cartoon. Made in 1968.
  • Toy Story was the first fully-computer-generated feature film.
  • The first genuine attempt at photo-realistic humans done entirely by computer was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
  • The Black Cauldron is the first traditionally animated film to use CGI. This consisted of Rotoscoping wire-frame graphics onto animation cels, creating an effect similar to Cel Shading. Objects created this way include the cauldron itself and the boat used to escape the Horned King's castle. Disney had previously done this sort of shortcut for animating solid objects by rotoscoping models with lines painted on the edges.
    • While Cauldron was first to use CGI, The Great Mouse Detective was the first to publicize it. It was used for the gears inside Big Ben during the climactic fight.
  • The Rescuers Down Under was the first traditionally animated film to use fully-rendered CG background elements (the aerial shots of New York and the Sydney Opera House, the globe in the Travel Montage). Not coincidentally, it was also the first film done entirely with Disney's proprietary Computer-Aided Post-production System (CAPS), which replaced hand-painted cels and optical camera work with digital coloring and compositing. Again, its use wasn't widely publicized until the next film—Beauty and the Beast and its celebrated ballroom sequence.
  • For Tarzan, Disney developed a technique known as Deep Canvas, which allowed artists to "paint" on top of CGI models so that they mesh seamlessly with hand-painted backgrounds.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Westworld from 1973 was the very first feature film to use CGI. They used digital image processing to create a Robo Cam effect.
    • Its sequel Futureworld featured a 3D CGI hand and face.
      • You could argue that the movie Vertigo was the very first film to feature digital art in its iconic opening sequence. The spirals featured in the sequence were made by suspending a pen from a military computer called the M5 gun director. (The M5 was used during World War II to aim anti-aircraft cannons at moving targets.) You can read more info here.
  • George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic were big drivers behind the use of CGI. Star Wars was the first major mainstream use, but only for small details. Yet over the years, ILM has been behind many of the developments and successful uses.
    • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was pretty famous for not having a single on-location shot, with everything done with green-screen studios. Though some sets were complete sets with no green screen, including the interior of the Separatist bunker on Mustafar, and the Tantive IV that would become Leia's ship in the opening of A New Hope.
      • While no first-unit shooting took place on location; second-unit work was carried out in Sicily, Thailand, and Switzerland.
      • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was famous for doing the same on a relatively minuscule budget.
  • While the original trilogy kept mostly to Practical Effects, CGI was used in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • The Last Starfighter was the first film to use CGI for spaceships (it shows).
  • TRON is usually cited as the first film to use CGI extensively, although due to the enormous complexity and expense of this, it only has twenty minutes of actual full CGI. The rest was specially designed sets, matte paintings, and hand-drawn effects (for the glowing Tron Lines).
    • The "Solar Sailer" sequence in TRON is not only the first use of actual polygonal rendered geometry on film (as opposed to rendered primitives like the Recognizers and Light Cycles), it is also still considered a triumph in the art even today.
  • The stain-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes is the first computer-generated character in a feature film. It was done by Pixar, back when it was still part of ILM.
  • Played straight and averted with Michael Bay's Transformers Film Series. The robots themselves are the most detailed to date, but nearly all the explosions and similar effects in these movies are actually there on-set.
  • James Cameron's Avatar used extensive CGI (in 3D) for most creatures of the alien moon Pandora, as well as the motion-captured Na'vi aliens, human technology, etc. to very good effect.
  • Sin City had sets that were almost 100% computer generated and CGI was used to spot-color many shots or even splice two actors into the same scene.
  • The Genesis Sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was Pixar's first animation outside of their shorts.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day introduced the T-1000 liquid metal android, complete with transforming its arms into blades and turning into different characters. One of the most iconic shots from the film is the completely silver humanoid figure marching out of a fireball and slowly reforming into a cop.

    Live-Action TV 
  • CGI caught on much sooner in broadcasting than it did in film, largely due to the smaller budgets involved, and most of its appearances on TV were in advertising, Station Identification and educational shows like The Electric Company (1971) due to its strange but eye-catching appearance. The first computers used in video work were analog machines like Scanimate, which were in turn based on the switcher consoles used in TV studios (some of which later incorporated Scanimate-like effects such as picture-in-picture). Later on, as digital computers became more capable, animation from companies like Cranston/Csuri, Digital Productions and Pacific Data Images became common, as did special-effects systems like the Chyron and the Paintbox. TV commercials are also what kept Pixar alive in the years between leaving ILM and the premiere of Toy Story.
  • 1990s TV classic Babylon 5 was only made possible by using CGI. Having received heavily burned fingers due to the massive budget overruns of V (1983), Warner Bros. was not willing to stump up a mega budget for JMS's epic space opera, and using CGI was literally the only way the show could get made.
  • In Sanctuary, most of the time the only non-CGI things on screen are the actors, the clothes on their backs, and the chairs they sit on. The show completely dispenses with building sets and simply uses blue screen backgrounds, even for relatively "normal" locations like Magnus's office. This also makes Sanctuary one of the cheapest sci-fi programs on TV.
  • Doctor Who experimented with it as soon as it became available—this means its first use was in 1966, in the printed letter effect motif used for the titles of "The Tenth Planet". Some more complex but still simple 2D CGI began to appear also relatively early in 1977, although these were 2D animations and mostly used as a mask for CSO of Practical Effects (see the TARDIS forced transportation effect and the 'staircase descent' vortex effect in "The Deadly Assassin"). In the same season and year, 2D computer animation was CSOed onto a physical prop to create the effect on the eyes of the robot revolutionaries in "The Robots of Death". The late 80s saw the opening sequence reimagined with CGI for the first time, as well as the first uses of 3D CGI in the show itself (notably the regeneration from the Sixth to Seventh Doctor). The new series uses it copiously.
  • Soviet Storm: World War II in the East is notable in that, during all reenacted scenes, real War Reenactors are supplanted by CGI tanks, vehicles, and aircraft.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): CGI


Welcome to Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park was one of the first ever great uses of CGI.

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