Computer-generated images (CGI) and 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 where they started becoming big-budget showpieces (sometimes plagued by Unintentional Uncanny Valley for the depiction of people), 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 animation, lighting and compositing is. In live action movie and TV shows, CGI may be used sparingly to add a few special effects sequences or it may be used extensively to depict backgrounds and even replace sets, which has made fantasy and science fiction works more affordable.
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.
Note: Due to the extensive use of CGI, try to keep examples to the really interesting, groundbreaking or creative ones.
- Kitty, a 1:24 minute long Soviet cartoon from 1968, used a computer to create a mathematical model for a walking cat, which was then printed as letters on paper frames.
- The Black Cauldron in 1985 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.
- The Rescuers Down Under from 1990 was the first traditionally animated film to use fully-rendered CG background elements (the aerial shots of New York and the Sydney Opera House, and 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 in 1991.
- Pixar's Toy Story (1995) was the first fully-computer-generated feature film.
- For Tarzan in 1999, 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.
- The first genuine attempt at photo-realistic humans done entirely by computer was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in 2001, as well as the first full-length CGI film with a photo-realistic art style. Previous films such as Terminator and Toy Story downplayed the screentime of humans because they are so difficult to accomplish.
- While 2001's Monsters, Inc. wasn't the first movie to feature CGI fur (that'd be The Flintstones), it was the first to showcase it with Sully's fur, most notably in the Himalayas scenes where it's affected by wind and gets covered in snow.
- The Incredibles in 2004 featured many breakthroughs for CG-animated films, such as an all-human cast, explosions, hair physics and cloth physics, by necessity: it was originally written as a live-action movie.
- On 2012's Brave, the work that was needed on Merida's hair to avert No Flow in CGI with a passion was the hardest by far (Pixar even had to develop a new software in partnership with L'Oréal to animate the damn thing), and the result was one of the most gorgeous and lifelike manes of curled hair ever seen in animation, even to this day.
- 2018's Spider Man Into The Spiderverse is considered a landmark in non-realistic CG rendering in a major studio production. The filmmakers sought to emulate the look and feel of a comic book come to life through the use of Cel Shading, simulation of Ben Day dots and offset printing, line art mapped over the CG models, lower frame rates, hand drawn effects and Written Sound Effects.
- 2022's Turning Red showcased advances in CGI fur with Mei's panda fur shown reflecting her emotions and interacting with cloth, fluidnote and other characters' fur. There are shots with seven distinct furry characters. The film also featured breakthroughs in animated crowds with up to 30,685 characters in a single shot, 303 unique background characters and, in one scene, 494 furry pandas.
- An argument could be made for 1958's Vertigo being 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.
- Westworld from 1973 was the very first feature film to use CGI as an effect during the story itself, using digital image processing to create a pixelated Robo Cam effect.
- Its sequel Futureworld in 1976 featured the first realistic 3D CGI hand and face.
- George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic, founded in 1978, were big drivers behind the use of CGInote . Star Wars was the first major mainstream use, but only for small details like the plans for both Death Stars. Yet over the years, ILM has been behind many of the developments and successful uses.
- The Genesis Sequence in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was Pixar's first animation outside of their shorts. It was also the first CG depiction of fire in a movie!
- TRON from 1982 is usually cited as the first film to use CGI extensively, particularly for entire storytelling and action sequences, and combining it with live-action. Due to the enormous complexity and expense of this however, it only has twenty minutes of actual full CGI, or 18% of the movie. The rest was specially designed sets, matte paintings, and hand-created optical 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 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy is one of the earliest films to replace the head of a character, used to de-age Jeff Bridges for the 80s scenes, as well as for his portrayal of CLU (who was created in the 80s and doesn't age). This technique would later be used for dead actors, such as Peter Cushing in Rogue One and Paul Walker in Furious 7.
- 1984's The Last Starfighter was the first film to use CGI for spaceships, as well as 3D environments in the scene (it shows).
- Labyrinth in 1986 had the first-ever CGI animal with the owl in the opening credits.
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 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.
- Jurassic Park's celebrated use of CGI dinosaurs in 1993 is considered a landmark that convinced the film industry as a whole that computer-generated effects were viable. Similarly to Tron, the amount is actually misleading: of the 15 minutes of dinosaur footage, CGI accounts for only about 6 minutes.
- Jurassic Park is also the first use of digital face replacement, when Lex('s stunt double) looks up to the camera as she holds onto the ceiling during the Raptor escape.
- The stained-glass knight in 1985's 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.
- 1994's The Crow is the first movie to digitally recreate a dead actor, due to the accidental on-set death of Brandon Lee.
- The Matrix in 1999 is utterly famous for the use of Bullet Time in live-action, which in the iconic shot of Neo dodging Agent Smith's bullets used many different cameras on a green-screen set to film Keanu Reeves doing the dodge in slow-motion (hence the name), with the set replaced with CGI. The sequels would abandon this method for full CG, but the original movie is also notable for using virtual cinematography, where a cameraman uses a motion-capture camera object to move a digital one to help plan out shots ahead of time. This technique would be used in later ground-breaking films like Avatar's performance capture.
- The Lord of the Rings features several:
- Massive army battles were accomplished with Massive, a tool which allowed AI-driven crowds to believably perform battles with hundreds of thousands of characters. It was first used in 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring, but is much more famous for its use in the Helm's Deep battle in The Two Towers the following year.
- Gollum was the first notable character to be 100% CGI in nearly every appearance and be celebrated for its believability. Gollum is the Trope Codifier for Serkis Folk, where the performance of a human actor forms the basis of a CGI character that will directly replace them.
- 2005's Sin City used 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.
- Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in 2005 was famous for not having a single on-location shot* , with everything done with green-screen studios. Some sets were complete sets with no green screen however, if only because they had no windows (that being 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).
- Played straight and averted with Michael Bay's Transformers Film Series, starting in 2007. The robots themselves are the most detailed of their time, but nearly all the explosions and similar effects in these movies are actually there on-set.
- X-Men: The Last Stand is the first instance of de-aging CGI, used for Xavier and Magneto in the opening sequence.
- While the original trilogy kept mostly to Practical Effects, CGI was used in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. While hardly the first old-school series to be revived with a work that utilized CGI, it had easily the loudest backlash to it at the time.
- In 2009's Terminator Salvation, the in-universe debut of the T800 is the first time a CGI body double was used, to recreate Arnold Schwarzenegger as he portrayed the model in The Terminator.
- James Cameron's Avatar in 2009 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. It was the first notable film to use motion capture to record the performance of multiple actors in a single space, with the final result being almost entirely CGI.
- 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.
- Walking with Dinosaurs was notable for taking the visual effects of Jurassic Park and doing them on a TV budget, with its success spawning the CGI dinosaur documentary trend.
- 2011's 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.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power used a whopping 9,500 visual effects shots, with a a total of 20 VFX studios and over 1,500 artists across all the studios only for the first season.