What is CGI? How Reality and CGI Blend in Films

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Journey through the history of CGI and take look at how this art form may influence the future of filmmaking.

The history of CGI really starts on the silver screen. Some of the first examples of the art form were born for the television audience. The technology has progressed in a very linear way right before our eyes.

Filmmakers once relied exclusively upon practical effects and optical illusions. That is to say, they could manipulate the viewer’s perspective with things like camera angle, lens choice, and specially-crafted sets. This eventually gave way to manipulating images using a computer (and different softwares) that allowed artists to mold and shape anything their mind could conceive—and that is what pushed CGI technology forward.

It’s essential to make particular distinctions between different areas of CGI. For example, the difference between live action, practical effects, and CGI. It might seem so simple, right?

In fact, you may often interchange VFX and CGI, but they are not the same. It’s true that CGI falls under the VFX category. However, in practice, VFX includes the use of compositing a matte painting, removing stunt cables, and adding snow to the ground. CGI on the other hand strictly uses computer graphics to create or contribute to the medium.

I think it’s easy to say, “well, aren’t they the same thing?”

Here’s a great example in a behind-the-scenes image from Marvel’s The Avengers. We see Mark Ruffalo in a mo-cap suit, which the production used as a foundation for the CGI model of Hulk. However, in the background, we can see they’re filming in a studio with a green screen. Given the yellow cab with “New York” on the door, we also know that VFX artists will composite a New York street behind the talent.

The creation of the Hulk character will be aided by the data from that MoCap suite. That’s CGI. Compositing the New York street into the background of the scene will be aided by the use of green screen. Thats VFX.

Hulk - CGI
New York Street - VFX
Image via Marvel Studios.

Now more than ever, the two are being intertwined in mind-blowing ways. Most recently, the (extremely significant) arrival of virtual backgrounds that almost replace green screens serves a new way of lighting. The technology is in its infancy has taken some criticism…but we’ll talk more about that in a little bit.

As technology and virtual production have progressed, there are live previews of what the CGI character will look like interacting with the actors. This makes it easier for an actor to deliver a stellar performance and ground them in the scene.

It’s important to note that it hasn’t always been this way. Where we are today has quite a history of amazing technological advancements in every part of the production space.


The First Uses of CGI

1973’s Westworld and 1977’s Star Wars are some of the first examples of computer-generated imagery being incorporated into major productions. The first use of CGI came from Westworld and only lasted about 10 seconds on screen. Check it out below.

To pull off this effect, John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos used technology from NASA to digitize the image and break it down to numbers. Then the computer was able to take those numbers and play with them in any way possible, changing the colors, squeezing them, stretching, etc. This led to the creation of this POV shot from a robot’s perspective.

So let’s talk about Star Wars for a minute. While most of the effects in the groundbreaking film were a combination of practical effects, miniatures, and light manipulations, one of the pivotal moments in the film was a never-before-seen use of a CGI sequence.

The scene comes towards the film’s end when Luke and his fellow pilots are prepping to attack the Death Star with their X-Wings. We see a 3D sequence on a screen that simulates what they will be doing in their attack. The sequence was created by a team at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory. And, as simple as it looks now, was revolutionary for filmmaking.

It’s not only that we could now create images and objects in a new way. The very idea of how we could tell stories had changed. New possibilities for all types of genres were now fair game.

One of the first completely CGI characters ever put on film (that has a significant role in the film with lots of dialogue and plot importance) was 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace‘s own Jar Jar Binks.

Yes, this character has become quite the meme and was often laughed at because of the roughness of the CGI. Still, the significance of having a character entirely crafted from CGI interacting with the actors in real-time has massive significance.

The actor that played Jar Jar Binks wore a suit that was later replaced digitally. While some argue that the stained-glass knight from Young Sherlock was the first CGI character, Jar Jar was the first character that actually spoke and interacted with the actors.


Iconic Uses of CGI

The biggest blockbusters of all time, regardless of genre or subject, all have one thing in common. They’re big-budgeted productions with heavy CGI use throughout the entire film. Think big action films like Star Wars or the Avengers series with CGI and VFX in nearly every scene.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

While this obviously wasn’t always the case, this norm started to shift somewhere. Look no further than George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope, released in the summer of 1977. The mind-blowing use of CGI elements mixed with practical and miniature effects dawned a new age of filmmaking.

The Star Wars films changed the audience’s expectations for what a summer blockbuster could be. Looking at the ’80s, you see how movies like Tron, Predator, Superman, E.T., and Aliens were influenced by this massive shift in cinema.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

There is a common saying in most film schools: Star Wars started the game, and then Jurassic Park changed the game. While I still think that sentiment is true, there’s one movie I’d like to add to that statement: Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

I would argue this is one of the most influential films ever made when we talk about CGI. T2 gave the audience another big leap in perspective on what CGI could be in a movie.

The villain, the T-1000, was at times a complete CGI liquid metal character that could morph and form into whatever shape it needed to. ILM pushed new CGI technology to the absolute brink. They achieved the effect by painting a 2×2″ grid on actor Robert Patrick, and shooting reference footage of him walking. Then they scanned his head for further modeling.

If you want to dive deeper into the brilliant CGI of T2 check this out. It’s a great breakdown of how the team pulled off one of the most mind-blowing shots in the movie. It’s a first-hand account of how the artist created the sequence. T2 still holds up in terms of visual effects and should be appreciated for it.

Jurassic Park (1995)

Jurassic Park is another juggernaut that changed summer blockbuster expectations forever. Are you tired of hearing me say that? But Jurassic Park really contributed to even bigger leaps in CGI’s history.

The film blends real-life animatronic dinosaur models with CGI dinosaurs, changing how the audience sees the dinosaurs interacting with the actors. When they needed a close-up of a dinosaur head next to a human, they would use a practical dinosaur model. Then for the wider shots, they could use the CGI versions of the dinosaurs, and it provided an ultra realistic look.

This genius blend of perspective and mix of visual effects changed storytelling forever. Jurassic Park will always be known for bringing CGI in as an organic part of the story in a way that improved the heightened sense of realism.

The Matrix (1999)

You already know the scene that blew audiences away. The bullet-time slow-motion dodge that took audiences and the filmmaking world by storm!

Through the use of a 360 camera rig taking individual photos of Keanu Reaves in the middle, the Wachowskis were able to knock down barriers for what actors and CGI could do together. This iconic and flawlessly executed sequence blurred the line more than ever between reality and filmmaking trickery.

Avatar (2009)

If the aforementioned films set the ball, James Cameron came in and spiked it on everyone else.

Avatar was a breathtaking blend of motion capture-CGI madness. The WETA-produced film employed highly detailed face mapping technology of the actors using cameras that could detect even the slightest movement in their facial expressions. That data would then transfer to the computer-generated character models.

Avatar utilized 60% CGI imagery throughout the entire three-hour runtime. This was unheard of in 2009. The results were stunning. The movie became the highest-grossing film of all time up to that point.

I should also mention there’s a new Avatar on the horizon. Apparently, the production invented some new technology for capturing CGI scenes underwater! Will James Cameron will blow us away with inventive filmmaking and game-changing CGI yet again? I can’t wait!


Why is CGI Good for Movies?

One of the best examples of “seamless integration” is the CGI in 2015’s Mad Max Fury Road. The bulk of the action and focus of the camera are filled with practical effects and stunts. All of that is mixed with CGI elements—you don’t quite know what is real and what is fake. That is the point of good CGI.

Consider the relatively low-budget production of Ex Machina (which ended up winning the Oscar for Visual Effects.) The creative use of CGI in the film came through its minimal CGI approach. Alicia Vikander, who played Ava, wore a skintight suit that only had certain parts of her body replaced by CGI robotic pieces.

The costume Alicia wore also served as a motion tracking device for the VFX artists—now that’s genius. The integration of practical costuming with CGI is what sold the overall effect. When CGI can be worked into the story in an organic and practical way, it enhances the audience’s overall experience.

There’s another aspect to the CGI world that is great for the film medium: accessibility. With programs like After Effects, Blender (FREE), and Cinema4D, almost anybody can create a 3D scene, or render it almost entirely by themselves if they’re dedicated to learning the software and approach. It’s such a cliché to say that anything is possible, but it kind of is!

There are even more resources for learning CGI and VFX. There are a multitude of YouTube tutorials and even even free channels like Peter France and Pwnisher. You also can find paid courses from sites like Learn Squared, VFX Apprentice, and School of Motion.

There are seemingly limitless beginner-friendly courses and creators to learn from. In fact, check out the short film below created by Ian Hubert, which he created almost entirely of footage shot in his garage and Blender.

CGI is great because we get more and more entertaining blockbusters that take us on wild rides. Most filmmakers will agree that the one single aspect of filmmaking that trumps all other areas is the script. The script has to be engaging and worth making.

So now that we’ve talked about the good, let’s discuss the not-so-good areas of CGI.


Why Is CGI Bad for Movies?

Image via Marvel Studios.

Is CGI bad for movies? Not really. But, there are certain aspects of CGI that are detrimental to films and the process of filmmaking.

For example, when productions rely on CGI to solve problems that they either don’t have time for or don’t want to spend money on in other areas of production. The audience senses the production cutting corners through unrealistic, “off” imagery that takes us out of the film.

Sometimes things can just look weird and unrealistic. Examples include adding an unnecessary object, background, or CGI element that really didn’t need to exist and didn’t serve to further the storytelling.

The most recent example of this comes from a scene in Uncharted (the video game adaptation starring Tom Holland) where a character is standing in front of a big window with the night sky serving as the background. He is standing inside, lit from the interior lighting setup, but standing in front of a green screen—and the key looks so out of place.

Image via Sony/PlayStation.

Now how is it that a movie with a supposed 120 million dollar budget can’t get a realistic green-screen shot? Part of it is due to the reliance on CGI and green screen for last-minute plot changes and less important scenes.

If there are three or four massive action set pieces that require tons of VFX work, those scenes will take up much of the VFX studio’s budget and priority. While it’s not hard to pull off a realistic-looking green screen shot, the problem is in the simple fact that on the day of shooting, the crew didn’t light the scene appropriately, or they didn’t know what they were lighting it for.

You could also make the argument that this approach to production promotes a lazier type of filmmaking—an approach that relies heavily on the promise that the VFX house can fix anything.

Often productions will plan to add the CGI elements during post-production with no real idea of what they’re going to add while they’re shooting or in pre-production. This happens for various reasons: waiting to hear audience test screen results, or if the studio execs want something changed, ect. So, many times it comes down to a sentiment of “we’ll just change it in post.”

However, it turns out CGI and post-production alone cannot fix a broken storyline or plot point. We’re seeing this more and more with bigger movies that are being rushed to theaters.

One recent example of how bad CGI can be a complicated perspective is Marvel’s treatment of its VFX studios and artists. With the overall disappointment of Thor: Love and Thunder, the questionable lighting decisions of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness indicate that Marvel has no plans of slowing down and doesn’t seem willing to improve working conditions for VFX artists.

This clearly has to stop. VFX artists need time and energy to work on these sequences. It is what gives us great movies. It seems like Disney and Warner Bros are following the quantity over quality approach with no plans to slow down.

Hopefully this system for production and post-production is a phase, and the studios will learn from it and turn things around. Maybe then we can get back to the golden age when blockbusters used CGI and VFX to enhance the story rather than fix it or make production move faster.


How To Create Your Own CGI

The good news is it’s 2022, which means there are thousands of resources, programs, methods, and entries into the field of visual effects through CGI work. If you want to learn or get into this field, it’s more than possible, and you don’t have to go to film school.

If you’re wondering where to start, look no further than the Blender Guru himself, Andrew Price. He’ll start by walking you through making a computer-generated donut in this free program.

Separate from Blender, there are a ton of great YouTube channels you can follow that teach, talk to, and train future CGI artists with all kinds of programs and types of CGI. Check out some of the channels below.


The Future of CGI

So, where do we see CGI and VFX heading in filmmaking and television? The future is inside the studio.

There won’t always the luxury of massive budgets that allow for filming all the big set pieces practically. That is becoming more rare as studios try to be more efficient.

Thankfully for filmmakers and audiences everywhere, efficient doesn’t have to mean bad. The recent explosion of virtual sets (an LED screen projecting photorealistic backgrounds in real time) making their way into the mainstream means we’ll get better-looking CGI than ever before.

Cinematographers like Greig Fraser are pioneering their way forward, showing us what’s possible with this new tech. Take The Batman, Dune, and The Mandalorian, for example.

While this method might seem out of reach, it’s just like the steps CGI has made over the past few decades—it’s not always easy for everyday filmmakers and CGI artists to access this technology. But, the best news about CGI is that it’s not far from being there.

The very nature of it is becoming more accessible to creators and filmmakers working with all kinds of budgets. Take deepfakes, for example; with a simple program and impersonation expertise, you can turn yourself into someone else, and it will look photorealistic!

Rokoko makes affordable motion tracking suits that allow you to rig a character model with movements by your actor in the suit. Our good friends at Am I A Filmmaker? provide excellent insight to working with a Rokoko suit in their tutorial accurately titled “Getting Started with Motion Capture.” Check it out below.


Summary

CGI has come a long way since its inception in the 1970s. We’ve seen groundbreaking films change the very notion of what’s possible while entertaining audiences worldwide.

Every year we see a handful of innovative approaches to the medium that pushes everyone else forward in new directions. Luckily for us, there are more ways than ever to learn and master the art of CGI now than ever.

Good luck out there on your journey into the world of VFX.


For more on CGI, check out these articles:



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