ByTrevor Norkey, writer at Creators.co
Writer, filmmaker, actor and film enthusiast.
Trevor Norkey

Film is an ever-changing industry. It has certainly changed a lot since the first black-and-white films without sound starring people like Buster Keaton during the early 20th Century. Now we have spectacular cinematic adventures like The Avengers and The Hobbit. Over the past 20 years, the film industry has been significantly impacted by the rise of Computer Graphic Imaging (CGI). CGI is constantly changing and is therefore changing the film industry – some positive and some potentially detrimental.

The History of CGI

Train crash scene from The General (1926)
Train crash scene from The General (1926)

Before CGI became extremely popular, films were dominated primarily by live action effects. Though there were forms of animation before CGI’s rise to power, such as Stop Motion Animation, a majority of filmmakers that needed special effects done created their own effects.

Buster Keaton’s The General is a great example of this, earning itself a record at the time for most expensive effects when it crashed an entire train into a river. Gradually, CGI began to rise and eliminated this need for live action special effects. Today, most filmmakers would avoid situations like this by using CGI to animate a train crashing instead.

CGI in Jurassic Park (1993)
CGI in Jurassic Park (1993)

Before CGI’s greatest breakthrough in 1995, there were many films that pioneered the use of CGI, including Star Wars and Jurassic Park. CGI was not yet the most common practice, but these films began to revolutionize the use of special effects. Other special effects tools were used around the time of Star Wars in cases where CGI was not used, such as claymation, which based itself around the use of Stop Motion Animation. Check out the T-Rex from Jurassic Park -- still realistic (and terrifying) today.

When CGI first started to be used, it ‘wowed’ audiences and filled them with wonder, gaining special effects popularity. Though the effects were not to today's standards, Computer Graphic Imaging did exist before 1995 and it was certainly popular. The use of this tool did not start to explode on the silver screen until Toy Story came out, changing the field forever.

CGI in Toy Story (1995)
CGI in Toy Story (1995)

In 1995, Pixar released their first feature length animated film, Toy Story, which was the first full length film to be made only using CGI with 3D animation. This film is often credited for starting the heavy use of CGI in Hollywood that we see in movies today. This does make sense as it was also around the time that computer technology became more advanced, being able to host applications and programs required for this animation to be done.

Before Toy Story, CGI seemed like an enormously expensive tool that only the most heavily funded films would be able to use. However, after the impossible feat of making an entire film with just a computer was done by Pixar, the vision did not seem as farfetched anymore.

The Different Purposes of CGI

Before and after CGI in The Phantom Menace (1999)
Before and after CGI in The Phantom Menace (1999)

CGI serves many uses in film. The most common purpose is to add effects and imagery into the movie. Adding computerized effects into film is actually very difficult and requires a lot of patience and focus. It is essential for the animators to perfect the effects used in the film in order to maintain a context that feels realistic and natural. The use of CGI places usually unrealistic additions into the film and strives to make these unrealistic additions somehow realistic. In the cases of computerized effects that already exist in the real world, such as explosions or animals, this is easy because the animators can base the creation off of the version that already exists.

Next year’s film The Jungle Book (above) is an example of this, as the animal characters in the film are completely animated through CGI. The animators certainly struggled with this, but they had a living concept to base the animations off of while creating them. However, in films like Star Wars, the animators may need to create their own effects from scratch to create a CGI creature that does not yet exist, such as Jar Jar Binks, the friendly, animated Gungan character from The Phantom Menace who drove many fans to insanity. From there, they must create this creature to make it look as though it could legitimately exist in the real world, which can be a very difficult task.

Before/After CGI in The Winter Soldier (2014)
Before/After CGI in The Winter Soldier (2014)

Animators don’t just have the task of adding CGI effects, though. Occasionally, animators will use CGI to hide certain aspects of the footage. For example, when doing visual stunts for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony Mackie would need to simulate himself flying as the Falcon. To do this, wires were attached to him to move Mackie around in midair, resembling him gliding during the shots. When the footage was given to the animators, they were also given the task of hiding these wires so that it looked as though he was actually flying during the film. Antony Mackie returns to Falcon in Captain America: Civil War, another film bound to be loaded with CGI and special effects.

Erasing an image is actually used in all sorts of films, not just action. In last year’s Oscar winning film Birdman, CGI was used to erase the cameras in the reflections of mirrors during multiple scenes to maintain the film’s credibility. This practice of erasing a part of the footage has been used in plenty of films and is used to delete props, actors or other factors that were used during production.

CGI in The Mummy Returns (2001)
CGI in The Mummy Returns (2001)

As mentioned previously, animators do have the difficult job of making their effects look realistic. This is an essential part of filmmaking because if an effect does look unrealistic, the entire movie loses its credibility. When an effect looks bad, the audience suddenly remembers that they are watching a movie, losing their focus in the story of the film itself. It breaks the reality of the film and in several cases breaks the film entirely. The Mummy Returns is an example of a film whose poor effects ruined the movie. Many fans were excited to see the sequel after being impressed by the stellar effects of the original Mummy two years earlier.

During the climax of the sequel, Dwayne Johnson’s character became the Scorpion King after a long and extensive build up. The outcome, however, was a very poorly animated rendition of the monster, who was both unrealistic and very lacking in quality. The character looked completely computerized and animated, as if it existed within a Pixar film. It ruined the movie for many who saw it and ended the possibilities of a sequel occurring within the near future. This was all due to the lack of enough work being done and time being used by the animators of the film.

The Rise in Popularity of CGI

Before and after CGI in The Hobbit (2012)
Before and after CGI in The Hobbit (2012)

The rise in popularity of CGI technology has actually had a rather profound effect on the film industry in the last twenty years. There has been an increasing number of action and adventure films that have been made over the past few years that rely heavily on CGI, which seem to sell more tickets than most other films that are not so orientated towards the use of animated effects.

Some of these recent CGI-oriented films that have sold enormous amounts of tickets include the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the Harry Potter series, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings series, The Avengers franchise and, most recently, Jurassic World, the reboot / sequel of Jurassic Park that earned over $511 million on its opening weekend.

CGI in Jurassic World (2015)
CGI in Jurassic World (2015)

This rise of CGI oriented films has in most cases pushed away critically acclaimed films and genres that would have been significantly more popular before the rise of CGI. Titanic, a historical drama, came out in 1997, which was before CGI took over completely. It became the highest grossing film in history without relying heavily on the use of CGI technology.

People came to see this film because of its intriguing plot and its interesting story about one of history’s greatest tragedies. People did not go see it for the thrills or for stellar effects, but just because the movie was genuinely good. It ended up earning itself eleven Academy Awards.

Brief CGI scene in Titanic (1997)
Brief CGI scene in Titanic (1997)

In 2009, Titanic’s place as the highest grossing film in history was taken by Avatar, which was surprisingly written and directed by James Cameron, who had also written and directed Titanic. Though they share the same director and were both extremely popular and successful, Avatar’s success is credited with something much different than Titanic’s. Whereas Titanic was popular for having a very well structured story, Avatar’s popularity was almost completely due to its CGI effects. The story was, in the opinions of countless people who saw it, dull and repetitious, being very predictable and cliched. The main reason people went to see Avatar in theaters was because of how spectacular the effects were. The stellar 3D CGI was enough to get many fans to see the film numerous times just to experience the effects on the big screen.

Though Avatar was the most successful film of all time and remains in that position to this day (unless Star Wars: The Force Awakens has anything to say about that), the film did not last; that is, it did not form an enormous fan base. It is very rarely shown on television, it is not spoken about much and the sequel has remained in development for years, so much so that people are still unsure that the sequel will ever see the light of day. Though Avatar was popular, it has not become a “timeless classic” like other incredibly successful films have been, such as Titanic, Gone with the Wind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

But does CGI have its downsides too?

CGI in Avatar (2009)
CGI in Avatar (2009)

CGI has also started a new trend in film that has become rather tedious to many moviegoers - reboots. More and more often, films that were made before or during the rise of CGI are being rebooted as new films, either by making a sequel or by remaking the film completely. Some of these films include Jurassic World, an insanely successful sequel to Jurassic Park, and Clash of the Titans, a 2010 remake of the original Clash of the Titans released in 1981. These films are just the tip of the iceberg of rebooted films, many of which have been made over the past five years.

Currently, one of the most rebooted films is Spider-Man, a comic book based series which received its first reboot in 2001 after having its own live action series in the 1970s. Since then, it received a second reboot in 2012 and will be receiving yet another one in 2017, though the 2017 Spider-Man character will be appearing next year in Captain America: Civil War, just two years after his most recent appearance on screen.

Different Spider-Man reboots from 1978, 2001 and 2012
Different Spider-Man reboots from 1978, 2001 and 2012

Though the constant rebooting of films just for better effects can be annoying to many fans, it is not quite the most tedious downside of the rise of CGI. With CGI no longer being the “big new thing,” some movie critics are finally grasping that concept that many movies are being made just for the effects. More and more movies are being released that are described by critics as having effects that overpower the story, causing the purpose of the movie to fade away.

Though these cases are limited, there is no denying that many directors, like Transformers director Michael Bay, go “mad with power” when it comes to adding special effects. CGI is not only potentially detrimental because it can look bad, but, as seen in some films like the later additions to the Transformers series, because it can overpower the film with the rising desire to add more effects than plot in a film just for the sake of making a scene look cool.

CGI in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
CGI in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

CGI technology has certainly grown a lot since it was first developed, with much of the technology being credited to Pixar when they popularized the use of CGI with Toy Story. Though CGI does often look cool and entertaining, it can sometimes be negative, either by being poorly designed or by being overused. It has also significantly changed what is considered popular and what makes money in the film industry, overpowering the critically acclaimed films that would have been popular before to make room for the new films like Avatar that look cool on the screen.

I certainly enjoy special effects on screen and love the ways it is used, but it is clear that CGI has reached the point of being overused in some cases and has driven the need for a strong plot and story out of the way to make room for special effects. Of course, I would take today’s animated special effects over the less realistic ones before 1995 any day. CGI has changed the film industry quite significantly, but is this change good for movies, or is it detrimental to the entire film industry and to its fans?

Sources: businessinsider.com, techradar.com, Digital Storytelling by Shilo T. McClean, forbes.com, oxfordjournals.org

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