In today’s visual media, visual effects or VFX, designed and developed on computers are as common as it can get. In fact, one of the major draws of the currently ongoing superhero cinema and TV show wave is the dazzling and copious amounts of computer-generated special effects in play. It wasn’t always this polished or believable. In the last decade or so, we’ve seen computer-generated imagery, or CGI, improve over time to a point where it seemed like it couldn’t get any more real – until it did. But the actual history and inception of CGI go way beyond that, almost as far back as the dawn of modern computers themselves.
Dots and Dashes
One of the earliest notable examples of computer-generated animation comes from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology from way back in 1960. The video shows the render of a car moving at 110 kmph down a highway from the driver’s perspective. This particular clip was created on the BESK, or Binär Elektronisk SekvensKalkylator (Binary Electronic Sequence Calculator), Sweden’s first electronic computer.
Computer scientists developed more experimental footage in the 1960s. With Hummingbird in 1967 and Kitty in 1968, the groundwork for the physics-based computer powered animations was laid. But the work that would take CGI to a mainstream level was yet to come.
In the 1970s, one of the most influential industries in the world, Hollywood, turned its attention towards CGI. Artist and experimental animator Peter Foldes created Metadata in 1971. Many claim this to be the first 2D animated feature made entirely on a computer, using the world’s first keyframe animation software. Computer animation was mostly inaccessible to artists until this point due to the requisite knowledge of computer languages and the mathematical models involved.
The Keyframe Animation system used by Foldes was created by Marceli Wein and Nestor Burtnyk at the National Research Council of Canada with the goal of being easy to use for animators. It could be used with a data tablet – akin to drawing on tablets like an iPad today. The system included a keyboard, a thumb-wheel and a positioning mouse. Perhaps one of the most impressive capabilities in the system for its time was the ability to interpolate between two frames. Check out its features in more detail here and Metadata here.
The use of CGI in mainstream media got its first real boost with Westworld. We’re talking about the original movie here. To generate the viewpoint of the gunslinger, the main antagonist, the filmmakers used an FR80 system. They had to record the scenes that needed to be simulated in the gunslinger’s vision, feed it to the FR80 and process it on the onboard computer.
It involved colour separation, repeated scans and actors having to wear contrasting clothing to be distinguishable in the output footage. You can see why it was considered groundbreaking at the time.
Westworld inspired a sequel, Futureworld, which was notable for using 3D animated graphics for the first time. A few seconds of footage showed a 3D animated hand and head. Part of this footage was taken from A Computer Animated Hand, a 1972 American computer-animated film.
George Lucas jumped into the CGI fray with Star Wars. Larry Cuba, a computer-animation artist, got the contract to develop the CGI wireframe animation of a wireframe Death Star for the Rebel Alliance briefing scene. Cuba produced the sequences using the Grass Programming Language and a Vector General 3D connected to a PDP-11/45 system at the University of Illinois.
The movie Tron was significant in the world of CGI for multiple reasons. One was its extensive use of CGI and computer animation. The other was the fact that this was probably the last major CGI project in Hollywood that did not involve Lucasfilm for a really long time.
The movie included 15-20 minutes of computer-animated footage. Interestingly, the final work was done on a computer with only 2MB of memory and 330 MB of storage, which led to designers blackening things out beyond a certain distance. “When in doubt, black it out” became the motto of the Computer Effects department.
Industrial Light and Magic
Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was created by George Lucas to be the CGI arm of Lucasfilm back in 1975. ILM’s filmography will put anyone in Hollywood, or maybe film industries across the world, to shame. Starting from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the studio has worked on numerous titles in the Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Godfather, Terminator, Jumanji franchises as well as iconic individual titles like Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan and more. They’ve even worked on recent titles like the Harry Potter series, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar and MCU movies.
Just like the filmography, the list of milestones achieved by ILM since its inception leaves no doubt towards who is responsible for the current state of CGI. Jurassic Park in ‘93, was the first time digital technology was used to create a complete and detailed living creature. A marvellous blend of animatronics and bleeding edge CGI.The rest of the 90s saw a smorgasbord of CGI achievements with Toy Story, Titanic, the Matrix and more. It was truly a wonderful time for CGI.
Photorealism and Motion Capture
The turn of the millennium brought a newfound focus on making CGI more believable. Dr Aki Ross, the heroine of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, predated Gollum and the Train conductor from Polar Express in terms of rendering detail. The production process was very expensive and the 141,964 frames involving her required 90 minutes to render – generating a final result of 15 terabytes of animation.
In the next couple of years, Peter Jackson’s work with Gollum in LotR and Robert Zemeckis’ work with the train conductor on the Polar Express would bring mo-cap marker-based motion capture performances to the forefront. James Cameron was pushing the boundaries of CGI with Avatar. Consider this – each Pandoran plant consisted of a million CG polygons, whereas Gollum was 50 polygons. It set the standard for facial expression capture for years to come.