Film is a medium that is constantly evolving. It responds to changes in technology and to changes in society. One of the largest and most important evolutions that film has made within the last half century is the adoption and use of Computer Generated Imagery. This has allowed films to bring audiences into the story like never before, however it does not come without a price. While CGI has been a very useful tool in film in some cases it has destroyed films and made them look cheap. Either way CGI is an important part of modern day films and cinema.
As early as the 1940's and 50's computer animation was being explored and experimented with. For example in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film "Vertigo" the title sequence is computer animated. This type of 2 dimensional animation continued to develop and evolve until the late 1960's and early 70's when 3D animation began to be experimented with by the University of Utah. Eventually this led to Ed Catmull's "A Computer Animated Hand" in 1971.
From this point 3D animation continued to develop until in 1973 when the first use of 3D CGI was used in Michael Crichton's sci-fi film "Westworld" it was used to depict a wireframe hand and face created by Ed Catmull. This is the same hand animation from his earlier short in 1971. This use of animation continued and was used in films such as "Alien" and "The Black Hole". However this was not exactly what we think of when we think about 3D animation in movies. Up until this point animation was used to depict objects on a screen in a film, for example in "Alien" the shot showing the ships navigation system was created using 3D animation. This was still a very early and primitive form of animation.
The first extensive use of CGI in a mainstream picture was in 1982 for the film TRON. Jumping ahead to 1985 Lucasfilm developed the first photorealistic CGI character that was integrated into live action footage. This character was the 'stained glass knight' who in the film has 10 seconds of screen time. From this point on 3D animation kept growing and eventually became the important tool that it is today.
Part of the problem that we face today in visual effects as it relates to the use of 3D animation is that CGI has become so powerful that it can quite literally make or break a film. Films such as "Jurassic Park", "Avatar", and "Hugo" show us how powerful 3D animation truly is and why it is so important in today's films. "Jurassic Park" marked the first use of photorealistic creatures in a live action feature production. This was a big step because it allowed filmmakers to create scenes that would otherwise be impossible to film. Which is amazing if it is used correctly.
The problem comes in when we watch films like 2002's James Bond film "Die Another Day" where the glacier surfing scene looks like a cartoon drawn in with crayons. We again see this sordid use of CGI in 2004's "The Incredible Hulk" where the Hulk's purple shorts just look 2D and flat like a cartoon. However in 2009 the use of motion capture technology to create a photorealistic 3D world in James Cameron’s "Avatar" was brilliant. Likewise in 2010 in Martin Scorcese's "Hugo" CGI was used in an innovative way to bring the audience into the picture. The opening shot of Paris France and the POV shot through a fully CGI train station gave the audience the feeling of being brought into the picture as a part of the story. James Cameron said it was the best use of 3D he's seen. I personally can not say any different because to be quite honest the best visual effects are the ones that you do not see, and Hugo does a wonderful job of seamlessly integrating 3D animation with live action footage. It is what CGI has been meant to do all along.
Overall the use of CGI will continue to evolve and become an even more powerful tool in the future. It will continue to allow filmmakers to give their story a greater sense of realism and bring the audience into the picture. What filmmakers need to remember is that 3D is not meant to "put stuff in your face" but rather to draw the viewers into the films and make them a part of the action. It is not about bringing the film into the theater but rather transporting people from their seats in the theater to a whole new world created by the film maker and made real through the use of visual effects and CGI. That is the only way that this powerful tool will continue to evolve, if we as film makers use it not as a way to make films, but as a way to better tell the story and captivate the audience.
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