Free Film School #119: The Early Days of CGI

TRON 1982

Sit down, my dear students, and listen rapt, as I, your humble professor, reveal the wisdom of the film world through CraveOnline's most excellent Free Film School, now a wizened 119 weeks old. Do you have your pencils ready? No? That's okay. Nothing we do here requires pencils. We are free of the pencil fascism. This week, the Free Film School will be delving into the origins of CGI.

CGI, or Computer Generated Imagery, has become so ubiquitous in feature films over the course of the last decade and a half, that is now nearly synonymous with “special effects.” The use of CGI has indeed become so very widespread, that filmmakers have to often had to openly announce when they're going to be using what has come to be called “practical effects” instead of CGI. CGI is the new norm for most effects in movies. And it's not just the giant alien creatures or superpowered fistfights. Often an explosion, car wreck, or even bodily stunt will be made entirely with CGI and without any practical effects at all.

Indeed, some editorials have been written about the future of film, and how actual physical objects may be a thing of the past when it comes to future filmmaking. Imagine a future with no cameras, and a bank of computer animation labs that can convincingly create any actor from any era in any costume and any environment. From the perspective of “capturing the imagination” (whatever that means) this may be seen as a boon, but for critics and filmmakers who value verisimilitude, this sounds like a nightmare.

I could write an editorial as to the strengths of practical effects over the lazy ubiquity of CGI, but this is not the place for that.

Westworld

Instead, I'm going to look back at the early history of CGI, and explore briefly how it came to be, and how it grew into the filmmaking behemoth it is today. Starting way way back in the mid 1970s.

Creating images with computers is actually a technological practice that goes all the way back to the 1940s, wherein enterprising computer technicians used crude CGI for military purposes. In the 1950s, the first scanners were introduced, and the notions of actual computer generated photos became a twinkle in the eye of the world. The 1960s saw some of the world's first CGI animated shorts, mostly using stick figures and the like, but animated without using pen or paper. Look up the 1971 film Matadea sometime, and witness CGI cartoons in their infancy.

The first major feature film to incorporate any form of computer generated effects was 1973's Westworld. Westworld is an enjoyable cult film about a futuristic theme park populated by robots that go haywire and begin attacking guests. There are several shots throughout Westworld that show a POV shot of the central evil robot (played by Yul Brynner), wherein we see the world to be pixelated and “computerized.” Many robot-heavy films of the era featured a similar effect.

But when we think of CGI, we typically think of objects created within a computer, and not merely using digital effects to warp a filmed image. This type of object creation is typically known as 3D imaging, although there is not actual 3-D involved. The 3D effect is essentially animating an object that can “rotate” within the frame, giving it the illusion of having mass. This can be done with traditional cel animation, of course, but it's very labor intensive. In cel animation, to change perspective on an object, one has to entirely redraw the entire object. In CGI, one can render the entire object on all sides at once, allowing the animator to change perspective on it very quickly.

Death Star plans

You may recall the “wire frame” model of the Death Star in 1977's Star Wars. This is one of the earliest examples of moving CGI in feature films. Similar wire frame technology was also currently being pioneered for video games. There were plans in 1978 to make a feature film called The Works using nothing but CGI, but it proved to be an expensive pipe dream, and the film was eventually scrapped.

Eventually, engineers found a way to fill in those 3-D wire frames with solid-looking “walls” that can simulate lighting bouncing off of them, essentially creating an full, solid 3-D object that can be rotated quickly and easily within a frame. The first feature film to employ this “solid object” form of CGI is 1982's Tron, about a human being who was zapped by a molecular laser, and reformed inside the memory of a computer, wherein “programs” look like humans, and video games are actually gladiatorial fights to the death. The villain of the piece was the evil Master Control Program, animated using nothing but CGI. The backgrounds of that film were also largely animated in computers, and some crude-looking but entertaining action sequences were achieved. Checkout the Lightbike scene at some point. Tron was a flop when it was first released, but has since become a beloved cult film.