Free Film School #119: The Early Days of CGI

The Last Starfighter

Similar effects were used in The Last Starfighter, a 1984 sci-fi film which animated spacecraft using the 3D effect. Again, the film is based heavy in video games, as the hero is actually being tested by aliens using an arcade cabinet. Indeed, looking throughout the history of CGI, even leading into the present, the video game and movie effects seem to go hand in hand. Many critics have felt that many modern effects-driven films have begun to resemble video games. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of heated debate.

Since films like Tron and The Last Starfighter weren't runaway hits, most films tended to stick to photographic special effects, and shied away from the “computer” look of early CGI. Many films throughout the 1980s still used traditional cel animation, models, matte paintings, and puppets to achieve their effects.

But by the late 1980s, many enterprising filmmakers began to see the potential for CGI as a visual tool rather than as an effects gimmick. Pretty soon “morphing” technology was developed, which allowed the 3-D CGI notions of rapid image rotation to be blended with physical photograph scanning, allowing one object to “morph” into another. Faces could transform into other faces. Things could transform into other things. Ron Howard's 1988 film Willow was the first film to employ “morphing” as a special effect.

The Abyss

What's more, the photorealism of CGI was only getting more and more sophisticated, and more natural lighting and textures could be employed. In the late 1980s, it was a long and very expensive process, but if you're James Cameron, you'll be allowed to tinker all you want. Cameron's 1989 film The Abyss famously featured a fully CGI water tentacle. Cameron would also revolutionize CGI several times in the future, notable with his shape-shifting T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, continuing all the way through his box office smash Avatar in 2009.

T-1000By the 1990s, CGI was being used more and more liberally throughout feature films, and entire crow scenes, morphing, 3-D rendering, and even simple wire frames soon being incorporated alongside all of the traditional special effects and animation in movies. Disney started using CGI characters in some of their feature films (1992's Aladdin featured a large living cave and a flying carpet that were entirely CGI, and 1994's The Lion King featured herds of animals that were made with CGI). 1993 saw the release of Jurassic Park, the first film to use CGI to make entire, visible monsters. Jurassic Park has some of the best CGI of any film before or even since. And yes, I'm including Avatar in the statement.

Some consider the late 1990s to be the golden age of movie special effects. CGI was being used openly, but practical effects were constantly being developed as well. It was a time when every tool was being used simultaneously. The practical and the CGI were being used to compliment one another. This doesn't mean that all films of the era looked great (CGI, like any facet of filmmaking, can be done badly), but it ensured that audiences would be dazzled and moved and amazed by something like 1997's Titanic.

Indeed, it was the 1990s that saw the release of the first full-length all-CGI feature films, most notable, 1995's Toy Story, the first film of the much-loved Pixar. While the visuals were dazzling at the time, many critics tend to note that Toy Story is a good film for its wit and filmmaking. This is a lesson to animators: The actual animation is meaningless if the story, writing, or character isn't good. I'm talking to you, Brave.

As the years have passed, CGI has come to supplant almost all other forms of special effects. Indeed, a film like 2013's Man of Steel was made largely inside computers. The effects are seamless and impressive, and the design is great. But the problem with a lot of over-use of modern CGI can result in a film that has little physicality or gravity. Some audiences feel that the magic is gone. You no longer wonder how they did that, and just accept that it's CGI and movie on.

Man of Steel

But that speaks more to the use of special effects and less to the quality.

CGI has had a long and textured history, and a shaky relationship with movies. It's safe to assume that, going forward, CGI will only be used more and more. Some filmmakers will shy away from effects, preferring to shoot natural areas and real people, while big-budget blockbusters will become more and more manufactured. Maybe CGI is creating an ever-growing aesthetic rift. As the big movies get bigger and bigger, and chaos cinema becomes more and more the norm, perhaps we'll begin to see a legitimate divide between blockbusters and the rest of the film world.

We shall see.

I'm gonna go watch the “Black or White” music video.

Homework for the Week:

Watch Tron. How does the CGI look? How should CGI be used? Is it good for every effect? What effects are best for CGI? Can you give examples of a film story that could not have been told with traditional filmmaking? Can certain stories not be told with CGI? Are the late 1990s really the golden age of special effects?  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.