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CGI (computer-generated imagery)

Definition:The use of computer software to create three-dimensional images, both static and dynamic, for the partial or entire production of a scene or complete film. CGI is the newest component of VFX, the digital creation of visuals in post production that cannot be captured by a live action shot.

The process begins with the use of specialized graphics software to develop mathematical three dimensional models of the surfaces of objects living and inanimate. These models are then defined by their locations in the frame’s field of view, the locations of the objects relative to one another, the objects’ colors and, when applicable, geometrical patterns mapping surface textures.

Ray tracing begins with an eye situated centrally on the screen. Lines are projected from the eye to all pixels in the screen, and from each pixel, a line is projected to the first programmed surface in its path. From this surface point, lines are projected to all light sources able to illuminate the point. This process is then reversed. The effect of the light rays on the surface color is calculated, and the resulting hue is projected back to create the color of the pixel.

The most realistic 3D effect and the standard for moviemaking is achieved through a process called “ray tracing.” Here the frame is divided into points commensurate with the frame’s resolution, e.g., 640 by 400 pixels. A line is projected from the eye to each point in the frame, and from there extended to its intersection with the surface of an object. If a line does not make contact with an object, its pixel assumes a specified background color. When an intersection does occur, the intersection is then projected to the scene’s light source or sources, including sources of reflected and refracted light. The color of each point in the frame is determined by the specified color of the surface as it would appear in its defined location when illuminated by the scene’s light sources.

CGI development has always been tied to the advancement of computer processing power. This dynamic points to the conclusion that eventually the motion picture star will be replaced by personas visually created by computer.

History:  CGI’s application to movies effectively began in 1975 when George Lucas created Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).  A division of Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm, ILM was initially charged with developing visual effects for the film “Star Wars.”  However, its long-term mission was the development of CGI software and services for sales to the motion picture industry. This would come to include animated filmmaking when, in 1979, Lucas recruited key personnel from the Computer Graphics Lab, the CGI animation component of the New York Institute of Technology.

Although its capabilities were modest at the time, CGI’s potential for filmmaking was assured by a 1975 observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. According to “Moore’s Law,” the number of transistors in an integrated circuit of a microchip would double indefinitely about every two years. This exponential increase in processing efficiency was expected to translate into exponential CGI capabilities needed  for film production.

In 1986, Moore’s Law would influence Steve Jobs to purchase ILM’s Graphics Group, which would become Pixar Animation Studios. Cash flow issues arising from R&D costs, a drop off in Star Wars license revenues and a divorce settlement were among the reasons Lucas sold the Graphics Group. Jobs, who had recently been ousted from Apple Computer, would pay $5 million for Pixar and immediately invest another $5 million in the company. Eventually his investment in Pixar would approach $50 million.

Not until the 1990s did CGI begin to realize its promise as the most important technological advancement in filmmaking since color. Early triumphs included the top grossing movies of their respective years. First, ILM created the dinosaurs for Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” which was released in 1993 and grossed $337 million. Pixar’s release in 1995 of “Toy Story,” the first CGI animated film, grossed $192 million.

Testimony to CGI’s significance is that, with two exceptions, the top grossing movie of every year from 1995 to 2018 was science fiction, fantasy or animation. One exception was “Titanic,” a 1998 film directed by James Cameron. A pioneer of CGI filmmaking, Cameron had used Lucas’ ILM to create effects for “The Abyss” (1989) and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991). He employed Digital Domain for CGI effects in “Titanic.”

Not until 2006 did Cameron deem CGI advanced enough to pursue his vision of “Avatar” (2009), which would be the most complex CGI undertaking to date. Enlisted to produce effects was Weta Digital, a New Zealand company co-founded in 1993 by director/producer Peter Jackson. Weta, whose credits included Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, recruited several firms to collaborate on “Avatar,” including ILM. As of 2019, “Avatar” is the top grossing movie in history ($2,787,965,087).   

2006 also saw The Walt Disney Company, longtime partner of Pixar, purchase Pixar in exchange for $7.4 billion in Disney stock. Jobs, who owned almost 50 percent of Pixar, received stock totaling $3.9 billion, a dollar amount that exceeds anything Jobs earned from Apple Computer before and after Pixar. Reportedly Disney’s new CEO, Robert Iger, resolved to purchase Pixar when, watching a parade at the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, he realized that all the iconic characters of animated films distributed by Disney in the last decade had been created by Pixar.

Meanwhile, the London-based firms Framestore and Double Negative (DNEG) had emerged as the major CGI players for United Kingdom filmmakers and Hollywood filmmakers making films in the United Kingdom. Framestore launched in 1986 and established its CGI department under Mike Milne in 1992. In 1997, it acquired the Computer Film Company, one of the first digital film special effects companies to develop technology for digital film scanning, compositing and output. DNEG was founded in 1998 by four visual effects artists formerly with The Moving Picture Company. DNEG was bankrolled by the film division of the Dutch entertainment company PolyGram, which merged with Universal Studios a year later. DNEG was charged with creating visual effects for the 2000 science fiction thriller “Pitch Black” and commenced work on the film before the principals could decide on a company name. Both DNEG and Framestore are now global companies with thousands of employees and extensive feature film resumes. Both resumes include the Harry Potter franchise and particularly “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2,” the top grossing film of 2011 and tenth highest grossing film in history ($1,341,511,219).

As the new millennium progressed, CGI software programs and companies multiplied and specialized. Not surprisingly, films of Marvel Studios—specifically “The Avengers” (2012), “Iron Man 3” (2013), “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” (2015) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018)—were prime sources of CGI business. Each film was the top grossing film of its respective year. Three are among the top ten grossing films in history: “Avengers: Infinity War” is fourth ($2,048,359,754), “The Avengers” is sixth ($1,518,812,988), and “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” is eighth ($1,405,403,649).

Firms that created effects for some or all these films include (in alphabetical order):

  • Cantina Creative
  • Cinesite
  • CoSA VFX
  • Digital Domain
  • DNEG
  • Evil Eye Pictures 
  • Framestore
  • Fuel VFX
  • Industrial Light and Magic
  • Lola VFX
  • Luma Pictures
  • Method Design
  • Modus FX
  • Moving Picture Company
  • Perception
  • Proof
  • Rise Visual Effects Studios
  • Scanline VFX
  • Secret Lab
  • Sony Pictures Imageworks
  • Technicolor VFX
  • The Third Floor
  • Trixter
  • Weta Digital
  • Whiskeytree

The five Marvel films were distributed by Disney. However, as it had with animated films in 2006, Disney seized on the opportunity in 2011 to capture more of the CGI bonanza. The company’s purchase of Pixar five years earlier was delivering box office and tie-in profits from the hits “Ratatouille,” “Up,” “Wall-E,” “Toy Story 3” and “Cars 2.” Disney did not hesitate when a retiring George Lucas offered Lucasfilm for sale. For the purchase price of $4.05 billion, approximately half in cash and half in Disney stock, Disney acquired ILM and the Star Wars franchise among other assets. With Pixar and now Lucasfilm, Disney would go on to own and distribute such films as “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” the top grossing film of 2015 and the third top grossing film in history ($2,068, 223,624) ; “Finding Dory,” the second top grossing movies of 2016; and “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi,” the top grossing movie of 2017 and the eleventh top grossing film in history ($1,332,539,889). Interestingly Disney needed neither Pixar nor Lucasfilm to produce the hybrid traditional 2D and CGI animated film “Frozen,” the thirteenth top grossing movie in history ($1,276,480,335).