Cinema has evolved greatly since its inception, especially in the area of visual effects (VFX). In the last few decades, computer generated imagery (CGI) has dominated many movies, from dramas to animated films and major blockbusters. While revolutionary, the use of CGI effects has come under much scrutiny in recent years. But what is CGI and where did its bad reputation come from? Let’s look at how filmmakers and animators have been secretly injecting your favorite movies without you even noticing.

Recreating the Inception Cafe Scene with CGI Effects

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CGI Meaning

What does CGI mean?

Any CGI definition is necessarily broad because the term includes many types of visual effects. So, before going over the most notable CGI examples in film and animation, let’s define CGI in a way that covers most of its uses.


What is CGI?

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is the use of computer graphics to augment or create images in art and media. What does CGI stand for? CGI stands for computer generated imagery. These can be 2D or 3D animations, objects, or renderings in a film, television program, video game, or simulation. CGI can be used in films ranging from science fiction epics to quiet intimate dramas. How the CGI is used varies, from animating entire locations to subtle work on props or environments. In recent years, CGI has been the go-to visual effect for most major movies, whether its use is subtle or obvious.

How does CGI work?    

  • Two-dimensional imagery such as text, objects, backgrounds, and environments.
  • Three-dimensional objects, including figures, spaces, and environments.
  • When successful, it creates composite imagery that tricks the eye into believing in the illusion presented.
  • When unsuccessful, it creates obviously fake imagery that shatters the illusion presented.

So, when people refer to CGI today, they are almost always talking about VFX work. This can include 3D models of people, monsters, buildings, cars, explosions, and many other things. These 3D models are then put into a live-action scenario, such as a monster attacking a city or a car being blown up by an explosion. These types of CGI effects are commonplace and are often seen in high-profile productions.

CGI can also be seen in movies as different as romantic dramas and science-fiction blockbusters. In a period drama, for example, it can be used to fill out locations with period-specific details, as well as maintain consistent scenery (e.g., background environments, people, and vehicles). In many of the best action movies, computer generated imagery can be used to render nearly everything you see. 

The beauty of filmmaking these days is that CGI effects are possible at any budget. Our VFX recreation of Inception’s Paris cafe scene proves just how easy it would be to pull it off using a couple hundred bucks and video editing software.

CGI Movies VFX

The beginning of CGI movies

The question of “when was CGI invented?” can be traced back to the 1960s. Various inventors and companies experimented with the new and evolving world of computer animation. Most of this was two-dimensional in scope, but all of it was being used in disciplines ranging from science to engineering and even medicine.

As CGI evolved, so did the ways filmmakers sought to use it in the first CGI movies. They could create digital viewpoints in Westworld (1973) and wire-frame models in Alien (1979), but those were still relegated to computer screens and the like. Here's a quick history on how they used imaging technology from NASA to create the computer generated imagery in Westworld.

Computer Generated Imagery, courtesy of NASA

The role of CGI would evolve even further in the 1980s, with films like TRON (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) making use of the technology to create full models of real-life objects and life-like characters. This video documents the massive undertaking involved with making one of first major CGI movies, TRON

TRON is one of the first CGI movies

TRON was a major breakthrough and glimpse at the future of CGI movies to come. Throughout the '80s, we saw even more examples, like this one from Young Sherlock Holmes, where live-action and CGI animation could be combined.

Early CGI Movies  •  Young Sherlock Holmes

In these early CGI movies, the "quality" of the computer generated imagery was primitive but it opened up a world of possibilities. Visual storytelling could go anywhere thanks to computer generated imagery...and it did. In the next section, we'll cover more recent movies that define CGI all over again.

Modern CGI Examples

The evolution of CGI movies

Many CGI movies utilize the technology to do things they could never do otherwise. James Cameron movies are known for pushing what was possible from visual effects, from the pseudopod scene in The Abyss (1989) to the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991).  

The Pseudopod  •  A Huge Leap for Visual Effects

It also made Titanic (1997) that much more effective, with its use of CGI models along with actual sets. Most movies that use CGI effects well often balance it out with other VFX work. Jurassic Park (1993) might be the gold standard of this, as it used computer generated imagery along with practical effects to create realistic looking dinosaurs.

More recently, Avatar (2009) demonstrated Cameron at the top of his visual game, using various VFX to create a unique experience, and one of the highest-grossing movies of all time

What is computer generated imagery? Avatar changed the game

Other CGI movies that use it in ways we won’t even notice, such as adding more textures, characters, or objects in an environment. For example, a shot of a real city can be manipulated to include additional textures, buildings, people and cars. Zodiac (2007) used extensive computer generated imagery for creating these environments.

What is CGI in David Fincher’s Zodiac?

Computer effects may have been mainly used for fantastical movies at first, but plenty of filmmakers in different genres have taken advantage of it. It’s also no longer as expensive or limited as it once was, allowing more movies to take advantage of the tech. 

And in some movie genres, such as children’s films, it has become the dominant form for making these types of movies. Now that we've covered the CGI definition in live-action, let's turn our attention to animation which has also seen great strides in the last two decades.

CGI Animation

What is CGI animation?

One area of filmmaking that has completely embraced computer generated imagery is animation. After 2D, cel animation, many types of animation emerged like stop motion animation and claymation. Animation done with computers was simply the next step in that evolution. Here's a great recap tracing the history of animation to remind us how far it has come.

To define CGI animation, we need historical context

Stop motion animation was a fairly popular style for a while, even while many animated movies were still hand drawn. It was the closest filmmaking got to three-dimensional animation, but it took time and a lot of effort to get done.

Soon computers began dominating the arena once ruled by hand-drawn and stop motion. This technology made it possible to create three-dimensional worlds that were not constrained to actual real-life filmmaking. Not only that, but CGI animation allowed filmmakers to be as realistic or as fantastical as they wanted.

Pixar was among the very first to experiment with fully computer generated animation, as seen in early Pixar short films. Toy Story (1995) became known as the first CGI movie done completely with computer generated imagery, which alone could make it notable.

However, the movie was also critically acclaimed and a financial hit; it’s known as one of the best animated movies of all time and an early example of the Pixar storytelling formula.

What is CGI animation? Just ask Pixar

Other studios decided to try their hand at computer generated animation, like Dreamworks, who first put out Antz (1998) with positive results. However, if any movie put them on the map, it was Shrek (2001), which was a massive success and gave Pixar some serious competition.

What's CGI animation? Shrek behind the scenes

Since the beginning of the century, there have been almost too many CGI animated films to keep track of. Disney themselves committed to this style over ten years ago when they started putting out their own 3D animated work outside of Pixar. 

While Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks dominate family friendly animation, studios like Illumination have broken through to create their own brand of animation. Even though they’re relatively new to the scene, hits like Despicable Me (2010) and The Secret Life of Pets (2016) have proven that CGI animation is still very much evolving.


The stigma of bad CGI movies

A loud voice decrying computer generated imagery started to rise in the last decade or two from moviegoers who had gotten tired of bad CGI. It even got to a point where people (still) ask, "Why is CGI used instead of practical effects?"

Bad CGI is certainly a problem in some movies, but as this very popular and well-done video below states, the best type of computer generated imagery is the one where you don’t even notice it.

What is CGI? Good or Bad?

The point is that computer generated imagery should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Let's define CGI without the negative assumption that just because it's "fake," it must be bad. Nothing is "real" in filmmaking, it's all smoke and mirrors and computer generated imagery is just another tool used in the creating the illusion.


Explore more VFX

We have gone over the basics of computer generated imagery, but now it’s time to dig into more general visual effects. Here you’ll get an overview of VFX featuring examples like how they pulled off "bullet time" in The Matrix or how they used motion capture to create photo-realistic performances in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Up Next: VFX explained →
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