Cinema has evolved greatly since its inception, especially in the area of VFX (visual effects). In the last few decades, CGI, meaning computer generated imagery, has dominated many movies, from dramas to blockbusters. While revolutionary, the use of CGI effects has come under much scrutiny in recent years. But what is CGI, what does it consist of, and how can it be used to tell more fantastical yet believable stories?

Recreating the Inception Cafe Scene with CGI Effects

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CGI Meaning

CGI definition and characteristics

What is CGI? Any CGI definition is bound to be very broad because the term does not narrow itself to just one type of visual effect. So before going over the most notable examples, let’s define “What does CGI mean?” in a way that covers most of its uses.


What is CGI?

CGI stands for computer generated imagery, which is the use of computer graphics in art and media. These can be 2D or 3D animations, objects, or renderings; the type of art or media can be 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 characters and environments. In recent years, CGI has been the go-to visual effect for most major movies, whether its use is subtle or obvious.

What are CGI characteristics?

  • Two-dimensional computer generated imagery, such as text, objects, backgrounds, backdrops, and environments.
  • Three-dimensional objects, figures, spaces, and environments.
  • In good cases, composite imagery and video that tricks the eye into believing in the illusion presented.
  • In bad cases, obviously fake figures, renderings, objects, and environments that look artificial and/or stand out with regards to everything else.

CGI Movies VFX

What is CGI technology?

The question of “When was CGI invented?” can be traced back to the 1960s, when various inventors and companies played around 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 later medicine.

As CGI technology evolved, so did the ways filmmakers sought to use it in their films, which are among the first CGI movies in cinema. They could create digital viewpoints in Westworld (1973) and wire-frame models in Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979), though their usage and scope was still limited at the time. 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.

Tron is one of the first CGI movies

So when people in the movies and movie fandom refer to CGI technology today, they are nearly 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 period 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, i.e. background environments full of buildings, people, and vehicles. In a science-fiction blockbuster, CGI can be almost 90% of everything you see, from the characters, vehicles, environments, and action.

CGI Examples

CGI Examples Past and Present

The history of cinema is full of various CGI examples from all types of film genres. Some of those examples are small but notable moments in a regular movie, while other examples are the entire film itself (like in animated films, which we will cover in detail later).

Using StudioBinder’s storyboard application, we want to show you some of the most notable CGI examples in the last fifty or so years. Some CGI examples featured will be recognizable from earlier in this article, while others are covered later on.

StudioBinder storyboard software  •  CGI examples across cinema

That storyboard will provide you with a major reference for CGI examples and how the technology has evolved over the decades. From something minor like in Westworld to all encompassing like in Toy Story, and even all the way up to recent superhero juggernauts like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Avengers: Infinity War.

It’s important to understand and consider where CGI started and where it has been since then, especially if we’re going to talk about any controversies concerning the use of CGI.

A loud voice decrying CGI started to rise in the last decade or two from movie goers who had gotten tired of bad CGI usage. It even got to a point where people (still) ask why CGI is 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 CGI is the one where you don’t even notice it.

What is CGI? Good or Bad?

CGI is also no longer relegated to huge blockbusters. If you happen to be making a sci-fi movie, but it uses minimal VFX, maybe you can use some CGI for where you really need it. Or maybe you want to replicate something you’ve seen but think you don’t have the resources, when actually, you do. Our article on Inception’s Paris cafe scene not only breaks that scene done but shows you how you can pull it off using our software.

Recreating Inception’s Paris cafe effect  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Many CGI movies utilize the technology to do things they could never do otherwise. James Cameron movies are known for their CGI, since that same tech was what made the T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991) possible. It also made Titanic (1997) that much more effective, with its use of CGI models along with actual sets. More recently, Avatar (2009) demonstrated Cameron at the top of his visual game, using various VFX in combination with CGI to create a unique experience.

Avatar is a prime CGI example

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 CGI along with practical effects to create realistic looking dinosaurs.

Other movies that use CGI utilize 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 on the street, light, or shadows. Zodiac (2007) used extensive CGI for creating environments, along with elements pertaining to said environments.

What is CGI in David Fincher’s Zodiac?

CGI 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 genres, such as children’s films, it has become the dominant form for making these types of movies.

CGI Animation

What is CGI Animation?

No area of cinema has embraced this tech more than fully animated CGI movies. 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. It also took a long time, since stop-motion requires you to map out each bit of movement that will be shown on-screen.

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

Pixar were 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 animation, 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 inspired beloved sequels.

Pixar continues to improve their craft

Other studios decided to try their hand at CGI animation, like Dreamworks, who first put out Antz (1998) with positive results. However, if any movie put them on the map for good, it was Shrek (2001), which was a massive success and has a major influence on children’s animation.

What is CGI animation?  •  Shrek

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. These days, 2D animation seems relegated to television, where even then shows using 3D models can still compete.

While Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks dominate family friendly animation, studios like Illumination have broken through to create their own brand of 3D rendered films. Even though they’re relatively new to the scene, hits like Despicable Me (2010) and The Secret Life of Pets (2016) have proven that the space of CGI animation is still very much evolving.

CGI Future

The Future of CGI

Since movies are using CGI now more than ever, there are still plenty of innovations to be had. It might then be expected that those at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) are the ones at the head of this innovation with something they call StageCraft, aka “the Volume,” which is used on the hit Disney+ show The Mandalorian.

As they did back in the day, Lucasfilm and ILM have created a new groundbreaking way to shoot VFX in-camera (as opposed to in post-production) that unites practical staging with computer generated imagery.

StageCraft combines the powers of several different companies, including Epic Games, whose Unreal Engine has been behind the VFX for other productions over the last few years (and video games, of course). The Unreal Engine and its use of computer technology are key part of what makes StageCraft as effective and ingenious as it is. You can learn more about how the Unreal Engine is helping CGI VFX reach new heights in the video below.

The CGI meaning changing with Unreal

StageCraft is the ultimate response to green and blue screen technology. Instead of having a colored sheet to make your imaginary backgrounds (which are placed in post), why not actually project those backgrounds while the actors are performing on the set? So instead of having actors act in front of green or blue screens, they can act in the (projected) environment they are meant to be in. Take a look at how it was used in the video below.

What is CGI?  •  The Mandalorian VFX

Aside from being a great thing for the actors, StageCraft, above all, makes everyone’s job easier. Using a 270-degree area made of LED screens, the environment for the shot (CGI or real) is displayed onto the screen as the cameras are rolling. Combined with lighting and props on the set itself, the Volume uses its LED screens to create the scene as if the actors were really there, be it a desert landscape or icey tundra. The result is a realistic looking scene that is all done in-camera, on-set, in real time.

It’s still a bit early, but StageCraft is already making waves and wowing everyone, including those using it. Not everyone has access to StageCraft, of course, as it is still primarily being used for The Mandalorian. But it is a safe bet that this technology will find its way into more projects soon, at least within Lucasfilm.


What is 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 specific examples, terms, and types that can be found in familiar television programs and movies.

Up Next: What is VFX? →
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