CGI

Analysis: the Advancement of CGI in Video Games

CGI and video games: computer generated images (or, at least, computer interpreted images) are, by definition, the visual recipe for every video game we play and part of what makes games one of the most complex and captivating forms of entertainment on the planet. From great stories and characters to awesome gameplay and sound design, there are numerous reasons why video games are a part of more people’s lives than ever before. But if there’s one aspect of games that has evolved the most over time, it’s the element many care about most — visuals.

For as long as video games have been around, people have gravitated towards games that are not only fun to play but also look amazing. In fact, even the film industry is now studying how game developers create realistic graphics and movement to tell a story. Of course, much like movies themselves, games have gone through an evolution in becoming the visually jaw-dropping experiences they are today. And CGI has played a major role in the evolution of game visuals.

The Early Days

In the beginning, or the early ‘70s, all you had was a few white pixels over a black screen. Although Pong wasn’t officially the first video game ever made, it was one of the earliest arcade games to become popular across the globe. Other games like Midway’s Boot Hill and Gotcha only used black and white computer-generated images, but this was enough at the time to fill arcades.

The success of these black-and-white titles led to a desire for more attractive visuals and shapes. Namco’s Galaxian astonished gamers everywhere in 1979 with its brightly colored ships, and a year later the enormously popular Pac-Man arrived. Developers would continue pushing the limits of the video game consoles at the time to deliver games that were a joy both to view and play.

The Sprite Era

In 1985 a little game called Super Mario Bros. jumped onto the scene, almost single-handedly resurrecting the video game industry after a devastating market crash. At the same time, games like Street Fighter II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Strider revived arcades as a social and game hub. Revolutions in memory, storage capacity, and graphics cards/ screen resolution allowed these games to offer more vibrant colors and diverse shapes than ever, leading to improved user experiences.

The increased hardware power of systems like the Super NES and Sega Genesis also inspired developers to create jaw-dropping visuals for their time. Games like Chrono Trigger, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Super Metroid are to this day considered masterpieces of an era when designers were able to craft charming worlds and atmospheric places with sprites alone. While 2D graphics still have their fans to this day, the mid-‘90s are arguably the period of greatest CGI advancement in video games.

The 3D Takeover Unfolds

Increased power in the average home computer gave developers the freedom to use tricks to simulate 3D. One of the games to do this best was the critically praised Doom, a pioneer in perhaps the most popular genre today: first-person shooter. True 3D graphics finally took over in the mid-’90s with the release of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation.

With these consoles, gamers could truly begin exploring fully-3D worlds. There was nothing more incredible than seeing Mario jump, fly, and slide in Super Mario 64, the first successful 3D platformer. Games like PlayStation’s Crash Bandicoot and PC-favorite Quake continued pushing CGI in games until developers needed better hardware to take things further.

The Modern Age

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The jump from 2D to 3D still stands as the most significant advancement of CGI in video games. Ever-improving technology in the early 2000s opened the door to head-turning games like Halo: Combat Evolved, Grand Theft Auto III, and Metroid Prime. Never before were video game visuals so capable of creating environments that sucked players in and made them feel like part of the virtual worlds.

Today, 3D continues dominating the industry as games become more and more realistic. The latest video game consoles allow for the best cinematic realism ever to grace the industry, while computer users are able to constantly boost their system’s graphics capabilities. With the advent of virtual and augmented reality, there’s no telling where video game CGI will go next.



What are your favorite video games visuals? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Kids’ Films that Broke Ground with Special Effects

When you think of groundbreaking special effects, you likely think of summer blockbusters and big budget productions. But, children’s films are often a source of innovative special effects.

While early films were intended for general audiences rather than being targeted to specific age groups, some found inspiration in the kid-friendly fiction of Jules Verne and Lewis Carroll. Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon (1902) and “The Impossible Voyage” (1904) and Cecil Hepworth’s “Alice in Wonderland (1903) used pioneering special effects and editing such as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, substitution splices, and creative use of set design and camera placement to bring imaginary worlds to life on screen.

Gertie The Dinosaur (1914)

One of the earliest examples of animation, Gertie the Dinosaur influenced animators such as the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney. In the film, Winsor McCay draws Gertie “live” in a clever sequence that is humorous and graceful. The short film also gives viewers an inside peek at the animation process when McCay references the 10,000 drawings needed to make a few minutes worth of film.

Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The Walt Disney Company’s 1937 film was the first full-length feature film using cel animation. Concept Artist Albert Hurter oversaw every part of the film’s design from backgrounds to individual characters. Disney’s team drew inspiration from German expressionist films as well as mainstream cinema. The Queen’s transformation scene is one example of where the Disney studios borrowed from the likes of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” as well as 1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Disney Studios developed the multiplane camera in order to create realistic depth and movement of backgrounds; it was first tested on the short “The Old Mill and used for Snow White and other classics. “The Little Mermaid” was the last Disney film to use a multiplane camera.

Toy Story (1995)

Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story was hailed by critics and audiences alike. The film was the first feature film to be fully animated with computers. As Julia Zorthian discusses in her look back at Toy Story twenty years after its release, one of the keys to its success was excellent storytelling that has helped give the film longevity long after CGI has become an industry standard.

The Harry Potter series (2000s)

Creating a believable world of magic and Muggles has been a task for the director and production teams on each film in the series and they have used every trick from old fashioned optical illusions and model sets to CGI and green screens to pull it off.

Hugo (2011 )

Director Martin Scorsese wanted the opening shot of Hugo to be a seamless long shot from outside the railway station through the clockworks and into Hugo’s hidden home. To bring Brian Selznick’s book to life, Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato and Pixomondo Ben Grossman devised many tricks and transitions to create the signature opening and other scenes that pay homage to Méliès and other filmmakers of the earliest days of cinema.

The Jungle Book (2016)

Using a live actor with computer animation and motion capture had not been done on this scale, but director Jon Favreau and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato worked with hundreds of designers to create the seamless animated backgrounds and animal characters. And they did all the previz using VR headsets. The end result is also a testament to Neel Sethi’s talent as an actor, since he had to deliver an emotionally true performance while responding to puppets and stand-ins.

Want to know more about animation and special effects? Check out NYFA’s articles CGI Animation History: Defining (and Awesome) moments in Cinema or How To Do Stop Motion Animation.

CGI Animation History: Defining (and Awesome) Moments in Cinema

When done well, computer generated imagery can allow the filmmaker to achieve results that would be impractical (if not impossible) to recreate by other means.

Done badly, and it can totally undermine an otherwise fine movie.

We could fill an entire post with examples of the latter, but today we’re looking at notable movies that executed computer effects to a superb level, despite the fact that CGI barely existed at the time. And be sure to check out our previous post looking at CGI’s effect on the evolution of special effects.

characters in original tron movie

And we’ll start off with where it all began:

The Vision of an Android (Westworld)

When talking about movies that revolutionized special effects, Westworld is typically the first on the list. The raster graphics used to simulate the titular android’s vision would only take an animation school student fifteen minutes with modern software but it was an entirely different story back in 1973.

Deciding it’d be cheaper than animating the effect from scratch, two computer masterminds instead took the unprocessed footage, separated each frame into tri-color, converted them into blocks, then used a computer to combine it all back together adding basic tone values for each block.

Laborious for sure, but the result is the 2:31 origin of computer-aided effects that you see above. The sequel, Futureworld, also broke new ground by being the first movie to feature a CGI-rendered 3D object (which was actually created four years before its 1976 release):

More interesting still? The gentleman who created that CGI head and hand, Ed Catmull, went on to become the co-founder and president of Pixar.

And speaking of wireframes…

The Trench Run Briefing (Star Wars: A New Hope)

Just after the first appearance of 3D CGI in a movie (and long before Jar Jar Binks arrived on the scene) came an iconic piece of cinema that really got the ball rolling: the briefing scene in which the rebel alliance is coached on how to take out the Death Star, courtesy of some wireframe wizardry.

Here it is in isolation:

Given the extensiveness and detail of the sequence (in 1977, no less) it’s of no surprise that the imagery took weeks of non-stop work to produce at the University of Illinois. Ridley Scott went on to use the same technology in 1979’s Alien, where the Nostromo’s monitors display landing simulations onto the surface LV-426.

But forget CGI being displayed on the odd monitor. Next up, we’ve got a milestone in computer-aided imagery used across an entire movie…

Tron (1982)

CGI animation mixed seamlessly with wireframe graphics, rotoscoping, cel-shading, backlit animation and live action was the order of the day for what was to become a cult favorite.


And it’s a wonder it ever got produced in the first place. So original was the vision for how Tron should look—not to mention how expensive and painstaking it would be to produce—that Disney very nearly passed on the project (especially given that the producer and directors were both first-timers.)

Despite a muddled reception from critics, it did go on to win the Academy Award for Technical Achievement…

…fourteen years after its release.

Not bad given they only had a 2Mb computer with just 330Mb of storage to work with.

CGI progressed onward from this point as computing power increased, with a few attempts to further integrate it into live action over the 80s. Some were good, some not so good, but it was the nineties that really saw the genesis of CGI as we know it today.

The T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

The go-to example whenever the debate concerning “sequels that are better than the original” crops up at the bar, Terminator 2 got a lot of things right and its use of CGI was one of them.

Of course, we are talking about the visual effects that went into bringing the T-1000 to life; a terrifying nemesis with a liquid metal body which could morph into other shapes (or stab a foster parent through the throat while he’s drinking milk.)

Mimicking liquid is difficult in computer generated imagery, as is rendering real-world reflections in metal. Doing both at the same time nearly 30 years ago? That’s cinematic history in the making.

Toy Story (1995)

Very few would have guessed that the first ever fully-CG feature film would age so well, let alone kickstart an entire industry.

That said, given it was created on a relatively tiny $30 million budget by a very small team (half of whom reportedly didn’t know how to use a computer), it’s a wonder Toy Story ever got off the ground in the first place. This goes doubly so when factoring in the brutal development negotiations between Pixar and Disney, which nearly hamstrung the entire project

And that brings us to the final entry in our round-up of notable early CGI sequences in cinema…

Bullet Time (The Matrix)

Because it’s easy to argue that CGI history can be neatly divided into two eras…

… everything before the Wachowskis’ bullet time, and everything that followed afterwards. Join us next time as we look at some of the most remarkable CGI achievements in the post-Wachowski era and please let us know of any movies or moments we forgot to include in the comments below!

Computers Killed the Video Star: Did CGI ruin SFX?

It’s an argument as old as the hills. Did the advancement of ubiquitous CGI kill the art of moviemaking, and has it rendered many of the old school methods of visual effect creation obsolete? Moreover, has CGI sold us down the river as audiences, and taught us to accept digital fakery?

It’s fervent and important for both cinema lovers and those trying to find the right balance at producing school, since it’s widely accepted that terrible effects—be it CGI or traditional—can severely hamper an otherwise great movie.

Today we’ll be looking at both sides of the coin with an unpacking of:

CGI vs. Traditonal SFX: The Common Arguments

CGI vs VFX

“Traditional Effects Look Better than CGI!”

There are many examples that people commonly point to and say, “Man, this scene really benefits from the realism; I’m glad they didn’t use CGI to do Benjamin Button’s makeup, and that they made an actual Iron Man suit for Robert Downey Jr. to wear during scenes when he’s not flying around.”

Nope. That’s all CGI, too.

The only suit Robert ever wears on the set of an Iron Man flick is a green screen suit, and 95% of the aging affects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are achieved with CGI, not makeup artistry. Sandra Bullock wasn’t suspended by expert rigging in amidst of generated scenery in Gravity—for much of the film, Bullock herself was composited into the scene.

In short, we tend to credit a lot of CGI successes to traditional SFX, and give a lot of bad rap to CGI when it goes wrong.

Which Really Ages Worst?

There’s a common charge against CGI that it ages a lot quicker than traditional effects. We’ll probably need a few more decades of cinema before we can say either way whether or not this is the case. At the moment, however, it depends on which examples you cherry pick—The Mummy Returns is a classic example of terrible early CGI, but Gladiator and Terminator 2 still hold their own all these years later.

Similarly, the traditional animatronics behind the original SFX may have aged beautifully, but nobody can claim the Ray Harryhausen-style effects preceding it are convincing to anyone (despite how innovative they were at the time).

CGI Has Created a Whole Industry…

Speaking of movies that have aged well, Toy Story would never have existed without advancements in computer animation, and arguably nor would the slew of evermore-impressive animated features which have come since.

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Of course, the argument from the other side is that the prevalence of CGI has created a massive over-saturation of family animations and bombastic action flicks; but a counter to this could be that the industry needs these revenue-pulling staples in order to fund traditional (and more subtle) movies.

This leads us neatly on to…

Job Creation and Destruction

If a thousand-strong crowd can be shopped into a stadium, what’s the point of hiring extras? If Benjamin Button’s face can be manipulated with digital effects, why bother recruiting a makeup expert?

The pervasiveness of automata replacing human labor is something that is concerning to just about every industry. In Hollywood, CGI partly replaces many roles such as set creation, modeling, makeup artistry, stunt work, armory and pyrotechnics. All very worrying for those struggling to find work in an already cutthroat industry.

FilmCrew

In the latter cases, however, one positive aspect of CGI is that it can serve to reduce danger on set. It has also created brand new fields of work that never before existed—data wranglers and software developers, for instance. Though it’s unlikely that the amount of work created by CGI exceeds the amount of jobs it makes redundant.

CGI is Hard to Act Opposite

Sadly for the CGI supporters, this one is hard to refute given that countless actors and actresses have spoken up regarding the challenges of acting in heavily-computer generated environments (and especially when acting opposite characters who literally aren’t there during the shoot).

Worse is that to the viewer, the mixing of live human actors and CGI creations usually looks a little disjointed in the final cut, ruining the suspension of disbelief that enhanced effects should bolster, not detract from.

If there’s any consolation here, it’s that this merging is getting more and more seamless as time goes on, and acting opposite CGI is now a standard, so whether you are in acting school, or a seasoned performer, this is something you should be prepared for.

Over to You…

As we can see, there’s no straightforward answer as to whether or not CGI is, on balance, a force for good in the field of moviemaking. There are a lot of good arguments on both sides.

Where do you stand on CGI vs. traditional SFX? Any strong opinions on either, or arguments we may have missed? Let your voice be heard in the comments below!