With the rise of any new technology the old ways we are used to fall into the background. Newspapers become digital. Letters become few and far between while texts become unlimited. Special effects art falter under the power of CGI. The first use of CGI was back in 1968 by Russian mathematicians who got the image of a cat to walk across a screen. The first use of it in movies was in the 1976 film Futureworld, where a digital image of a hand and one of the actors’ faces appeared on a computer monitor.
After that, the technology was picked by films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Tron – films that really brought it to the forefront of popular culture. Tron took a big risk by having most of the film enhanced with computer generated graphics. It was something that challenged audiences’ views on film and left them with a lot of mixed reviews. Steven Lisberger, the director of the film, commented on one of the reasons the film grew more popular in hindsight; “When I think about Disney, I always think about how they provide nostalgia and a certain amount of comfort that comes from nostalgia. It’s interesting to see how over the decades ‘Tron’ has now gained a patina of nostalgia. In that sense it’s become more of a Disney film now then it was back then. It was very upsetting to people that Disney crossed the line and did something for which there was no precedent.” Just one scene with well-placed effects could take a film to a whole new level. It was a rare and shocking surprise for the audience in its baby stages, even if the effects were less than believable.
As time progressed, so did the believability of the images. Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was really the first case where the images were photorealistic. George Lucas was one of the lucky few to see test shots before the film was released. He had this to say on the matter; “…It was like one of those moments in history, like the invention of the light bulb or the first telephone call… A major gap had been crossed and things were never going to be the same.” The films kept experimenting; after Jurassic Park there was Casper (1995) with the first fully CGI characters, Jumanji (1995) with its realistic animals, and finally the conversion to fully computer animated films with Toy Story (1995).
As the technique became more popular, it was easier to spot the good from the bad. There is the mess made of Dwayne Johnson in The Mummy Returns (2001), with his transformation into The Scorpion King. Then there is the fight scene in the Matrix Reloaded (2003) where multiples of Agent Smith attack Neo on a rooftop. The result is a scene that turns Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving into doll-like beings with movements that make them seem made of rubber. Even for the anything goes world of the Matrix, this imagery seemed farfetched. The fourth installment of Indiana Jones -the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – is a movie that doesn’t deserve to carry the name of such a cinema classic. It is almost an affront to the originals that carried their strength in the skillfully filmed stunts and action sequences. There is an overuse of CGI throughout the film but the chase scene in the jungle gets the worst of it. Shia Lebeouf swinging in the trees with monkeys obviously not from this planet, in a jungle that also seems otherworldly in the worst way. Point being that CGI is not always ideal, and even movies that had the best technology at the time can age poorly as the audience grows more aware of the subtle mistakes. Flash forward to today where CGI isn’t just all the rage, it is the standard. You seldom find a blockbuster film that doesn’t factor it in.
My question is: How has this new way of film making affected the practical special effects industry that set the stage for these new technologies? Stay tuned for part two. . .
Gonzalez, Rowan. “A Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) History.” Computer Stories, Computer Stories, 13 Feb. 2018, computerstories.net/a-computer-generated-imagery-cgi-history-698.
King, Susan. “’Tron’ at 35: Star Jeff Bridges, Creators Detail the Uphill Battle of Making the CGI Classic.” Variety, 10 July 2017, variety.com/2017/film/news/tron-jeff-bridges-cgi-1982-disney-anniversary-1202486941/.
Huls, Alexander. “The Jurassic Park Period: How CGI Dinosaurs Transformed Film Forever.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 6 Apr. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/the-i-jurassic-park-i-period-how-cgi-dinosaurs-transformed-film-forever/274669/.
Spielberg, Steven, director. Jurassic Park. Universal Pictures, 1993.
Sommers, Stephen, director. The Mummy Returns. Alphaville Films, 2001.
Heffron, Richard T., director. Futureworld. Aubrey Company, 1976.