In 1995 a new film was to be released by a little known company called Pixar, who had collaborated with the industry giant Disney to produce a feature length computer animated film. The film was called “Toy Story”  and followed the life of some toys that lived extra ordinary lives. The film was a major breakthrough and was recognised instantly by the international media as an amazing event.
It had showed that we had changed our views on CGI and we accepted it with open arms. Kids and adults loved this film, as it was a film that amazed the majority of the people who saw it. Some of the techniques used in the film where to make the scenery look like it has been lived in rather than just created and then replicated, this involved hours of painting dirt, dust and many other minor adjustments, to make the whole thing look more realistic.
The subject matter for the film was a good idea as computers were good at making items like toys but organic / natural things like the child look completely non-realistic as computer skills and software were still being worked on. After “Toy Story” there was a rush for people to create new CGI animations such as “A Bugs Life”  and “Antz”  each one trying out new pieces of equipments such as animatronic heads that animators could use to interface with the computer so that they could animate speech much more quickly and naturally.
There was also technology designed to allow the animators to input real human actions into a scene using small markers placed on a person or animal in certain points of the body, this allowed them to map movements into a computer than it was just case of matching the points up and then u have a naturally walking or moving character. In the animated film “Shrek” (2001)  the animators worked very hard to bring some realism into the way the characters move.
They went to the extent of building each character a bone structure with muscles, tendons, fat, and other body organs this was so that the computers could accurately animate parts more naturally that the animators can. This includes the effects of muscle movements on the body. The animators are trying to hand a lot more of the physical things over to the computer such as they tell the computer how strong the wind is blowing and the computer can work out how fast the leaves are blowing and how much effect it is having on a flag, this is all to make the film more realistic because many believe that our world is based on mathematical equations and physics, well these can be programmed into a computer and the computer can work out the hard bits.
Computers are now also being used to animate in 2D as well, in the Disney film Tarzan 1999  there are scenes that look very spectacular and are animated in 3D then converted to give a 2D look using a method called ‘Cell Shading’. This was very successful and has been used on a number of 2D animation films. It was used in a cartoon animation called “Futurama” (1999)  that was created by the same team that makes the Simpsons; Futurama is animated using computers in 2D with the occasional Cell shaded scene. I believe there is a future for ‘cell shading’ animation as it might get used for kid’s cartoons as it does not require as much work a total 3D animation but it has the benefit of being quick to animate and accurate movement of the characters.
The recent film “Final Fantasy – The Spirits Within” (2002) , was the first feature length film that has tried to replicate the human figure accurately in a CGI film. At time the animation is so good that you could almost believe that it is real. A lot of time went into the film in to making it very accurate, one technique was to animate the lead charters hair using individual hairs which numbers in the tens of thousands, they were able to keep her hair very neat at tidy sometimes a bit too tidy.
In general the film if very lifelike and is a step towards a future where CGI is done to a much higher level but there are times that I can tell I am watching a CGI film and I believe it’s the films backdrops that let it down as they contain more pastel colours and the film in general does not have the general contrast that I would expect from real life images. The film had the great advantage of using CGI is that they were able to alter the camera angle to what ever they wanted and this gave much more freedom to the director as he could experiment with different panning shots and not have to worry about where the film crew is.
This film is only the first, I expect more to come that are trying to make realistic films. I can see a possible future where a artist owns the rights to a CGI charter that has lifelike looks and computer generated voice as well as it would be silly for film makers to create new characters all the time as its timely and costly to build these characters. But it may open up a new film category at the Oscars ‘Best CGI film’ or something along those lines could be possible in the near future.
The film “Tomb Raider” (2001)  was generally a bit of a hot chick action flick but the animation and merging of that with the real world was very well done, especially in the scene where she is fighting a robot. The robot looks very good and merges with its surrounds very well this was achieved matching the lighting with the surrounding and that CGI was good at recreating metallic effects at the time the film was made. You forget you are watching a CGI character and you start to enjoy the film.
The worst mistake a director can do is make it obvious that you are using CGI characters this is evident in the film “Planet of the Apes” (2001)  as the apes are running along in the desert the CGI people have used an excessive amount of dust, so much that it clearly is not natural, the apes also look too much like they are just copies of one design, this was disappointing to me when I saw the film and was not a step forward but more of a step back.
CGI artist still have a lot to learn about how to create realistic characters but some times they have to cut corners as they require to stay on target and also to save money, some still images can be made to look very photo realistic but this takes time also other problems arises when you start to animate it as you have to get the movements correct and to animate a very short sequence could take a rather long time.
George Lucas is very influential in CGI these days as he owns the company ILM and he also is making the new Star Wars films. The film “Star Wars II ‘Attack of the Clones'” (2002)  the very risky step of deciding to shoot the whole film digitally was taken. This is a massive leap and a great boost for digital imaging by having the film in the digital world straight away the director can see what the scenes look like instantly and it also means work can start very soon on the CGI effects. Another good thing about digital is that there is no film grain and the shots are very sharp sometimes directors feel that they need to add film grain as to soften the effect on peoples eyes.
The downfall of this new technology is that its very big and bulky, for year camera companies have tried to make small and compact cameras and now we are adding a lot more gear to be transported. This has made some people think that it’s not a good idea to use digital yet. But without the support of people like George Lucas this technology might not of progressed so much. Some films have been shot on digital cameras before but they were not of the quality used in the making of this film. The CGI effects looked amazing but it often looked like CGI, but there where scenes that I think they did a good job with.
Another film that has caught my eye recently is the “The Lord of the Rings”  both the films have been box office hits. The films contain a large amount of CGI effects and these are very well done, with only the occasional slip up but nothing that detracts from the film. The film is very good because it uses a mix of live action and CGI effects, this makes the definitions between the CGI and the live action very hard to see so when a CGI effect is used you don’t make a conscious thought about it, the film uses a large amount of extras in a lot of their scenes this is to get rid of some of the repeating that can happed when using CGI actors it is more expensive than using CGI actors but the out come is that the scene looks like there was a lot of people there, some of the human extras are copied to make the very large fighting force but where possible the director has used human extras rather than CGI actors.
There was also some very sophisticated camera tricks used so that the dwarfs look small even though they about the same height as some of the actors around them. The character ‘Gollum’ is a total CGI but is animated by using a live action actor that was on the sets and acted out most of the movements for the character then the CGI artists replaced him with the CGI ‘Gollum’ often this required shooting the scene twice as to get a version with and without Gollum’s actor. This saves a lot of time with the animation of the character and also makes the movements look more natural if it was hand animated it would take a long time and it would never look natural, the animators will tweak the movements a bit to improve the scenes.
The software used by the professional filmmakers is available to the public but at a high price. But the price is getting cheaper as the technology becomes better. Often a whole variety of software is used, a program to build the character another used to animate the scenes and another to render them. Within the software you have masses of tools from camera type and angle to the lighting and also the expressions of the individual CGI actors. Getting these to work well all together takes a lot of skills and slot of work for very little acknowledgement. Nowadays CGI has come on along way and the animators are trying to include more extras so that the final CGI piece looks realistic as possible.
These include things such as building up the body of the beast or character using bones, lungs, heart, and muscle so that they can work out if the characters can actually walk/move in a life like way. Another thing they do is to workout where the live action actor is looking so they can then time everything so that the actor does look like he is looking the right way, it was one of the common mistakes in early CGI films and is films that use stop motion animation as well.
Lighting has been a big problem for animators for years, the software is able to workout the reflective properties of all the items and light the scene accordingly, but there is a problem with that method and that is that it takes a lot of processing power to work this out and that the animators have to tell the computer the reflective properties of the surfaces. That is a laborious task and many consider an easier option, which is to allow the computer to do some of the working out, but they restrict the amount it does and they tell it what to do. They make separate light sources for the large amount of the reflective surfaces, as this will give them a lot of control and predictability of the way the scene will come out.
Science is also benefiting from the new techniques used in CGI filmmaking. The program “Walking with Dinosaurs” (1999)  was made by the BBC as a documentary on the history of Dinosaurs and theorised on what these animals might have been like if we could go back in time to film them. The BBC used the latest CGI software the build the dinosaurs, and as they knew the locations of a lot of the body parts they were able to build them up.
Scientists were able to move the bodies and in a simulated computer animation, they soon realised their ideas about how some of the dinosaurs moved was wrong and they were able to work out how they moved. They could work out how fast the animal could run, and how its movements were limited. This proved that technology that was used for entertainment could also be used for serious research.
Digital imaging is used in a variety of mediums, from print based to film and also a new medium, which is its own digital realm. The Internet has opened more possibilities for image-makers to converse with each other ever so rapidly. Where this new medium goes is dependant on the future image makers, may be we will look back on this time in years to go by in the same way we look at the Modernism, Pop Art, and many other movements. I believe that the future holds many possibilities many to have been discovered but one thing I am sure of is that we will end up with pure digital images that look lifelike and mimic nature, the borders between this and other forms of image recording are already starting to breakdown but it wont be long before these borders with be virtually gone.