CGI Visual FX: Great Leaps Forward

A lush, pictorial history of the significant moments in the development of digital FX in the movies

The Jurassic Park trilogy is released on Blu-ray for the first time later this month. It was a milestone in the development of digital FX, and still looks fantastic today. But while it forever changed the way films FX are produce, it wasn’t the first film to use CGI by far, and things have developed a long way since.

This featured is an updated and expanded version of one that appeared in an SFX Collector’s Edition in 2007, with new material and trivia provided by Steve Jarratt, editor of 3D World Magazinee, so he knows what he’s talking about. Enjoy.

1973


Soylent Green
The first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space, makes an appearance. The game, created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and published by Nutting Associates, appeared in 1971, a year before Atari’s Pong. So technically, this is the first instance of CGI in a movie, though it’s kinda cheating…

Westworld
The android Gunslinger’s point-of-view shots (left) were achieved using 2D raster (or bitmap) graphics, provided by artists at Evans & Sutherland, pioneers of computer graphics. Soylent Green came out in May ’73, some months ahead of Westworld, which was released in November ’73 but we still reckon that means Westworld stakes the claim for the first ever proper use of computer generated imagery in the movies.

1976

Futureworld
The sequel to Westworld (and Yul Brynner’s final film), features the first use of animated 3D computer graphics. In the film, Peter Fonda’s face and hand are digitised by computer and stored in its memory banks. In reality, Triple I (Information International Inc,) painstakingly scanned in Fonda’s head and rendered his face using shaded polygons. However, the animated hand was from an animation created in 1972 by Ed Catmull and Fred Parke while at the University of Utah. A cast of Catmull’s hand was digitised manually, point-by-point to generate the wireframe mesh.

1977


Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
The animated wireframe graphic that appears in the Rebel Alliance’s briefing for the Death Star attack run is noteworthy for being the first substantial animated CG sequence (rather than the few fleeting seconds in previous movies). It was painstakingly hand-crafted by Larry Cuba, working in the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois.

1979

The Black Hole
The opening credit sequence, showing a wireframe representation of a black hole’s gravity well, was, at the time, the longest computer-generated shot committed to film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxWCH7PfieM

Alien
When the Nostromo enters the orbit of the planetoid Archeron (also referred to later as LV-426), the nav computers display a CG wireframe display of the ship’s flight path, and then of the rocky planet surface. The effect was created by Systems Simulation Ltd of London.

Into the ’80s on the next page…

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