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Movie History – CGI’s Evolution From Westworld to The Matrix to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

In movies from the ’70s onward, Computer-Generated Imaging (or CGI) has become a constant tool for visual effects artists. Today, the multi-billion dollar CGI industry has the ability to create characters as well as crowds, and entire sets as well as the explosions that destroy them. Here’s a recap of how we got there.

Westworld (1973)
This Michael Crichton thriller is the first major feature to use 2D CGI: In a “computer vision” sequence, audiences see an infra-red POV of the titular amusement park’s malfunctioning android Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) as he goes on a killing spree. Interestingly, the first use of 3D wireframe CGI imagery would come with the movie’s sequel Futureworld (1976) which features a brief view of a computer-generated face and hand.

Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
The first major production of George Lucas’ F/X company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) took a big step forward for CGI with A New Hope. Before the massive Death Star assault, Rebel Alliance pilots are given a Trench-Run Briefing which incorporates a very basic but extensive, untextured, unshaded 3D wireframe view of their target.

Looker (1981)
This high-tech medical thriller (also based on a Crichton story) features the first CGI human character: “Cindy” (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family fame). Dey’s digitization was done by creating a computer-generated simulation of her naked body via scanning. This is the first use of shaded 3D CGI in a major movie.


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Created by Pixar, a LucasFilm spin-off, this movie’s famous one-minute sequence simulating the “Genesis Effect” (the birth and greening of a planet) is cinema’s first all-computer generated visual effects shot. It also introduces a fractal-generated landscape and a particle-rendering system to achieve a fiery effect.

TRON (1982)
This inside-a-video-game adventure is the first live-action movie to use CGI for a noteworthy length of time (about 20 minutes). The most innovative sequence of its 3D graphics world is the famed Lightcycle sequence depicting computerized vehicles in a high-speed race.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
LucasFilm/Pixar created, arguably, the first fully photorealistic CGI
character in a full-length feature film with this movie’s
sword-wielding medieval “stained-glass” knight composed of window
pieces that come to life when he jumps out of a window frame.


The Abyss (1989)
James Cameron’s scifi flick won a Visual Effects Academy Award-winning,
in no small part because of its convincing 3D CGI character, a watery,
tentacled alien who, in a 75-second sequence, mirrors the facial
expressions of actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Cameron’s blockbuster action pic also got a Best Visual Effects Oscar
thanks to its depiction of the villainous, liquid metal T-1000 cyborg
(Robert Patrick), Hollywood’s first CGI main character. This Terminator
can morph his arm into a stabbing weapon, take the shape of anything or
anyone he touches, and reform his body if damaged.

Forrest Gump (1994)
Even more advanced than Woody Allen’s Zelig
(1983) is the CGI for the digitally-composited interplay between
Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) and three past presidents (Kennedy, Johnson
and Nixon) and celebrities like Elvis Presley and John Lennon. The
digitally amputated legs of actor Gary Sinise, playing a war vet, is
its most surprising effect.


Toy Story (1995)
The success of this pivotal movie from Pixar, the first full-length,
all-CGI animated film, spelled the end of traditional hand-drawn
animation, and spurred the creation of other digital production
animation studios.

The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowski Brothers’ kinetic, action-oriented, science-fiction
virtual reality movie combined many innovative visual and special
effects elements comprising about 20 percent of the entire film.
Digital effects dubbed “flow-mo” and “bullet time” — slowed-down,
rotating action of whizzing bullets — were created with suspending
actors on wires, using motion capture, and filming segments with still
cameras shooting from multiple angles, and then enhancing the pictures
with digital sequencing or CG interpolation.

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
George Lucas’ fourth movie in the series contains more computer
animation and special effects than any previous film; over 90 percent
of its 2,200 shots are special effects shots. Its greatest milestone —
although criticized and hated by most audiences — is the CGI character
Jar Jar Binks.


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
A combination of motion-capture performance and key-frame techniques
brought to life the main digital character Gollum. A motion capture
suit (with sensors) recorded the movements of actor Andy Serkis. Two
years later, The Polar Express (2004) used the same technique for all its actors.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
This is the first big-budget feature to use only “virtual” backlot
sets. Actors Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie were filmed
in front of blue screens; everything else was added later.

What movie has the most important special effects in movie history? Click here to vote.

To read more on the history of CGI, check out Tim Dirks’s column in the SciFi Scanner blog.

To read a more comprehensive history of special effects, check out Tim Dirks’s extensive overview on

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