Fear Of F/X: The Evolution Of CGI

Trapped inside an electronic arena, where love, and escape, do not compute!   


“Nobody cares About making movies about people any more. All they care about is special effects” – Ellen Keith, F/X: Murder By Illusion (1986). 

The lone cowboy marched through the terrain, determined to track down the man who had shot him dead. The pixelated vision of Yul Brynner’s relentless android gunslinger, developed for Westworld (1973), introduced computerised effects to movies (not Tron (1982) as commonly misconceived). These pioneering images were the work of Information International Inc. or Triple-I. 

Little did anyone know that from these tentative beginnings, we would get the ubiquitous Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) of today.

Before we were bombarded by CGI, there was an exciting period of SF imbued with the more awe-inspiring and organic delights of animatronics, make-up, puppetry and blue (not green) screen wizardry. You got the feeling that real ingenious creativity was unfolding before your very startled eyes, and the fantastic results often inspired the how-the-hell-did-they-do-that?! response.

Nowadays, we know that it’s a team of technicians working on machines. Jeez, where’s the sense of wonder in that?! 

ACE IN THE HOLE: "The shaft is ray-shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes"
ACE IN THE HOLE: “The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes”

“That’s impossible, even for a computer” – Wedge Antilles.  

The director of American Graffiti needed to create special effects for a new “space adventure” he’d been working on, tentatively titled: “The Star Wars.”  In May 1975, the effects team Industrial Light and Mgic (ILM) was born to create the flying spaceships, lasers and explosions in space and all the other awesome stuff. What they achieved in terms of sfx magic was nothing short of rermarkable. Most notable were the 3D wireframe graphics used during Jan Dodonna’s Death Star attack briefing. 

Obviously, this line of historical enquiry must reserve a special mention for Tron (1982) which, as the first feature-length computerised film, is commonly referred to as the one with the first computerised images ever. Apparently, a heaving 2 Mb of memory (that’s approximately 1/2000th of the capacity of your average PC, folks!) went into the making of this film about a computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) who gets sucked into the gaming world. Who can forget that pulsating light cycle race? Still looks pretty neat even now…

Th Last Starfighter (1984) relied on revolutionary new computer technology to produce its space battles. A childhood fave (to be covered more fully in a later Post), its story and entertainment value still stands up remarkably well, but regrettably, those vfx have dated horribly…


“It’s all CG now, creating worlds in CG. It’s a completely different toolset. But the rules of storytelling are the same” – James Cameron. 

James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) presented the first CG water effects, while Total Recall (1990) provided engaging viewing primarily for the varied experimentation that went into crafting a substantial number of original visual effects, but then two veritable game-changers were set to burst and crackle onto the big screen.

Terminator II; Judgment Day (1991) (Cameron again!) became one of the most enjoyable Summer blockbusters of all time. A new level of technology pioneered by ILM was unleashed. Quite unlike anything experienced before, the liquid metal T-1000 morphed, mimicked and mutated in highly original ways into the SF(X) Hall of Fame. Then in 1993, along came another colossal pioneer of sfx. Jurassic Park (1993) offered the first physically-textured CG animals, which just happened to be the species made extinct millions of years ago. Admittedly, the T-Rex and the raptors were very impressive… but how many technicians were required to painstakingly process those awesome scenes? Having marveled at stop-motion animation, you just cannot beat the one late great Ray Harryhausen…

Starship Troopers (1997) was a dull and forgettable experience, and not surprisingly a box office flop, but it carries the distinction of being the first motion picture to showcase an intricate CG military battle. Funnily enough, it would have won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year if it wasn’t for Cameron’s Titanic…

Beyond Y2K, computerised viz accelerated at an exponential rate. There appears to be an abundance of CGI at the expense of a decent plot, characterisation or any other essential ingredient necessary for sufficient visual story-telling. CGI now holds scant joy for me – that’s why no CG movies from the last two decades feature in this historical study. Yet there are those who would argue that computer-generated effects are imperative because they have attained spectacularly sophisticated standards. Like some inhuman unstoppable force, CGI appears to be relentless, uncompromising, and looks like it will mercilessly consume all traditional f/x methods until the allure and awe of cinema are eradicated forever.

The beast is loose… 

OMG F/X: Fear and loathing in the CGI Factory
OMG F/X: Fear and loathing in the CGI Factory

“Even today, a lot of the CGI you see in movies is so clean and crisp that it just looks fake. It’s weird: the more advanced they get, the faker it looks” – Jim Lee. 

What do you think of CGI? 


9 thoughts on “Fear Of F/X: The Evolution Of CGI

  1. I agree, too clean and perfect automatically pins my BS meter and it ruins the film for me. I seem to be more CG accepting with superhero films, maybe because If it looks a little cartoon-ish at times, I’ve already accepted the images as toons in the 1st place. In the right hands, CGI can look fantastic: Speilberg, Cameron, etc. Lastly, you’d be surprised at how many of the dino sequences in the Jurassic Park movies were actually giant robotic dinosaurs made by Stan Winston’s FX company. The CGI was mostly used to enhance the robotics. There are only a few scenes where the dinos are fully CG…and I think that’s the key to making it work 🙂

    • Thank you v much for your Comment!
      There were just 14 mins of dino-footage in JP, only 4 of which entirely CG. Meant to include that point in this Post, but had some technical difficulties. After ’93, CGI holds no appeal for me – I only blog what I enjoy.
      Maybe I should concentrate on th works of Stan Winston, rather than a team of computer operators?

  2. I love practical effects, due to my adoration of 80’s horror (Tom Savini is king in my book!) Though CGI can work if used correctly, 300 comes to mind, plus I also really like full CGI movies like Spirits Within and Beowulf. Overall though, no-one will ever rival a true master like Ray Harryhausen! Great post my friend.

  3. Thank you v much for your comment, Arcane!
    Great to read u mention Tom Savini – he supplied th make-up for my all-time fave zombie pic: Dawn of Th Dead (1979) & had a great cameo in it too.
    Th work on 300 is impressive; th Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to mind.
    And of course, Ray Harryhausen is a legend – if you’re lucky, I might just post my unpublished tribute to him up here soon…

  4. I think CGI is a great tool that can enhance the art of film, but it’s not a substitute for great performance or real-life sets. I like to see movies that use a combination of real sets and CGI blended together as seamlessly as possible. Great post!

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