Computer Generated Images and the Eye of the Beholder: Part 2


Last week in the first part of this blog post I outlined the early beginnings of computer generated imagery (CGI). Most of it was done in computer labs and usually in isolation.

But then someone in Hollywood saw the potential of this new art form.

cgi-1973-westworld2The early use of CGI in motion pictures was very limited and seems somewhat underwhelming to audiences today. The first use of a computer assisted visual element in a major motion picture happened in 1973 with the movie Westworld. Westworld was Michael Crichton’s cautionary tale about an amusement park that goes horribly wrong. Westworld is a place where rich tourists of the future can go to live out their fantasies in a recreation of the old west populated by robots. Guests can interact with the robot actors, get into fights, even shoot outs with the robots. It almost-but-not-quite predicts the popularity of virtual environments and first person shooter video games.

Naturally, when you mix robots and selfish humans with guns you can practically count it down to the minute that everything goes awry. The robots become a real threat and the humans have to fight for their survival.

The CGI was used in sequences when the camera sees the deadly robot cowboy’s point of view. Using 2D animation, the point of view of Yul Brynner’s gunslinger was created with raster graphics.

As I said; underwhelming.

The sequel to Westworld, Futureworld, made in 1976 also made limited use of CGI for an animated hand and face.

Star-Wars-3dThen in 1977 George Lucas released Star Wars. The conventional special effects of models shot against blue screen and optically composited wowed audiences so much that they would be forgiven for being less than impressed with the first use of an animated wireframe graphic. Remember the scene where the rebel leaders are telling the fighter pilots about the plan to defeat the Death Star? Remember the little animated graphic that illustrates how the X-Wing pilots have to try to drop an explosive into an exhaust port?

Yeah, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the attack that followed, nevertheless it was the first use of wireframe graphics and a 3D model.

A similar raster wire-frame model rendering was used in Ridley Scott’s film Alien in 1979. These were seen on the Nostromo’s navigation monitors in the landing sequence.

These examples, although they technically quality as computer generated imagery, don’t look the way we expect CGI to look. These sequences could have been made using traditional 2D animation or other, similar optical effects and it would have made little to no difference to the movie audience.

The really big leap forward came in 1982 with the use of fractal geometry and true CGI rendering in the famous Genesis sequence from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan Genesis effectIndustrial Light and Magic, the special effects house created by George Lucas, was working hard to make computer generated images pay off. Their computer graphics team created the “Genesis Effect”sequence. This was used in the scene where Kirk, Spock and McCoy watch the presentation on how the Genesis Wave works to terraform planets. This sequence was the first use of a fractal-generated landscape in a movie and the results, as most would agree, were spectacular.

This was one of the first moments that some in the audience might recognize that this technique was something different.

And then there was Tron.

Atari_BattleZone_ScreenshotComputers were just beginning to make their presence known in the mainstream. Video games were all the rage among the kids. These oversized devices were showing up in arcades and very handily fleecing kids of their loose change. The displays on the screen were crude little animations but the fact that the user could control the action with a joystick was transformative. Few games actually presented an immersive 3D environment which the player could control, but some did. Battlezone was a first-person tank combat arcade game from Atari released in 1980. The player would control a tank which was attacked by other tanks and missiles. The game used wireframe vector graphics on a black and white vector monitor with green and red sectioned color overlay. The wireframe was simple, but the 3D element was immersive. It put the player into the environment. The player began to, as William Gibson would later put it, occupy the space behind the video screen.

That was the idea behind Disney’s Tron. Jeff Bridges plays a computer programmer and video arcade owner who gets himself trapped inside the computer that he helped develop. The world inside the computer is made up of lights and energy; activities that the programs (represented as people) engage in are basically video game scenarios.

Tron_LightcyclesThe movie featured the first extensive use of 3D CGI in the famous Light Cycle sequence. It is considered by many to be one of the best parts of the movie for its use of Computer Graphics Imagery. It was a milestone in computer-generated effects for the movies

These early examples of 3D imagery, as impressive as they eventually became, were still heavily associated with computers, though. We were under no illusion that the CGI effect was anything more than something associated with this new toy. It was realistic, but it existed in its own separate reality. It was never used as a substitute for reality. The “computery” feel of the image was something that early creators could not get away from.

That, however, was about to change.

Next week: Spaceships, shape changing witches and dinosaurs.

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