Filmmaking has always been faced with many challenges. What you could dream in your mind was not so easy to get on screen. 

At some point that changed, and the opposite became true. Filmmakers had to start thinking more in terms of how to limit what they did on screen because pretty much everything became possible. 


CGI is how. 

If you came here because you've heard the term and you want answers... we've got you covered. If you came here because you know what it is but want a run down on how it works, why it works, when it doesn't work... and where it's headed... 

Well... we've got all of that too. 

What is CGI?

CGI is responsible for all of the larger-than-life stories we've come to expect on the big screen. Pixar films, Dreamworks movies, and Optimus Prime all share one very important thing with one another. And that's what this article will explore.


What Does CGI Mean? CGI Meaning, Definition, and Examples

To define CGI, we must look to its roots in the world of science.

What's CGI got to do with science? We're very glad that you asked.

What does "CGI" stand for? CGI stands for computer-generated imagery. It is a broad category of media classification, covering rendered images and other types of digital imaging.

Far from just a staple in the world of movie-making, CGI is also a valuable tool for those working in other sectors, as well. Architects, for example, are able to use CGI imaging to design a virtual building from the ground up. CAD, or computer-aided drawing, is an industry standard for product designers and engineers alike.

Some may assume that CGI only covers objects rendered in 3D, but this is not quite the case. Digitally-created text, for example, can also be considered CGI, as can CGI images and rendered 2D graphics, including fractals and other algorithm-based designs.

History of CGI in Movies: What Is Computer-Generated Imagery?

The history of CGI is intricately storied and full of star players. The first person to ever showcase the power of CGI video was Pixar's own Ed Catmull and Fred Parke, several years before founding the company.

In his seminal work, "A computer animated hand" (1972), he walks us through the process of creating a 3D model of his hand and manipulating it, posing it, and shading it for the demonstration.

It's an eerie and unsettling piece in retrospect, but the coolness factor at the time was likely through the roof. This labor-intensive experiment sparked a national sense of curiosity after making its debut in the 1976 film Futureworld.

When was CGI invented in a modern sense, as more than just a decorative prop used in a live-action context? What was the first movie to use CGI? It's hard to say for sure.

Many scientists were experimenting with the concept on a technical level as early as the 1960s. These rudimentary wireframes were so exciting and novel at the time that they ended up inspiring a movement of filmmakers to implement them in their work.

Tron is one notable example of early computer-generated animation. George Lucas' visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), was another collective of early adopters. They harnessed what was available to them at the time, bringing some of the most iconic films to lifeJurassic Park and the continuation of the original Star Wars trilogy, to name just a few.

The History of CGI: ILM, Lucasfilm, and Pixar

Before Steve Jobs bought Pixar and finessed it into the industry heavyweight that we recognize it as today, it was also a subsidiary of ILM's parent company, Lucasfilm.

With so many innovators working in such close corporate quarters, it's no wonder that their work coalesced and took off as it did. The passion and talent that these teams brought to the table laid the foundation for an entire generation of creatives to build upon.

While Toy Story was the first feature-length CGI movie ever produced, the good folks at Pixar actually lent their talent out to another film eight years before being acquired and separating themselves from Lucasfilm as a whole. This film was called Young Sherlock Holmes. In the movie, a stained glass window comes to life and starts walking around. This contribution was made possible under John Lasseter's direction and expertise.

Since then, Pixar, Dreamworks, and many others in the industry have come a long way. The difference in quality between now and then is no less than astounding. So many talented artists are out there and working, both for these big-name studios and independently, for themselves, as well.

How CGI Works: How Is CGI Used in Filmmaking?

Filmmakers are not shy about utilizing CGI whenever reality isn't meeting their standards. You can use CGI in any situation where doing something for real isn't possible or is too dangerous for your crew and on-screen talent.

This may include anachronisms, such as the New York skyline with both of the Twin Towers still standing. You can use CGI to simulate weather effects, to anthropomorphize a talking dog character, to simulate the appearance of violence and injury, or to populate a street sidewalk or stadium so that it looks busy and full of people. 

If you can dream it, chances are, you'll be able to produce it with CGI. Examples include haunting, Kojima-esque demons, mythical animals like dragons, and god-like displays of collateral destruction. 

Vehicle explosions? Check. Fantastic beasts, and where to find them? Double-check. Your subject of choice doesn't even need to exist to make an appearance.

Different Types of CGI

Before the advent of CGI, filmmakers were limited in what they were able to put on-screen. If they weren't able to create an effect practically, they would simply need to go without.

Stop-motion and the use of miniatures filmmakers could destroy are two long-held traditions in filmmaking. George Lucas himself was famous for his ability in this area; the original Star Wars films are shining examples of how to make it all work without the help of a computer.

It wasn't all fun and games, but as the technology improved and the outcomes became more appealing and more exciting to watch, CGI fever took hold of the industry globally.

How does CGI work? How do they make CGI animations in a modern context? Several different categories of CGI filmmaking have since emerged:

  • CGI Animation: Full-on CGI animation means a short or a feature film that was animated entirely from fantasy and imagination. There is no real-world element involved in a general sense, just like with any 2D cartoon.

  • Composite CGI: When most people think about digital visual effects, or VFX for short, they're thinking about composited CGI effects. Composite CGI involves a real-life "plate" that is augmented with CGI overlays or backdrops. Greenscreens may be used to key out parts of the image so that CGI scenery or a cool sky replacement shows through the hole.

  • Mo-cap CGI: Motion capture CGI was made famous by films like Avatar and The Hobbit. Actors don high-tech suits and roil about a soundstage as they "wear" their character like a digital costume. The footage of them on the soundstage is then linked up to the rigged model. The movement is analyzed and used to puppet the CGI character.


Other Applications of CGI Imagery

In addition to its aptitude for enrapturing audiences in a narrative sense, CGI can also be used in several practical contexts, as well.

  • Real Estate CGI: Realtors and property owners can use a rendered, 3D CGI map of the homes and buildings that they would like to showcase in lieu of a tour in real life. Potential buyers can explore the model from their own computers.

  • Surgical CGI: While CGI simulation has long been used as a training resource for aspiring doctors and surgeons, virtual reality and improving technology are increasingly making things like robotic surgery more widely available.

  • Engineering CGI: As mentioned previously, CGI CAD programs give engineers and designers the real-world perspective that they need while their blueprints are still in their infancy. CGI lets them take an abstract plan and transform it into something viable and functional. 3D printing ties deeply into this application. CGI models are used to plan out a 3D prototype digitally before printing them for real.

Video game CGI is one final and very obvious example of CGI animation. We wanted to avoid lumping it in with filmmaking CGI, but the storytelling aspect remains largely the same. CGI is used to build worlds and personalities, all amounting to an extraordinarily immersive experience. Adding an element of virtual reality into the mix will only enhance this effect for the user.

The Greatest CGI Movies of All Time

If a CGI movie night is in the cards for you, you're going to need the line-up of a lifetime. That, and maybe a couple of snacks.

Some of the best CGI films of all time include:

  • Wall-E
  • Coco
  • Ratatouille
  • Toy Story
  • A Bug's Life
  • Finding Nemo
  • Monster's Inc.
  • Zootopia
  • Big Hero 6
  • The Lego Movie

We also recommend that live-action CGI film fans check out the movies with the best CGI effects:

  • Interstellar
  • Ted
  • Cloverfield
  • Avatar
  • I, Robot
  • District 9
  • Inception



How to Use CGI in Your Projects

If you would like to get started on your own, your home is the perfect studio in waiting. All that you need is a computer, the right creative app, and a dream. Which 3D animation software is best for you?

That's going to depend on a couple of things: namely, your budget, your vision, and your current skill level. Luckily, there's something available for artists of any type of background and circumstance.

The Best CGI Animation Software for Beginners

If you're just getting your feet wet, Blender is the free animation software that you're looking for. While there is some learning curve involved, you'll find a huge community online, and many of the most reputable pros offer Blender tutorials for beginners.

Of course, there are many free 3D animation programs available to download, but be aware, Blender is the best of the bunch. You can certainly experiment with other options, such as Houdini, K3-D, or anything else that your search yields. We're here to put that wasted time back into your pocket, however.

Trust us on this one. Give Blender the shot that it deserves.

Pro-level users are likely already using Autodesk Maya, 3DS Max, or something similar. Autodesk products are fantastic, but they're also extraordinarily difficult to grasp if you've never tried 3D animation before, as well as expensive as all-get-out.

Again, there is a wealth of information available online. If you can afford the investment, you'll see why Maya is the industry standard for animation and why 3DS Max is top dog when it comes to modeling, sculpting, and texture development.

The Rest Is Up to You

Whether you're using CGI special effects for live-action projects or using CGI technology to build your story from the ground up, you'll never find your voice stifled by reality. There are no rules in the world of CGI.

Once you've got your set-up situated, the real fun can begin. Write your masterpiece and bring it to life. Watch your idea grow and take on a life of its own. You might be surprised by what you can come up with.