Everyone loves a good movie. The production companies transport movie-goers to places and times they can only imagine. To create movies of the fantasy and quality expected today, special effects creators and animators have to use every technology available to them, from the classic green-screens to full artificial intelligence systems. New technologies in movies have enhanced the way movies are made and how movies are watched. Technology has helped to improve animation through the use of CGI, motion capture, and 3D animation.
The first piece of technology that has helped improve animation is called CGI or Computer Generated Images. CGI has been in the industry for quite some time. “The first use of CGI was back in 1968 when CGI was first used by a group of mathematicians and physicists” (Gonzalez). This group was led by a man named Nikolay Konstantinov. They created an innovative mathematical model that enabled them to move a cat across a screen. That mathematical model helped create a program-specific computer known as BESM-4. The BESM-4 computer was able to print hundreds of frames that could be changed to film once it was processed. CGI made its way to popular television. “In the 1970s, the first CGI was used in a national television program called Six Million Dollar Man” (Gonzalez). After that, movie goers watched the first 2D animated effect and the first 3D computer-generated imagery in the film Futureworld.
The transition to mainstream movies quickly followed. The famous director, George Lucas, used a combination of analog and digital technologies in his Star Wars movie. This was the motivation for many CGI effects that followed. At the end of the 1970s, movies like Alien pushed CGI technology further using 3D wireframe models which created more detailed CGI effects. The alien or one of the main characters, in this movie is the product of 3D wireframe modeling. More successes in CGI came in the 1980s. Some of the most notable accomplishments were the first CGI human character (with the first use of 3D shaded CGI), the making of the Genesis effect for the sceneries in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan in 1982, and the fifteen minutes of fully condensed CGI footage in Tron. CGI effects continued to become more photo realistic. Steven Spielberg developed the first photo realistic, computer-generated creatures in Jurassic Park. A favorite of many movie goers: “In 1995, Toy Story was the first fully CGI animated movie and the 1990s CGI The Matrix ended the era (1999) by being the first movie to use the bullet time effect” (Gonzalez). The possibilities for CGI expanded into the 21st century. Computer-generated imagery has become much more a part of realistic film. Lord of the Rings was the first movie to used artificial intelligence for its digital characters, and the first photo realistic motion captured character. The Matrix: Reloaded was the first movie to use “Universal Capture,” a process where the movie captures more frames in an image than in any other method. Additionally, the 2004 animated film The Polar Express implemented motion capture and CGI on all of its actors.
When working with CGI, this process has several steps included, making of the script, the storyboard phase, the layout step, the animation step, and lastly the final revision step. The first step in CGI is to make the script. When it comes to making a script for the CGI process, the people working with it have to make a script for the backgrounds they want to use. They have to write scripts for the actors, and also they have to write scripts for scenes. The next step in the CGI process is to create a storyboard. When it comes to writing a storyboard for CGI, one has to write out scenes in 2D drawings so they know what they want in a scene. The next step in CGI is to do the animation. When working with the animation in CGI, artists known as animationists make the movements for every character and every item that is part of the scenery. The steps for CGI animation are usually done by several people, with different people working on each step. There are five major steps to CGI animation: script, storyboard, layout, animation, and final revision. Each step requires careful planning and hours of work. In addition to all of the work, there are other things to consider when using CGI.
When it comes to working with CGI, there can be many challenges. One of them is that CGI is very expensive to use. The first Transformers movie has a 150-million dollar budget and the latest Transformers jumped to a 300-millon dollar budget. Another challenge is that CGI has the capability to produce unlikely physics. Because of this, many movie makers have lost the idea of realistic movement when using CGI. Movies like Matrix Reloaded or Catwoman contain feats that are impossible to do by any real human being” (James). This practice puts the audience in a state of denial and sometimes unsatisfied. When people go see a movie, they are not really supposed to notice the CGI in a movie. The end goal is that people like the movie because it looked so real and how good the framework was for the movie. Making a movie look realistic leads to the next technology.
The next piece of technology that has improved animation is called motion capture. One can think of motion-capture as the method with the ping pong balls attached to Lycra suits. If so, this is not incorrect. Actually, simple studies of motion have been in use since the 19th century to better understand how humans and animals move. Later in the 20th century, motion-capture was a tool used by biomechanics and the photographic method was used for sports, education and even video games like Prince Of Persia. “Motion capture was first used in 1915 by an animator named Max Fleischer in cartoons like Koko the Clown and Fitz the Dog” (Gray). Disney released their first ever motion capture movie in 1937. This movie was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The process of motion capture is relatively easy. Real participants provide the model of human movement and then it is converted into another medium. Motion capture works by actors wearing body suits and people sitting at computers. The people who sit at the computers record the bodily motions of the actors, and they turn it into the movement of the characters in the movie seen by the audience. The subject is equipped by locating key body landmarks using reflective markers. Specialized high-speed cameras capture the dynamic marker movements as the subject executes a series of motions (Gray). The final dynamic digital image precisely reproduces the subject’s pattern of movements.
Motion capture can also present some challenges. One example of a challenge with this technology includes the proportions between the actor and the animated character. Using software such as Motionbuilder, this is fixed by using a technique called retargeting animation. Other software is available to help with remapping animations. In addition, motion capture requires specific hardware and special programs to access and process the initial data. The cost of this software and equipment and the talent required to make motion capture can be expensive. Large systems used in bug budget films can start at $250,000. Also, the capture system may have specific requirements for the space in which it is being used. The work has to be done in an appropriately sized studio. When problems happen with a motion capture scene, it may be easier to reshoot the whole scene instead of trying to change the data collected. This can add time and money to the production. Finally, any movement that doesn’t observe to the laws of physics usually cannot be used. This includes smashing or squashing a character. This effect has to be added later.
The most famous and notable users of motion capture are Disney and Pixar. Some of the best use of motion capture in recent movies includes the human-like animals in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In the movie, “Caesar, the leader of the apes, is a digital creation that is based on the movements of an actor” (Susman). In addition to CGI, Polar Express used motion capture to almost bring its characters to life. Many times, motion capture is used in digital puppetry systems to help in the appearance of computer generated characters in real-time.
The 3D film is a motion picture that increases the impression of depth perception so that it creates a third dimension. There is a long history of using 3D in movies. “Although the first 3D movie, The Power of Love, was produced in 1922, it was in 1935 when we saw the first 3D colored movie” (“The History of 3D Technology”). Then in the 1950, it was made popular again in multiple movies. In 1960, a new technology called space vision 3D was introduced; this new technology only required one camera to show 3D movies. It was first used in The Bubble and was a success with the audience. Stereo vision was introduced in 1970 and used a special anamorphic lens. By 1980, famous movies like Friday the 13th and Jaws 3D were popular. They both used the anamorphic lens that widened the picture and brought the audience closer to the frightening 3D scenes. In 1986, Canada introduced the first 3D movie that used polarized glasses. In 2000 there were other big 3D studio movies such as Spy Kids 3D, Polar Express and Shark Boy and Lava Girl (“The History of 3D Technology”). The technology continues to grow.
The process of 3D animation includes taking fully 3D objects (physical or digital) and making them into animation. Most 3D animation is done using CGI today. 3D animation is a complicated process that takes much skill and practice to do correctly. The 11 most common steps in producing a 3D animation project are: concept and storyboard, 3D modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, lighting, camera setting, rendering, composting, special VFX music and foley, and editing, and final output (Chang).
The original type of 3D animation was stop motion/ clay motion. This process takes real life objects or clay model characters and making them animate in real life. To do this, one must pose the model, take a picture, change the poses, and take another picture. This is done until there are many different pictures. When put together, they create animation that comes to life. This is a time consuming process: several hours of poses and pictures are required to get only a few seconds of film. Hundreds of shots need the same lighting, colors, and camera angles for a smooth animation. Even though stop/clay motion is not used as much as it was in previous decades, it is still used in TV shows like Robot Chicken. It is a great hobby if one may have the patience.
3D animation presents multiple challenges. The process involves multiple skills like character/ props/ set design, texturing, modeling, lighting, camera, and rigging work, then animation. 3D animators must be good with color, form, composition, typography, and timing. Finally, 3D animation requires that one also works as the film director, set designer, and prop maker when working on a small team (Walters). Another challenge with 3D animation is that it can be a stressful process because of the detailed skills required and the number of people on a team needed to create a final product. In addition, to knowing then latest version of 3D and 2D animation software, an animator has to be established, have good communication skills, and be professional to create a project from beginning to end (“Challenges for Animators”). Even though animation projects seem to be made linear in fashion, most of the time work is done out of sequence. It requires continuous communication and coordination between team members to put the whole thing together.
There are many well-known works of 3D animation. The movie Avatar made 3D the hottest Hollywood trend seven years ago. It changed the 3D process by using it in a more unique way than any other movie. Other 3D animation works provide a diverse selection of entertainment for all audiences. For the younger audience, movies like Monsters Versus Aliens provided many characters that children could like. The use of animation in this movie provided many great scenes. “The most notable 3D action in this movie was battle between the giant insect and the giant robot” (Shaver). The movie Up from Pixar is probably one of the most visually appealing movies recently produced. The exciting dogfight at the end of the movie uses 3D in an expert way, and the scenes documenting the old man’s marriage to his wife is also a good use of the technology. Because the Toy Story movies are already made of CGI, the addition of 3D in Toy Story 3 really enhances the movie. The incinerator scene at the end of the move shows how 3D can make even toys seem like there are facing a terrible situation. For the adults, the 3D in Avatar helped make the flights on the backs of Banshees believable. Titanic is another great use of 3D in a popular movie. The realistic effects of the sinking ship are amazing. It some parts of the movie, it is like one is actually a passenger on the boat. There is one scene that is particularly notable. “Seeing the iceberg slice through Titanic’s hull was just part of the movie’s $18 million budget” (Shaver).
Today, movie producers and their animators have the hard task of making their effects look realistic. This is an important part of filmmaking because if a special effect does not look realistic, the whole movie loses its authenticity. When a special effect does not look good, the audience quickly remembers that they are watching a movie. They lose focus on the story, and it breaks the reality of the film and often ruins the film entirely. People want and will pay to be entertained. They want a good storyline, believable characters and realistic scenes. The animation technologies of CGI, motion capture and 3D Animation are no longer something new. They have become the norm and expected by the audience.