It is amazing how the film industry has evolved into even more convincing and uncanny in just over a decade. Recently, we have seen spectacular films that are truly a remarkable recreation and reanimation of our childhood fantasies. Back then, the imagery was merely a subjective thing, limited to the individual mind. Now, we see films that even surpassed our expectations – movies that are way more imaginative, colorful, and wild at the very least.
What is CGI?
CGI technology made it possible to bring to life our beloved stories from novels, storybooks, and comics using breathtaking and almost real-life cinematography. CGI stands for Computer-Generated Imagery, which, as the name suggests, creates visual graphics using computers and applies them to areas where it’s needed. With this technology, the film industry has taken a major leap in creating more interesting, fluid, and realistic representations of fictional characters and fantasy worlds that existed only in books.
CGI has been around since the 1950s, and the first-ever to use it was Alfred Hitchcock in his movie Vertigo (1958). However, it was in the movie Westworld (1973) where people first saw the blend of CGI and live-action in a film. There was no telling what CGI could do at that time, but its boundaries pushed through when film producers experimented further on the technology.
CGI Animation in Films
Several films (mostly science fiction) took advantage and even advanced CGI technology to bring more creative solutions in improving film quality. Motion capture (mocap) is an essential advancement in the use of CGI animation. The technique uses many high-end cameras to record the movement of objects or people to be used later in the animation stage.
Mocap allowed the computer-generated graphics to mimic even the slightest twitches of the reference actor. A prime example of this technological application is James Cameron’s film, Avatar (2009), well-renowned for its spectacular graphics and superb CGI animation. The film easily became the highest-grossing film at the time, earning multiple nominations and awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
Exploring CGI’s Potential
CGI technology opened a world of potential for visual entertainment. Cinematographers and producers did not only unlock the possibility of creating majestic stationary backgrounds and visual effects for their films, but they also paved the way for integrating realistic inhuman characters like monsters, aliens, beasts, and others into the film. Fully animated characters and movies were also made possible because of such advancement.
With CGI and technology becoming more and more sophisticated, the possibilities seemed limitless – it spawned multiple filming and animation techniques that we now witness today. For instance, aging and de-aging became way easier and more practical. It gave filmmakers flexibility and leeway for double characters to exist in one frame and even bring back old characters.
Aging and De-ageing Using CGI
The aging and de-aging process have become prevalent techniques in filmmaking nowadays. The technique essentially made everyone’s job way easier. Actors can get comfortable performing on camera without relying on heavy prosthetics or character doubles for a particular scene – such details can be edited or animated later. On the other hand, filmmakers can focus more on developing a convincing plot and trust the animation department to do their part.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is riddled with these compelling CGI applications we can’t even count. For example, in a scene in the 2016 superhero film Captain America: Civil War, Robert Downey Jr. shared a frame with a younger version of himself. Filming this scene would have been extremely challenging, given that most people have followed RDJ’s career since time immemorial and are already familiar with his younger look. Hiring a younger RDJ look-alike would have been a major flop had it not been for CGI technology.
Replacing Actors Using CGI
Several films in the past have met a crashing blow while in production – the reason: the death of a major character. Depending on the nature of the plot and the storyline it wishes to convey, dealing with a loss of a major character is a massive and critical hit, both in film and in real life. Filmmakers would have to brainstorm how to either canon the loss of said main character, replace him with someone else, or the worst, take the showdown.
The death of Fast & Furious star Paul Walker in 2013 was an example of how CGI helped save a character and the whole franchise. Walker’s death put the franchise on an indeterminate hiatus, with film executives and co-stars figuring out what to do next. In the end, his last film pushed through with the consent of his family.
Pulling it off was successful with the help of his brothers, who stood in as his body double in the remaining parts of the film. Using face mapping and Walker’s old photos as reference, the production created an uncanny resemblance of the late actor’s character. The film successfully managed to pay tribute to Walker’s legacy and save the franchise simultaneously.
It was not the first time an actor was replaced using CGI, as in the 2004 movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, where Lorenz Olivier’s character returned to life using CGI. Unlike other films that met a tragic loss, this one’s a deliberate choice by the producers. For them, none other than Olivier can effectively play the role of the film’s antagonist. Hence, despite being dead since 1989, producers brought him back to life as a nod to his legacy and iconic portrayal of the role.
CGI is perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to the film industry and all visual entertainment like video gaming. It helped create the most iconic scenes ever seen on theatre, such as MCU’s Avengers: End Game that brought every character together to bring nostalgia and tears to true Marvel fans. The technology allowed the film artists to play with the concept of time and parallel universes and present them in such fluid and realistic ways.
CGI animation provided many avenues for creative geniuses to thrive and explore unorthodox film practice, including resurrecting past actors and replacing actors with digital counterparts. Time can only tell whether CGI can entirely replace human actors on the big screen with its continued advancement. Nonetheless, would it be as palatable as conventional films people are used to?