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From 'TRON' to 'TRON: Legacy': A Brief History of CGI in the Movies

Disney

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has been playing a role in films for over 30 years. It began merely as the ability to draw lines on TV screens but has evolved into nothing short of the power to create worlds.

Beginning with 1981's "Looker," in which a naked image of Susan Dey was generated on a computer, and continuing on through "Avatar" (2009) in which a blue, naked, CGI lady flies around on a dragon, determined computer nerds FX pioneers have tirelessly pushed the boundaries of this technology.

With the much anticipated "TRON: Legacy" landing in theaters, we thought it would be a good time to look back on the history of the digital revolution that the original "TRON" helped launch.

'TRON' (1982)

Disney

Disney's "TRON" put CGI in the public eye. In 1976, after encountering the old, old, old-school video game "Pong," director/animator Steven Lisberger became obsessed with incorporating CGI into films. The graphics were made on a computer with only 2MB of memory and a disc holding no more than 330MB of storage (in other words, they basically animated the film on an abacus).

'The Last Starfighter' (1984)

Unlike the "Star Wars" trilogy before it, this film's space battles employed computer-generated ships instead of models. The graphics were rendered on a Cray supercomputer -- which was a big deal in those days -- though an iPhone could probably do it faster now.

'Young Sherlock Holmes' (1985)

Unless you really have nothing better to do, don't bother with this clunker from Barry Levinson and Steven Spielberg. Instead, just YouTube the scene featuring the first CGI character ever -- an animated knight composed of pieces of stained glass window. The effect was created by John Lasseter at Graphics Group (soon to be called Pixar). Lasseter would go on to create "Toy Story" 10 years later.

'Willow' (1988)

Industrial Lights & Magic had a dilemma. The film's hero, Willow, had to restore Patricia Hayes from a goat back to her human form, but he messes up the spell and turns her into a veritable petting zoo of creatures. Dennis Muren and Doug Smith fed images of each animal and the actress into a computer which "morphed" each into the next.

'The Abyss' (1989)

Writer/Director James Cameron has long been on the forefront of CGI advancement, and this is where it all started. The underwater thriller featured a character called a "pseudopod." This coiling tentacle of water could morph into any shape and was the first 3-D CG character in film. The film also created the first CG water. Take that, nature!

'Beauty and the Beast' (1991)

Disney

This beautiful film used computers to create deep layers of animation and the ability to convincingly move through virtual spaces. But it was the CGI ballroom scene, in which Belle dances with the Beast, that blew audiences away and convinced animators everywhere that CGI was not only impressive, but doable.

'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991)

"T2" was a watershed moment for CGI, perfectly merging story and effects into a visceral experience never before seen. Coming off "The Abyss," Cameron's effects team created the only nemesis capable of foiling Arnold: The T1000. This liquid metal robot could morph into any shape; impersonate any person or thing. The film received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and influenced a generation of FX artists.

'Death Becomes Her' (1992)

They can't all be winners. This bizarre film by Robert Zemeckis took one of the world's best actresses (Meryl Streep), killed her, brought her back to life, and then proceeded to subject her body to escalating degrees of postmortem punishment. The most we can say about this dark comedy gone wrong is that it showcased the first CG skin. So... yay.

'Jurassic Park' (1993)

If the end goal of CGI's trajectory is rendering anything -- or anyone -- so perfectly as to be unrecognizable as CGI, than this movie was a big deal. Spielberg was consigned to creating his dinosaurs with archaic, stop-motion effects because no computer program could handle rendering animals. That is until animators Mark Dippe and Steve Williams created a demo of a T. Rex skeleton chasing a herd of Gallimimus. When George Lucas saw the demo, he teared up, realizing it was a breakthrough in film history (and that he could now use it to ruin "Star Wars").

'The Mask' (1994)

This film knocked audiences' sock off -- and not just because it introduced Cameron Diaz to the world. Live action was merged with CGI cartoons for a uniquely surrealistic effect. Finally, Jim Carey could stretch his plastic face out as far as he did in his nightly dreams.

'Forrest Gump' (1994)

As CGI evolved, its uses became less showy and more pragmatic. "Forrest Gump" got noticed for what no one noticed -- scenes digitally altered so slyly as to be unrecognizable as "effects" at all. From Tom Hanks' image being inserted into historical newsreel footage to digitally removing Gary Sinise's legs, this Academy Award winner for Best Picture expanded filmmakers' understandings of how CGI could be utilized.

'Toy Story' (1995)

For those of you who didn't notice, we'll point out that this was the first entirely computer-generated feature film. It was animated by 27 artists and required 800,000 machine hours, yet was $15 million cheaper to produce than "The Lion King" (a traditionally animated film) which was released the year before. Pixar used this triumph to begin churning out hit after hit, all entirely made from pixels.

'Titanic' (1997)

James Cameron wowed audiences again with his use of CGI by creating both the doomed Titanic and the water into which it sank. He also created digital extras and utilized morphing effects to transition us from shots of the ship's underwater ruins to its inviting, former glory. This film also sealed Cameron's status as "Director Who Likes Water and Blue Stuff the Most."

'The Matrix' (1999)

Everett Collection

While full of impressive CGI effects, "The Matrix"'s most famous moment was made with an effect called "Bullet Time," made possible by surrounding a character with dozens of still cameras, each taking a single, static shots. The individual shots are then digitally animated together so as to appear to be frames of a movie camera that can magically move around subjects as they go into slow motion. Still with us?

'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' (2001)

This was the first feature to digitally render the principle actors. Each of Aki's (the lead character) 60,000 hairs was separately animated and the plan was that she would appear in future films. But after the film bombed, Aki went to that CGI heaven in the sky.

'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers' (2002)

Thousands of free thinking, CG warriors were set loose on each other and "reacted" based on a complex program. Unfortunately, many of them had to be redirected because the warriors acted the way real people would when confronted by Orcs -- they turned around and retreated! It should also be mentioned that Gollum made his true debut here, disturbing filmgoers with his life-like qualities.

'WALL-E' (2008)

What's revolutionary about this Pixar masterpiece is that its creator, Andrew Stanton, invited famed cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise animators on how to simulate real-life lens effects and the results are jaw-droppingly wonderful. Next time you catch this film, see if you can spot the "camera" as it realistically racks focus.

'Avatar' (2009)

You may have heard of this sleeper hit by James Cameron (securing his place as "Director Who Most Shoots Movies with Blue Stuff"). The groundbreaking film used a motion-capture system allowing Cameron to see what his actors would look like with their alien skins laid over them in real time, as they were being filmed.

'TRON: Legacy" (2010)

Twenty-eight years ago, the original "TRON" changed films forever. Now its long-awaited sequel, "TRON: Legacy" is entering theaters in a world where it's hard to find a film not utilizing computer graphics in one way or another. And this 3-D reboot is no exception, featuring a dazzling array of digital designs and a young Jeff Bridges, made entirely with CG. Hard to believe it all started with "Pong."

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