Even though Futureworld has mostly gone the way of shag carpets and disco balls, the 1976 sci-fi thriller was meant to upgrade Michael Crichton’s Westworld as a portal into the future in more ways than one. Never mind that what was supposed to be a vision of a space-age society manifested as a retro eyesore. Stored in the computers used to design its 500 and 700 series robots were a hand and face that were destined to be the breakthrough that launched a special effects phenomenon.
That disembodied hand belongs to Ed Catmull, one of the two computer science grad students who brought 3D CGI onscreen in an era when even supercomputers had less storage capacity than the average smartphone. Catmull and partner Fred Parke scanned in Catmull’s hand and an even creepier humanoid head, which were then marked with points telling the computer to sculpt them into wireframe images, then shaded in to appear three-dimensional and eerily lifelike. The prototype robot parts don’t exactly have a starring role. You only see the hand for 20 seconds, and the face won’t stare back at you for much longer (though that may be a relief).
What moviegoers didn’t realize they were paying $4 to experience back then—besides Blythe Danner and Peter Fonda chasing android versions of themselves through a tacky set infested with even more droids—was the first phase in the evolution of a technology that would revolutionize the SFX arena. Futureworld was an example of the first 3D CGI effects in not just a genre film but any film. What started as a flash of Danner and Fonda’s reporter alter egos getting in on the robot development process would evolve into the laser fire of Star Wars, the animated action figures of Toy Story, and the photo-real creatures with even more ferocious teeth in the onscreen adaptation of another Michael Crichton novel: Jurassic Park.
Catmull would go on to be the chief technical officer and eventually president of a CGI studio founded by Steve Jobs. You may have heard of Pixar.
3D CGI took off in the late ‘70s and kept rocketing into new frontiers. For a virtual journey through intergalactic battles, alien encounters, prehistoric theme parks, and video games that are more than just video games, buckle up …
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas dreamed up the space opera that would eventually come to be known as Episode IV of a series almost as vast as the universe itself. Star Wars: A New Hope was the first quest to bring all the visual effects departments in the Lucasfilm empire, which included Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound, together to create the film that would spawn one of the most epic fandoms of all time.
It wasn’t the Force or Han’s modifications to the Millennium Falcon that made those immersive battle scenes possible. The Dykstraflex, a motion control system that was the brainchild of ILM’s John Dykstra, made scenes like the Death Star face-off possible with a camera that captured motor-driven motions. These were then programmed into a computer and manipulated through a user interface to create action that was almost unreal.
Tron went from a video game to a movie about a video game that can digitize players and force them into lethal combat. CGI graphics brought the 3D grid-turned-war-zone to life, from landscapes to light cycles and just about everything else that was part of the program that was really corporate fascism in disguise. Computers had never been used to build movie sets before. Its digital world also required the most extensive use of CGI up until then—about 20 minutes.
Star Wars soared back into theaters with Return of the Jedi, whose wireframe hologram of the Death Star that floated menacingly into the Headquarters Frigate’s briefing room as Luke half-listened was created by Imperial forces in the Lucasfilm Computer Division. ILM also created the Technirama, a camera rig with a superpowered servo-driven track system that could maneuver almost as fast as an X-wing fighter zooming through space.
Photo-real CGI versions of spaceships and other equipment in The Last Starfighter, brought into being by a supercomputer that still wasn’t so super compared to today’s tech, replaced the miniature models previously used to make movie vehicles appear larger than life in three dimensions. 25 total minutes of effects like the Death Blossom’s sick laser blasts were worth the two years it took to make them zap-zap-pow onscreen.
The Stained Glass Man in Steven Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes was more than your average nightmare fuel. Not only was the knight that leaped out of a church window to terrorize a priest with his bloody sword the first completely 3D CGI animated character, but after six months of design and redesign, he was also the first successful attempt at making CG animation pop against a live-action background.
If you ever wanted to ride that insane spaceship in Flight of the Navigator that could zoom and swerve at warp speed and abruptly stop in midair, next to those awesome controls, it was probably the CGI effects used to make it look shinier and more reflective that made you want to climb aboard. Computer brains used reflection mapping to “imagine” what a reflective surface would look like, then use lighting effects to make it gleam in 3D.
Before James Cameron went to Pandora, he sank into The Abyss, from which the first CGI water emerged in the form of a Pseudopod that looks like a huge Lovecraftian water tentacle with a face. Breathing life into that 75 seconds of fascination and horror took 8 months that were worth the Oscar it got. That face was actually a duplicate of one of the actresses’ faces, which becomes sort of terrifying when you can see right through it.
He swore he’d be back, and he didn’t forget. While that nightmarish stained glass knight was the first all-CGI character to wield a weapon, ILM went even further to make Terminator 2: Judgment Day the first film to completely computerize its main character (in his badass robotic form). This was also the first time PCs were used to generate special effects. Meanwhile, the first CGI fire in a movie blazed through Backdraft.
Jurassic Park trampled the box office when it reanimated dinosaur DNA by merging special effects with animatronic dinosaurs for the ultimate photorealistic reptiles, down to their textured scales and dagger teeth. Genetically engineered by ILM, this was the movie that hatched incredible advances in 3D CGI, even if they did involve making it look as if a T-rex actually crunched on a human. No wonder it got the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in its jaws.
I will never forget the first time I saw Jumanji on the big screen. I felt as if I was in that board game jungle, getting hissed at, roared at, and nearly stomped on, which was a totally legit excuse to scream out loud in the theater. It should be no surprise that the stampede of wild animals that normally don’t belong outside a zoo (at least on this continent), which had the first photoreal hair and fur, were more ILM wonders.
That same year, Toy Story took action figures to a whole new level when it became the first movie to play out completely in 3D CGI. Pixar had finally figured out how to bring such a thing, which was just an animator’s fantasy until then, to life. Any backgrounds from scenes where they were pretty much unaffected by the moving characters were reused in subsequent scenes. By telling a story through CGI, even if it did involve a talking Mr. Potato Head, Toy Story not only went to infinity, but beyond.
ILM stormed into inclement weather with Twister, whose tornado effects ripped across the screen in a display of natural violence that made you nervous enough to double-check the weather report. What appeared to rip everything away from the pull of gravity was actually a wireframe fleshed out into a very believable funnel of destruction that shattered CGI windmills and carried away CGI farm animals. Watch out for flying cows.
You know that scene in The Matrix when Neo is shot at again and again, but every time, the bullet that is probably whizzing through the air at 700 miles per hour seems to slow down so much you can actually see the ripples in its wake? And how he falls backward in extreme slow motion? This is the effect—achieved by filling in frames between the main frames—now known as “bullet time.” The unreal CGI backgrounds also made Tron look, well, ‘80s.
The gold Gollum was really looking for was not the One Ring that in darkness binds them, but an Oscar, because he was one of the many reasons the Lord of the Rings trilogy won back-to-back-to-back Academy Awards for achievement in visual effects. The creature otherwise known as Sméagol was really Andy Serkis in a full-body Spandex suit full of reflective markers, creeping and crawling and sneaking up on tricksy Hobbitses against a green screen. Cameras used the markers to capture his movements, which were then rendered as the digital version of Tolkien’s corrupted character that inspired an onslaught of “My preciousss” memes.
Terminator 2 might have brought us the first computer-generated main character, but The Matrix Reloaded used a process called universal capture to animate the first completely CGI human faces for Neo and Agent Smith’s digital doubles, with every subtle movement rendered in high definition. Universal Capture involves hi-res cameras filming the scene at different angles, track pixel motion, and then merging those techniques with a cyber-scan of the actor’s face in neutral mode that has the movement of its features predicted and reconstructed. No wonder you can’t get rid of Agent Smith.
If one actor could be morphed into a digital life form, then The Polar Express proved everyone could with performance capture. Actors covered in reflective markers would shoot scenes on a stage surrounded by infrared cameras that recorded them drinking hot chocolate or desperately hanging on to a train speeding over thin ice. The process was much like Gollum’s transformation from there, but with more snow and less slime.
The phantoms that haunted Pirates of the Caribbean were ghost-ified by effects that made them seem more realistically translucent than some specters of the past. Ghosts before Pirates had that CG look (you know it when you see it) because lighting got in the way. Sub-surface scattering created the illusion of light diffusing past the surface of an object, in this case skin, which gave the ghosts their spectral glow.
You can’t possibly go trough the many transformations 3D CGI without mentioning Avatar. James Cameron leveled up universal capture, performance capture, and capturing Oscars by expanding the stage and recording motion in real time. Those hyper-real blue N’avi faces with their yellow menari were created using head rigs that weighed nearly nothing but recorded facial movements in unprecedented detail. It was a whole new film species.
The ice dragon showdown from the Season 7 finale of Game of Thrones, conjured by the VFX wizards at El Ranchito, is some powerful magic. Tell me the blasts of frozen fire and swarms of ice zombies don’t give you chills.