What Is CGI Animation? [Technology Explained]
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Updated by James Frew 06/22/2017

Have you ever found yourself sitting in the theater, watching a Pixar film, and contemplating what it is about CGI animation that makes for some of the best children’s movies The 11 Best Animated Movies You Can Download Off Netflix The 11 Best Animated Movies You Can Download Off Netflix Netflix is finally allowing users to download content to watch offline. This is great news for parents, who can now download animated movies guaranteed to keep their kids quiet over the holidays. Read More ?

Most of you can likely name at least one or two of your favorite childhood cartoons. Maybe it was Scooby Doo, The Flintstones or even The Jetsons. Maybe you’re a bit younger and you still enjoy your Saturday morning cartoons. However, you’ve probably started noticing that more and more cartoons look just a little bit different – just a little bit more real. What is it about CGI animation that gives the characters and the overall imagery more realism?

A Brief History of Animation

Many decades ago, animators were artists who drew pictures by hand. Traditional animation consisted of a whole team of animators who would draw and color images on a “cel” — transparent celluloid sheets that were placed on top of a background image to create a multi-layered frame.

As a result, segments of an image could change from frame to frame without the entire picture being redrawn. By manipulating the drawings in each layer from frame to frame, animators would create what many adults today remember as the traditional cartoon.

LucasFilm’s Star Wars franchise may be riding on a high at the moment, but it wasn’t always this way. After the completion of the prequels, it was decided that the original trilogy would receive a digital makeover. Many of the (fairly controversial) changes were done using this approach, but with computers — creating multiple frames of images each second in order to generate the visual effect of animation.

When Animation Went Digital

As computing processing power increased and the complexity of graphics software grew, the animations became more complex than traditional artists could compete with. One of the first popular expositions of CGI was in the late 1990s and the introduction of the GIF GIFs, The Language Of The Web: Their History, Culture, and Future GIFs, The Language Of The Web: Their History, Culture, and Future Read More .

GIFs package together a series of static images which progress from frame to frame at a set time interval. In that sense a GIF is similar to a slideshow — just an extremely specific one. The size of a GIF is typically very small — reflected in their usually low quality images — which allowed them to gain popularity when data was limited.

A Modern Art Form Appears

Now, all of this is grade school level compared to the impressive level that 3D CGI animation technology is at today. How did we get from 1990’s computer animation to the sort of IMAX 3D animated movies you love to watch? The simple answer is processing power.

As a result of Moore’s Law, the cost of computing has been going down, while the power has been increasing. This has allowed animators to harness increasingly high powered computers The Latest Computer Technology You Have to See to Believe The Latest Computer Technology You Have to See to Believe Check out some of the latest computer technologies that are set to transform the world of electronics and PCs over the next few years. Read More to create their models. 3D models became possible where objects could be placed into three dimensional space and made to interact with each other. Gone are the layers from the 2D approach, and in their place are increasingly smaller sections of objects. This level of detail allows for the realistic output of CGI animation.

What Is CGI Animation? [Technology Explained] Terminator T 1000

One of the most notable uses of CGI during the 1990s was in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The Terminator T-1000 robots were given a liquid metal form which allowed them to morph into anything that they touched. Alongside this, a small film production studio was gearing up to change the way animated films were made. Headed by the former Disney animator John Lasseter, Pixar created some of the first realistic CGI animations with Toy Story. The success of the film and of Pixar’s animation 6 Lessons From Pixar That Will Set You Up For Success 6 Lessons From Pixar That Will Set You Up For Success The secrets of storytelling tend to reflect the secrets of success in real life. You owe it to yourself to take one minute and consider how Pixar might make you more successful. Read More paved the way for Steve Jobs, who was an investor in the company, to return to Apple and the creation of the iPod The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Apple: A Brief History The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Apple: A Brief History The success of Apple indeed lies with their attitude of "Thinking Differently". While the company may not have always been heralded as a success, their strength over the years has come from great vision and... Read More .


The more affordable cost of computing was one of the most profound parts of the Technological Revolution. The lower cost means that it is now possible for anyone with a computer and some time to create their own music, writing, and digital animations.

What Is CGI Animation? [Technology Explained] AutoDesk Maya

One of the first pieces of CGI software to enter the mainstream was Autodesk’s AutoCAD in 1982. Back then it wouldn’t have been feasible to run AutoCAD yourself at home. However, now with their Maya CGI software, you can use their 35 years of experience to create your own digital animations. They are far from the only option though as the completely free and open-source Blender can confirm.

Video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have allowed creators to easily upload and share their work. You can even find incredibly professional short CGI-based films that were made entirely with free software 10+ Amazing Short Films You'd Not Believe Were Made With Free Software 10+ Amazing Short Films You'd Not Believe Were Made With Free Software Just like its previous short films online, the Blender Foundation used only open-source or free software to produce movies of at least 10 minutes. Read More . Using a combination of tools like Blender, GIMP GIMP vs Photoshop: Which One Is Right for You? GIMP vs Photoshop: Which One Is Right for You? Photoshop is the most popular image editing app out there and GIMP is the best free alternative to it. Which should you use? Read More , Inkscape Create Scalable Graphics With Open-Source, Cross-Platform Tool Inkscape Create Scalable Graphics With Open-Source, Cross-Platform Tool Inkscape Why does professional graphics editing software have to cost an arm and a leg? How about a free alternative to handle scalable vector graphics. See how Inkscape gives Adobe Illustrator a run for its money! Read More , Source Film Maker 7 Free Tools for Creating Your Own Machinima Films 7 Free Tools for Creating Your Own Machinima Films Machinima is the art of making movies with video game footage and assets. Want to create your own films without any directorial experience? Here are some free tools to get you started! Read More , and others it’s possible to create works of art and video which would have been unimaginable just 30 years ago.

A Revolution Colored by Nostalgia

Today’s 3D CGI animation is an evolution from basic cartoon animation into a simulated, highly realistic world. By combining physics with art, CGI slices up the world into the smallest segments possible. By creating models of how those tiny parts of the real world move the result is a stunningly realistic animated world.

Some lament the decline in traditional animation, but success is hard to argue with. Early CGI releases like Toy Story were met with such enthusiasm that the takeover was all but certain. That said, not everyone is a fan How CGI Is Ruining Your Favorite Movies How CGI Is Ruining Your Favorite Movies However much we marvel at "these new-fangled special effects," sometimes they can get in the way of actually enjoying a film. Let's look at how CGI is ruining your favorite movies. Read More . Traditional animation will always have its place, with classic cartoons held in reverence. Netflix is even taking a shot at reigniting the art form with shows like F is for Family and the excellent BoJack Horseman.

What is your take on the current state of the art for CGI animation? Will it eventually replace traditional animation? Or do you think traditional animation will make a come back? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. Jaco
    April 21, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    How old is this article, But I have to admit this still gives the basics. Any case.. If you want you can see some of my stuff I did over the last 20 years or so.. The above is where I started to I'm not complaining.

  2. martina marina
    February 5, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    To think the very first half hour CGI cartoon was ReBoot! That was way before Toy Story, way before everything really

  3. weGif
    December 4, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Very good article. I learned a lot. Gif animated graphics are also interesting. Would you like also to try what i have found in this Photo Animation Software

  4. Animated Pictures
    October 31, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Cool... Very impressed with this. Great post.

  5. Art_Teac
    October 23, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    I, for one, would hate to see the 2D animimation art-form die off. Then again, I feel the same way about "old-school" film photography, tube-based audio electronics and old fashioned pen/ink/paper.

    Pretty soon, every way we express ourselves will be digital. Ooops, it already has (for the younger generation).

    I guess I'll enjoy the "old ways" while they are still with us. Now where's that BetaMax movie I was looking for...

  6. vasiauvi
    October 22, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Waw, I though that she is a real person.
    It's incredible!

  7. Ishan@ILoveFreeSoftware
    October 22, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Very nice article. I agree that traditional cartoons are now a thing of the past. I believe designers would be using pencil and paper only to create their original cartoon character. Once they have conceptualized it on paper, computer would take over and create complete motion picture out of it.

    This does not means that our cartoonists are not creative any more. All the creativity still comes from cartoonists, computers just provide a tool to easily make that a reality.