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?
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 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 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.
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 paved the way for Steve Jobs, who was an investor in the company, to return to Apple and the creation of the iPod.
CGI Goes DIY
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.
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. Using a combination of tools like Blender, GIMP, Inkscape, Source Film Maker, 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. 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!