Like robots doing complicated surgeries, the computers that generate CGI effects are more than just tools. They're storytellers. This week on io9, we explore a world where humans watch the world through computer eyes just by going to the movies.
Since the earliest days of cinema, special effects have been crucial to movie storytelling. One of the earliest popular short movies, Jacques Méliès' 1902 La Voyage Dans La Lune, was a science fiction story with special effects.
All these effects were created by human hands. In the mid-twentieth century filmmakers like Jean Cocteau started to perfect the art of using film technology to create special effects. In Orphée, for example, he used double exposures and ran the film backwards to do his special effects. Here is a great moment where Orpheus goes through the looking glass into another world.
Meanwhile, back in the states, special effects masters like Ray Harryhausen were using good, old-fashioned elbow grease and stop-motion techniques to build amazing monsters whose movements had a lifelike feel even though they were fantastical. Here's a great compilation of claymation monsters from Harryhausen, from the 1930s through the 80s.
But these days, computers are making special effects for the humblest of straight-to-DVD movies and television series, to Hollywood blockbusters. We have films like District 9 and Lord of the Rings where major characters are a combination of human and computer-generated. And of course battle sequences in movies like 300 are fought almost entirely by CGI people, not actors. Has this changed the way we tell stories? Absolutely.
Computer-assisted filmmaking has allowed amateur filmmakers, or people with small budgets, to produce movies that have the kind of outer-space effects that once required a team of prop designers. Of course some of this CGI looks terrible, but a lot of it is terrific and funny. Exhibit A is this CGI test from the Z-grade flick Chihuanhas.
And of course, people who make fan videos have many more resources at their fingertips, thanks to CGI. Check out this great fan-made snippet of an idea for revamping a familiar Doctor Who story.
For filmmakers with a lot of money to burn, working with computers has meant that audiences could see imagery that's simply impossible to create in real life, using the kinds of camera effects that Jean Cocteau relied on. James Cameron has talked about how his CGI-enabled camera in Avatar allowed him to literally fly alongside his characters as they zoom around on the backs of birds. And "bullet time," a technique popularized in Blade and the Matrix films is another great example of how computers allow us to see images completely impossible to film using conventional cameras.
Here's how that scene was mocked up by computers that knit together the views provided by cameras mounted 360 degrees around the action.
Like electronic music that provides us with delicious beats that no human-controlled instrument could create, CGI gives us what is essentially a non-human view of the world. We can see angles, images, and colors that our eyes and bodies could never capture - even with the aid of a conventional camera.
With the help of our computers, we see the world the way machines do. And we love it.
This week on io9, we celebrate the ways our computers are helping us reimagine the very act of seeing. They're changing the way tell stories, and transforming entertainment into something that cannot be created by humans alone. We'll bring you the very best CGI art, talk to concept designers who help build your favorite CGI creatures, explore the history of CGI and bring you deep inside the technology that enables it.
Top and bottom images via Rene Garcia.