CGI Art - From Scratches to a Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry

October 12, 2015

So, can you remember which was the earliest movie you have watched that had some computer animation, some computer generated visual effects? Yes, the earliest one, so you can't say Avatar. Nor The Lord of the Rings. The Matrix? Yes, you are still on the South Pole, but it is getting warmer... Hm... The Terminator? The Lawnmower Man? Jurassic Park? Alien? Warm... Star Wars? Oh, we've forgot that Toy Story was the first CGI (computer generated imagery) feature-length animation, but that was not the earliest film to use computer generated effects. Back in 1978, Supermen was filmed, and it was the first movie with a computer-generated title sequence. And even further in the past, movie Westworld was filmed in 1973. That was the first usage of 2D computer animation in a (significant) entertainment feature film. So, you've guessed so far, in this feature we will talk about CGI - how did the whole thing start, how it developed, branched into several incredibly important segments of our lives, and finally, how CGI became a legit part of the art world.

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Sarah Ludy - Bouquet, 2012. Sold for £1,875

CGI Art - The Beginnings

Yes, we've mentioned some famous movies that changed the course of the film industry, and that should thank computer animations for that. But computer generated imagery and animations didn't start in seventies. Actually, if we take this "computer" part of the abbreviation loosely, and perhaps change it into "mechanical aid to artists", we could trace roots of CGI way back into the 15th century. Back then, perspective was "invented" - Filippo Brunelleschi, the Italian artist, created some rules that were necessary to be followed, in order to create artworks that looked exactly the way human eye observed the world that surrounds us. And famous Albrecht Dürer invented some tools that helped artists to achieve perfect perspective. So, if we are looking for some kind of machine that helped artists to create their artworks, well, yes, the roots are in 15th century.

Of course, we won't go that far and claim that CGI started back then - after all, it is COMPUTER generated imagery. So, we'll skip few centuries and land back into the 20th century, where in 1960, a Boeing employee William Fetter first coined the term "computer graphic", to describe his work for Boeing, where he made first computer model of a human body - but that was in 1964. In 1961, one of the first (if not the first) video game was created - it was named Spacewar!, and it was developed by Steve Russell at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Two years later, computer mouse was invented, and one of the true pioneers in the field of computer art Charles Csuri created his first computer generated artwork. Csuri was an artist at The Ohio State University (OSU), and he was one of the first artists that experimented with the application of computer graphics to art. Another two years later, in 1965, fist computer art exhibitions were held, one in Stuttgart, Germany, and the other in New York, while in 1966 first consumer computer generated product was made - it was a home video game called Odyssey. In 1968, Charles Csuri received a big recognition, when his artwork Hummingbird was purchased by Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for permanent collection. Also, a group of soviet scientists, led by Nikolai Konstantinov, created a mathematical model for the motion of a cat. This 1968 was important for another reason - it was the year when exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and then in Washington and San Francisco. Cybernetic Serendipity showed connections between computer and the arts, and its catalogue contained a huge collection of works that were done in the field of computer art. One year later, in 1969, the first CGI for commercials was created - for IBM, conveniently.

You can imagine that things just started to accelerate during the seventies, so we won't be that detailed - in 1972 Atari was formed, and during that same year they released their first video game (Pong). In 1973 that science-fiction movie we've mentioned was filmed (Westworld), and it featured digitally processed motion picture photography, that appeared pixelized in order to show how android's point of view looked like. In 1975 a guy named Bill Gates started Microsoft with Paul Allen, and in 1976 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer. Somewhere in the middle of the seventies, mathematicians coined the term "fractals" to describe fractional dimensions to geometric patterns in nature. Fractals proved to be an important step toward increasing realism in 3D animations. In 1977, Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences introduced Visual Effects category for Oscars, followed by the mentioned movie Superman in 1978 and forming of Lucasfilm by George Lucas in 1979.

Petra Cortright - Webcam Video File

Eighties and Nineties

In 1980, the largest producer of animation in the U.S. Hanna-Barbera started implementation of computer automation of animation process and Nintendo introduced Donkey Kong. Next year, IBM introduced the first IBM Personal computer (PC), while Adobe and AutoDesk were founded in 1982. During 1984, Universal Studios opened their CG department, and in 1986 Steve Jobs bought Pixar from Lucasfilm - the same Pixar that only two years later, in 1988, will win an Academy award for Best animated short film for their Tin Toy, and that another seven years later (1995) will create already mentioned Toy Story... Of course, 1988 brought us Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1989 brought us Adobe Photoshop and 1990 brought us AutoDesk's 3D Studio.

The beginning of the nineties was the time when CGI definitely had a breakout into the world of movies and television: two huge box-office successes were achieved with movies that used a lot - a lot - of CGI. The first one was Terminator 2: Judgment day by James Cameron, and this movie brought CGI into the focus of wide public attention - the animation of two "terminators" was something public have never seen before. The other movie was Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which was the first animated film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Then, in 1993 Jurassic Park was released, and was another great hit, which also can be said for video game Doom, that was released the same year. In 1995 Toy Story was created, DreamWorks SKG and Microsoft formed DreamWorks Interactive, and two years later, another James Cameron hit, Titanic, became the largest grossing motion picture in US history. One year later, Google was launched, and things were never the same after these several years during the nineties.

Maja Cule - The Horizon, 2013 (HD video loop, Blu-Ray disc, 3'17). Sold for £1,375

2000s and Beyond

Now, take a look at the list of the major movies from 2001 that used so called computer "FX" (effects, which sounds a lot like pronouncing "FX"): Final Fantasy, Monsters Inc., Harry Potter, A.I., Lord of the Rings, Shrek, The Mummy Returns, Tomb Raider, Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes... It would be pointless if we go on and mention all the major movies during the last 15 years that used CGI, so, we'll stop with 2001. But we'll look back and tell something about Final Fantasy. This was the first movie that used photorealistic CGI characters. People started to question whether actors will be required in the future - why would anyone pay some Hollywood actor or actress millions of dollars per movie, when they could create a digital character, that would look like human being, and that would do things you tell it to do, in ways human actors can't even dream of? Well, this fear proved to be unfounded: people just didn't like Final Fantasy, although it looked incredible. Some comments mentioned a thing called "an uncanny valley" - there's something that makes these almost-human-look-alikes completely repulsive to observers. This almost perfect imitation of a human being on film was never accepted, because facial features of CGI-created-characters were very close to human features, but never completely the same - this small glitch made CGI characters look completely unhealthy and unnatural, and people just didn't like that.

Laura Brothers - Quiet Storm IV from Caught in a Quiet Storm (Surprised!), 2010, sold for £625

Usage of CGI in Everyday Life

So, if you were not bored to death with this short - yes, trust me, it was short and concise - recollection of CGI history, we may now proceed to the usage of CGI in today's life of ordinary people. And CGI is literally everywhere around us. It is a global, multi-billion dollar industry, that connects some of the most important segments of our lives. Yes, some things are obvious, and we've already mentioned them: there are visual effects and animations for all kinds of entertainment - movies, TV shows, commercials and video games, among other things. But things are not just fun and games - CGI is being thoroughly used in architecture and medicine for previsualizations that made possible... well, the things that were, until recent, thought to be impossible. It can be described like this: what camera does with light, CGI can do with numbers. So, from illustrating medical devices, visualizing a whole range of complex graphic concepts to rendering some prototypes, CGI is doing wonders in all kinds of medical investigation and surgical procedures, and architecture, as well. Of course, the main impact still remains in the entertainment and graphic design industry - every year applied art schools are producing many new graphic designers. However, schooling is not of the essence here: the availability of CGI software and ever-growing power of home computers made possible producing movies, games and - of course - digital art of incredible quality for many individuals and small companies.

James Bridle - Contiuous Monument

Art Going Digital

If you take a look at digital artworks that were made just for fun by many talented and anonymous artists all around the globe, you may start wondering if there is a developed art market for digital art. Well, apparently not. I think the reason for that is the enormous supply, much bigger than the eventual demand. And, in my opinion this state of things will remain. Why? Simply put, today there are probably more digital artists of various quality than the number of, say, remotely important painters throughout the history of man kind. Everyone has computer these days, so, even if they are not creating art, they have the possibility to create it. And how many people do you know that have brushes and canvases, let alone use them? Exactly. It's the simple supply-demand thing. The number of art collectors and, in most general terms, the number of people that would pay some amount of money for art of any kind isn't that big - I guess that, during good economic times, this number increases, but not as nearly as the number of people that could be called (digital) artists was increased since computers became a common thing in every household in the Western world. Two years ago, auction house Phillips and Paddle8 organized a first-ever auction of digital art. Twenty artworks priced between $1,400 and $18,000 were put up to sale, and among those 20 artworks there were a website, a YouTube video and digital files that could be displayed on smartphones or on wall-mounted screens. Digital artist Rafaël Rozendall sold a website ( $3,500. A GIF was sold for $1,300. Overall, this auction was rather successful, as it drew about 500 people to visit Phillips auction house in New York during the sale. Total of 80 percent of lots were sold, and 92 percent of estimated value. In 2014, another digital art auction was held, this time at Phillips London - 23 works by 23 artists were estimated between $90,150 and $126,395. Seventeen lots were sold, among them a HD video loop on Blu-Ray disc that went for £1,375. So, yes, there is an art market for CGI and digital art, but that market is shallow and disintegrated. It is more likely that it will stay that way, then to expect some big emergence of digital art market, especially in this situation, when it appears that the "classic" art market is heading into contraction.

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Featured image: Clement Valla - Postcards From Google Earth

All images are from two digital art auctions that were held at Phillps New York and Phillips London in 2013 and 2014. For illustrative purposes only.

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