I grew up in a pre-CGI world where animation equaled cartoons, and the pinnacle of Hollywoods special effects was the chase scene from Tron. Even Star Wars, the movie that ushered in the new era of special effects-driven films, was painstakingly low tech, with stop motion photography and models providing most of the action.
While it makes me feel old to see just how far the realm of computer animation and special effects have come in the last few years, it adds yet another dimension to the whole movie experience jaw-dropping, mind boggling disbelief.
More and more, I find that I go to new movies these days purely to gawk at the latest animation and I often come away disappointed because the animation didnt break any new boundaries, or because the script, plot, and characters of the movie took a backseat to the effects.
For every Toy Story, however, there seems to be a dozen Big Blues out there, which suggests that this technology is maybe a little too affordable, and a little too widely available. Further evidence of this can be found anywhere on television, with computer animation selling everything from cars to toothpaste.
This abuse also diminishes the overall effect of computer animation at the movies, but thats not necessarily a bad thing. Talking pets selling carpet freshener and space ships selling pop forces Hollywood to continually push the envelope, to go where no Gilette commercial has ever gone.
The results are stunning. A Bugs Life, Shrek, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are three beautifully rendered animated movies that went further than any before. The colours and the scenery are breathtaking, the characters are well drawn, and in the case of Final Fantasy, realistic right down to the pores on their digital noses.
Special effects have also come a long way in recent years, from the digital backgrounds of The Matrix, to the racing scenes in Driven, to the opulence of the city of Rome depicted in Gladiator, to the subtly gold-tinted world in O Brother, Where Art Thou.
While it is clear that CGI computer generated imagery cant stand on its own without a good story, good direction, good script, good voices and excellent animation to back it up, theres no question that the modern Hollywood "dream machine" is as much computer driven as it is driven by star power.
Whats next? Whether youre a movie buff who wants to see whats next, or someone considering a career change, you can find out all about the world of CGI at the following Web sites.
Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucass own effects company is the force behind many of the major advancements to take place in CGI in recent years. Alongside Lucasfilm Ltd., ILM has put together five of the top 20 grossing films of all time.
Pixar is the company responsible for A Bugs Life, both Toy Story movies, and the upcoming feature Monsters. Box office and video receipts from this one company total well over $1 billion.
PDI is the CGI-wing of the Dreamworks movie studio, producing Antz and most recently Shrek. They have also provided visual effects for A.I., Evolution, The Mexican, and Mission Impossible II.
This movie has set a new milestone for realistic animation, with characters and scenery that are so realistic its surreal. In the Production area of this site is a brief explanation of what the animators went through to make the characters this realistic, from the concise modeling of skin textures to the study of kinesiology, to the study of fabric textures.
If you want to get into animation youre probably going to need at the very least a hardware upgrade and some very expensive 3D modeling software. VFXPro is a site dedicated to "The Art, Technology and Business of Special Effects." Its a good place to pick up tips and find out whos using what and why. You can download special effects, check out the latest hardware, and, if youre a beginner, get an overview of what its all about.
www.vfs.com / www.eciad.bc.ca
While you can teach yourself the art of 3D animation, it could take years to learn the skills to do it well. The Vancouver Film School and Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design both offer full and part-time animation courses.
The following sites may also be of use:
www.3dcafe.com The 3D Café is a hub for skills development, tools, and industry news
www.webreference.com/3d/ The 3D Animation Workshop
www.sgi.com SGI Entertainment, with animation examples, software links and reviews.
www.blender.nl Free 3D software tools
www.sharbor.com Safe Harbor, a site for 3D industry news
www.animationartist.com A site by and for animators
www.3dartist.com Job postings, contacts, industry news, software news and reviews
www.visualmagic.awn.com The home site of Visual Magic Magazine, a 3D animation monthly
www.dve.no/maxcenter/ The home site of 3D Studio Max, one of the most commonly used animation platforms
www.softimage.com An industry hub with news, downloads and trade show information
www.vfxhq.com Visual Effects headquarters, a hub for the visual effects industry
www.visualeffects.com Another industry hub with news events, jobs and company listings