Home » Computer Graphics and Animation » The Evolution of Animation to CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and the Impact of James Cameron’s Avatar

The Evolution of Animation to CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and the Impact of James Cameron’s Avatar

The progress of motion picture complexity has been driving the film industry’s continuous pursuit for technological evolution. The linear technological evolution of filmmaking has empowered filmmakers by offering a more diverse catalogue of tools and techniques; however, it is the filmmaker’s ability to effectively utilize this technology that truly adds value to the cinematic quality of a film. Technological advancements in filmmaking techniques, cameras, animation, sound recording, and editing have expanded the creative potential of filmmakers. Filmmaking has made progress in leaps and bounds since the beginning of the 1890s to present. As the evolution of the technologies progressed, the filmmaker had an increased arsenal of tools to utilize. The evolution of animation techniques to computer-generated imagery has opened up a world of possibilities that previously only existed in the imaginations of filmmakers and animators. James Cameron’s influence in this industry and specific focus has been profound. His creation of the movie Avatar showcases the tremendous impact he has made on the industry and the technological evolution of motion pictures.

The Beginning of Film Making

Filmmaking has progressed a long way since the 90’s, with the invention of the first motion-picture camera and the establishment of the first film production companies and cinemas. The early days of film in the 1890s utilized little cinematic technique, no camera movement, and flat compositions. Until 1927, films had an absence of sound, an era known as the silent era of film. Film theaters used live musicians and live sound effects during this time.

Louis Le Prince's pioneering single-lens Cine Camera-Projector MkII, the first film camera in the world.

Louis Le Prince’s pioneering single-lens Cine Camera-Projector MkII, the first film camera in the world.

The early 1900s marked the emergence of the first modern-day motion pictures, where filmmakers began to introduce basic editing techniques and film narrative. In 1897, Robert W. Paul built the first rotating camera for taking panning shots. Filmmakers utilized trick cinematography such as stop-motion techniques and double exposure of the film. G.A. Smith initiated reverse motion as a special effect technique by repeating an action a second time while filming it with an inverted camera, and then joining the tail of the second negative to that of the first. The first films to consist of more than one shot appeared toward the end of the 19th century. The pioneer of real film continuity was British filmmaker Robert W. Paul. The further development of action continuity in multi-shot films started with George Albert Smith’s The Kiss in the Tunnel. The film starts with a shot from a “phantom ride” at the point at which the train goes into a tunnel, and continues with the action on a set representing the interior of a railway carriage, where a man steals a kiss from a woman, and then cuts back to the phantom ride shot when the train comes out of the tunnel. In 1900, George Albert Smith and James Williamson introduced continuity of action across successive shots. Their film, Seen Through the Telescope, showcases a street scene with a young man tying a shoelace and then caressing his girlfriend’s foot, all while an old man observes this through a telescope. There is then a cut to a close shot of the man’s hands on the woman’s foot, which is shown through a black circular mask, and then a cut back to the continuation of the original scene. Smith also pioneered the use of the close-up shot in his films Seen Through a Telescope and Grandma’s Reading Glasses. This inspired him to develop ideas of breaking a scene shot in one place into a series of shots taken from different camera positions. James Williamson concentrated on making films that took action from one place shown in one shot to the next shown in another shot in films like Stop Thief!, which evolved into a period of filmmaking that used “chase films”.

The Beginning of Animation

British film pioneer Arthur Melbourne-Cooper utilized animation for the first time in 1899 in his short film Matches: An Appeal. The short film was a thirty-second long stop-motion animated piece intended to encourage the audience to send matches to British troops fighting the Boer War. In 1906, Albert Edward Smith and James Stuart Blackton took the next step with their creation, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. The film primarily consisted of cartoon drawings of people moving from one pose to another. In a very short section of the film, things are made to appear as though they are moving, by altering the drawings themselves from frame to frame. This eventually turned out to be the basis of standard animated cartoons. In 1907, Edwin S. Porter and J. Stuart Blackton further developed the technique of single frame animation. Edwin Porter’s Teddy Bears showed toy bears that moved on their own, and in the latter film building tools were made to perform construction tasks without human intervention, by using frame-by-frame animation.

During the 1910s, the production of animated short films known as “cartoons” became an industry of its own, with cartoon shorts being produced for viewing in movie theaters. John Randolph Bray was considered to be the most successful producer at the time. Bray and animator Earl Hurd patented the cel animation process, which dominated the Animation Industry for the rest of the decade. The cel animation process was an important innovation for traditional animation as it allowed some parts of each frame to be repeated from frame to frame, thus saving time spent on labor. Following the production of animated short films, short stop-motion animation was produced. Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton produced The Humpty Dumpty Circus – the 1st short stop-motion animation. Stop motion is a technique in which real objects are moved around in the time between their images being recorded, so that when the images are viewed at a normal frame rate the objects appear to move by some invisible force. The link below provides an example of recently recorded short-stop motion film about MnM’s desperate struggle to fit in and belong in today’s world.

In 1914, John Bray opened John Bray Studios, which revolutionized the way animation was created and developed. Earl Hurd, one of Bray’s employees, patented the cel technique, which involved animating moving objects on transparent celluloid sheets. In 1915, only a year later, Max and Dave Fleischer invented rotoscoping – the process of using film as a reference point for animation. This technique was responsible for the birth of animated classics such as Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor Man, and Superman.

Cell Animation

Cell Animation

CGI Revolutionizing Animation The creation of computer-generated imagery (CGI) revolutionized animation. The process of CGI animation is still very tedious, like traditional animation. A key difference between CGI animation and traditional animation is that drawing is replaced by 3D modeling. Filmmakers utilize a non-photorealistic rendering called cel-shading to make the computer graphics appear hand-drawn. The end result of cel-shading has a very simplistic feel like that of a hand-drawn animation. However, the process is very complex. The cel-shading process starts with a typical 3D model. Cel-shading differs from conventional rendering in its non-photorealistic illumination model. Conventional (smooth) lighting values are calculated for each pixel and then quantized to a small number of discrete shades to create the characteristic “flat look” – where the shadows and highlights appear more like blocks of color rather than mixed in a smooth way.

The Utah teapot rendered using cel-shading

The Utah teapot rendered using cel-shading

Computer animation only applies to dynamic images that resemble a movie, while computer generated images of landscapes might be static. Computer animation refers to dynamic images that do not allow user interaction, and the term virtual world is used for the interactive animated environments. Computer animation is essentially a digital successor to the art of stop-motion animation of 3D models and frame-by-frame animation of 2D illustrations. Computer generated animations are more controllable than other more physically-based processes, such as constructing miniatures for effects shots or hiring extras for crowd scenes. It is also more controllable in that it allows the creation of images that would not otherwise be feasible using any other technology. It can also allow a single graphic artist to produce such content without the use of actors, expensive set pieces, or props. An innovation in CGI technologies is being able to utilize advanced motion capturing techniques. Motion capture offers several advantages over traditional computer animation of a 3D model, an example being rapid real time results. Motion capture allows more complex movement and realistic physical interactions such as secondary motions, weight, and exchange of forces to be easily recreated in a physically accurate manner. The amount of animation data that can be produced within a given time is extremely large when compared to traditional animation techniques.

An example of computer animation which is produced in the "motion capture" technique

An example of computer animation which is produced in the “motion capture” technique

Performance capturing in CGI, a subset of motion capturing, has been a recent capability involving capturing subtle expressions in the face and fingers. Performance capture, also known as high fidelity facial motion capture, is the next generation of fidelity and is utilized to record the more complex movements in a human face in order to capture higher degrees of emotion. The two main techniques are: stationary systems with an array of cameras capturing facial expressions from multiple angles and using software to create a 3D surface mesh, or the use of light arrays to calculate the surface normals from the variance. If the user’s face is fifty-percent of the working area of the camera with megapixel resolution, then sub-millimeter facial motions can be detected by comparing frames. Recent work is focusing on increasing the frame rates and doing optical flow to allow the motions to be retargeted to other computer generated faces, rather than just making a 3D Mesh of the actor and their expressions.

A dancer wearing a suit used in an optical motion capture system

A dancer wearing a suit used in an optical motion capture system

The optical systems for motion capturing technologies utilize data captured from image sensors to triangulate the 3D position of a subject between one or more cameras that are calibrated to provide overlapping projections. The data is acquired using special markers attached to an actor. As the filmmaker adds more cameras, the system is capable of tracking a larger number of performers. These systems produce data with three degrees of freedom for each marker and the rotational information is inferred from the relative orientation of three or more markers.

Reflective markers attached to skin to identify bony landmarks and the 3D motion of body segments

Reflective markers attached to skin to identify bony landmarks and the 3D motion of body segments

A dancer wearing a suit used in an optical motion capture system

A dancer wearing a suit used in an optical motion capture system

Most films that involve CGI are based on animal characters, monsters, machines, or cartoon-like humans. Animators are now in pursuit of ways to develop realistic-looking humans. However, due to the complexity of human body functions, emotions, and interactions, this method of animation is rarely used. The more realistic a CG character becomes, the more difficult it is to create the nuances and details of a living person. The creation of hair and clothing that move convincingly with the animated human character is another area of difficulty. The use of humanoid creatures in CGI has become even more prevalent. CGI has opened up a world of possibilities that previously only existed in the imaginations of filmmakers and animators. Filmmakers, writers, and producers are able to stretch their imagination of storytelling to new levels, while actors are given the opportunity to represent many different characters within one film. Actors now have the ability to play dozens of characters within a single film. They can now play roles such as: aliens, monsters, mermaids, witches, and even elves from the future and the past.

James Cameron

James Cameron

James Cameron

James Cameron has had a deep and significant impact on the film community from a cinematic and technological perspective. From his 1st success, The Terminator, to his recent blockbuster, Avatar, he has continually pushed the envelope of filmmaking and the technology surrounding it. The Terminator and Terminator 2 marked the grounds for Cameron’s obsession with utilizing the latest film techniques and technologies. He incorporated the advanced model Terminator into both films, where he used cutting edge special effects from The Abyss to depict the liquid metal villain. In The Abyss he utilized several special effects divisions with motion control experience, which designed a program to produce surface waves of differing sizes and kinetic properties for the pseudopod. Cameron photographed the set from every angle and digitally recreated it so that the pseudopod could be accurately composited into the live-action footage. They spent six months to create seventy-five seconds of computer graphics needed for the creature.

Filming of the Abyss

Filming of the Abyss

James Cameron has been most regarded for his production of the Titanic, where he pushed the industry’s boundaries for special effects. He utilized technologies that added digital water and smoke. Extras were captured on a motion-capture stage and the visual effects supervisor Rob Legato scanned the faces of many actors in order to digitally create them as extras. Cameron utilized the green screen to showcase the sinking ship, thus saving a lot of money.

Titanic Green Screen

Titanic Green Screen

Vincent Pace and James Cameron developed a filming rig that is more advanced than anything that has gone before. The setup consists of a number of stereoscopic cameras that each use a pair of lenses built to mimic human eyes. The cameras are positioned close together and able to move a little in order to focus on objects that are nearby or far away. This technique allows the cinematographer to capture two images simultaneously, which align perfectly together and provide the illusion of depth. This was known as the Fusion Camera System or the Reality Camera System. The Fusion Camera System was the first to make use of the Sony HDC-F950 and later of the Sony HDC-1500 HD cameras when they became available. The cameras are equipped with Fujinon lenses from Fujifilm.

Fusion 3-D Camera System

Fusion 3-D Camera System

The Fusion 3-D camera system that Cameron helped pioneer was used for his IMAX feature Ghost of the Abyss in 2003, and has gone on to making live-action digital 3D films like Journey to the Center of the Earth. Cameron has won plenty of awards including, but not limited to, Academy Awards for Best Film Editing, Honorary Degree of Doctor from University of Southhampton for his contribution to underwater filming and remote vehicle technology, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society. James Cameron’s Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar was filmed in photo-realistic, “stereoscopic 3D,” which mixes live-action and CGI imagery in a seamless blend. Avatar utilizes 60% CGI imagery, with a majority of the CG character animation filmed with revolutionary new motion-capture techniques using live actors. The other 40% of the film utilizes the traditional techniques of live-action imagery. James Cameron began to work on Avatar since the early 1990s. He delayed the film for several reasons, the primary reason being that the film’s technology was not adequate enough to support the vision of the film. At the time, Cameron wanted to make use of photorealistic computer generated characters with newly developed technologies. Finally, in 2006, he was able to develop new motion-capture animation technologies in order to bring his vision to reality. To bring the CG characters to life in the most realistic sense, Cameron redefined the way motion capture (or “performance capture”) sequences were filmed. His actors wore special bodysuits and head rigs equipped with a standard definition camera that took constant images of their faces. That data was then transmitted to another camera creating a real-time image of the live actor “wearing” their CGI costume. This allowed the director to see the motion capture results in real-time, as they were filmed, instead of waiting for the computer to render the images.

Zoe Saldana as Neyteri in “Avatar”

Zoe Saldana as Neyteri in “Avatar”

“The way we developed the performance capture workflow on ‘Avatar’ is we have our virtual camera, which allows me to, in real time, hold a camera — it’s really a monitor — in my hands and point it at the actors and see them as their CG characters,” Cameron said… “It’s this amazing ability to quickly conjure scenes and images and great fantasyscapes that is very visual…When you are doing performance capture, creatively it’s very daunting. It’s very hard to imagine what it will look like. But if you can see it, if you can have a virtual image of what is it going to be like, then you are there.”

avatar-31 avatar3 avatar-41 James Cameron utilized another new motion capture technique called “Facial Performance Replacement” (FPR). FPR allows the filmmaker to digitally re-work an actor’s facial movements. Lines of dialogue that get changed after principal photography on a scene can still be seamlessly implemented into the finished scene, without the actors having to re-don their body suits and head rigs for another take. To achieve the face capturing, actors wore individually made skull-caps fitted with a tiny camera positioned in front of the actors’ faces. The information collected from their facial expressions and eyes was then transmitted to computers. According to Cameron, the method allowed the filmmakers to transfer 100% of the actors’ physical performances to their digital counterparts. Besides the performance-capture data which was transferred directly to the computers, numerous reference cameras gave the digital artists multiple angles of each performance.

Facial Performance Replacement

Facial Performance Replacement

“We turned the set on the soundstage into a capture volume and turned the physical camera into a capture virtual camera, so we were able to integrate CG characters and environments into our live action.” [Cameron said…] “We have people in flying vehicles, and I can see what is outside the window, fed in, in real time.”

Cameron pioneered a specially designed camera built into a 6-inch boom that allowed the facial expressions of the actors to be captured and digitally recorded for the animators to use later.

Cameron pioneered a specially designed camera built into a 6-inch boom that allowed the facial expressions of the actors to be captured and digitally recorded for the animators to use later

Cameron pioneered a specially designed camera built into a 6-inch boom that allowed the facial expressions of the actors to be captured and digitally recorded for the animators to use later

The rendering and processing of the scenes required a massive amount of data, which resulted in Cameron employing 900 people to work on the film. Microsoft created a new Cloud Computing and Digital Asset Management system called Gaia, which allowed the crews to keep track of and coordinate all stages in digital processing. A 10,000 square-feet server farm with 35,000 processor cores and 3 petabytes of network area storage was used to render the data. The render farm occupied the 193rd to 197th spots in the TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. Cameron had a new texturing and paint software system developed in order to handle the creation of the Na’vi characters and the virtual world of Pandora, which required over a petabyte of digital storage. Each minute of the final footage of Avatar occupies 17+ gigabytes of storage. James Cameron provided an amazing display of cinematic effect where the interplay between what is real and what is digital is virtually indistinguishable, all thanks to CGI technologies.

In addition to inventing a few new filming techniques for Avatar, Cameron originated a technique for re-mastering old films and releasing them in digital 3D. The “Cameron-brand conversion technique” will have a huge impact on the movie business, potentially reviving a lot of older films.

Cameron spent an extraordinary amount of time working on Avatar. The initial budget was claimed to be 10M USD funded by 20th Century Fox but the budget exploded to 237M USD by the time it was finished. The film spoke for itself in the box office when it grossed $2.7B USD and received phenomenal reviews. Avatar went on to receive nine Oscar nominations and three wins – an unusual feat for a science fiction film – and continued to break records on its home release.

James Cameron’s Avatar showcases a mosaic of cutting edge film, special effects, and animation techniques that allow it to magnanimously leap over the current state of animation in the Film Industry.

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