May 30, 2018
3D animation is a tool that is so recognizable in cinema that it has become the go-to method when creating stories with fantastical worlds. Known these days as Computer Generated Effects, CGI is present in almost every single movie that is released in blockbuster season. Even grounded films, such as David Fincher’s masterpiece, Zodiac, has CGI backgrounds that are so skillfully rendered you don’t notice the difference. Even as most live-action blockbusters use CGI, it’s in children’s animated movies that it became so popular.
Before 3D animation, many movies stuck to practical effects like matte paintings, wire-frame models, and stop-motion. It wasn’t until 1981 that the first breakthrough happened with Michael Crichton’s science fiction satire, Looker, which had cinema’s first fully 3D animated character. Tron came next as the first film to use fully computer-generated CGI. The 80s was full of films in which their creative teams slowly realized the possibilities of this new technology.
It was the 90s that truly made 3D animation a mainstream concern. In terms of live-action cinema, both Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blazed a trail for other filmmakers with the huge success of effects-heavy blockbusters, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The effects in both films, but especially in the design of Judgment Day’s villainous T1000, still look great, though there were some unfortunate side effects. Thanks to this new technology George Lucas, who is always looking for new toys to create with, decided to update the original Star Wars trilogy by re-cutting A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, with new effects that many fans thought diluted the appeal of the theatrical versions.
Perhaps the biggest tidal shift in Hollywood was the decision that Disney and Pixar would join forces to create an animated film created entirely from 3D animation. That film was Toy Story which, along with two equally good sequels, changed the cinematic landscape forever. Disney, quite ironically, suffered from the side effects of Pixar’s success since the release of the first Toy Story. While the House if Mouse makes plenty of money from Pixar’s hits: which include classics like Wall E, Up, Inside Out, Monsters Inc, and most recently Coco, it took the studio over a decade to release films that could be held in the same esteem as Pixar’s output. These films include Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.
Typically, Disney is at the heart of the next wave of 3D animation with their current slate of live-action remakes of their classic films. The Jungle Book was shot entirely through 3D animation, with the same thing happening with the upcoming version of The Lion King, Even grown-up films have been chasing this trend with the likes of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (which he won an Oscar for Best Director), Gravity (which also won director Alfonso Cuarón an Oscar), and Andy Serkis’ own version of The Jungle Book, entitled Mowgli, which will be released later this year. While there will always be cinema fans that prefer practical effects, the emergence and domination of 3D animation helps filmmakers create worlds for us that have never been seen before.