October 4, 2022

This is the last post of the Animation Technology series featuring CGI. If you’ve missed the previous posts, read them before this one!

Animation Technology Pt.1- An Introduction to CGI

Animation Technology Pt.2- CGI Tech’s Big Break

Modern CGI

After the 1990s, modern software engineers made several additions and developments to  CGI software as a whole. Modern CGI technology has hundreds of improvements and new additions. 

21st-century animation specialists use the latest CGI technology in 2D and 3D motion pictures, but it has different ways of working in each dimension. 

In 3D animation, specialists digitally produce objects and then place them on conceptual frameworks or ‘skeletons’. In the animation of 2D illustrations, on the other hand, specialists use separate objects on separate transparent layers in the animation, with or without a virtual skeleton.

CGI Virtual Skeletons or Frameworks

However, the production process for both dimensions uses the same method. Take the example of a figure animation: specialists move the placement of a character’s limbs and facial expressions on ‘key frames’. Editors then morph these key frames together to produce seamless motion and then render them.

The process for 2D animation is slightly more time-consuming as each keyframe in the animation process is first rendered, then morphed together and finally rendered all together again. The rendering in 3D animation takes place in one go after all the modelling is complete.

3D CGI rendering behind a scene in Pixar’s Inside Out

Different types of CGI

Modern animation specialists and enthusiasts use CGI differently, using different methods. Each of these methods has its own separate software.

Fractal-generating software

Developers call algorithms that can create complex fractal patterns– ‘Fractal-generating software’. Fractals are a kind of computer graphics which use a lossy compression method on colour images to produce graphics. Fractals provide ratios of 100:1, or greater and are especially suited to natural objects like trees, clouds and rivers. They turn an image into a set of data, after which people can use an algorithm within the software to expand the fractals back to the original image when needed.

CGI Fractal generating software creating a fractal of a succulent

2D pixel-based image editors

Vector graphics are computer images created using a sequence of commands or mathematical statements that place lines and shapes in a two-dimensional space. People can create files and save them in vector graphics as a sequence of vector statements. The common term for these files is ‘geometric files’.

The modern CGI software that produces vector shapes: 2D pixel-based image editors. This software help make graphics more scalable, smoother to use in animation and much easier to store and edit.

3D Graphics Software

Now moving on to 3D graphics software. These can generate everything, from simple primitive shapes to complex forms created from flat triangles and quadrangles. They can also simulate how light reacts to a surface and creates particle effects— again, making the jobs of animation specialists much easier than it was for them in the 1950s.

Green-screen (Chroma Key Compositing)

Green Screen used in a scene from Marvel’s Avengers

Modern CGI can be layered into digital film footage using compositing. The most exciting form of contemporary CGI (for me at least) is the technique more commonly known as ‘Green Screen’. The basic idea behind this concept is that a cinematographer films the subject in front of a uniform green screen. The screens are usually green in colour as that is a colour very far away from normal skin tones. This makes it easier to replace the background without the fear of accidentally removing a part of an actor’s face. The technical term for this process is Chroma Key Compositing.

The software checks the colours in the video, and if it matches the chroma key colour (or a range of similar colours), it will replace that part of the video with an alternate background. Most video editing software these days comes with a way to simply achieve chroma key compositing, making the editing of the video the easiest part of the process.

Access to these software in the 21st century

Apart from these highly valued developments and improvements, the film industry continues to advance in the field of CGI software in today’s digital era. In any other period of history, this could mean that this software was getting further and further away from common people’s use and access.

But the 21st century’s increased processing power and better software suggest that financial requirements can no longer confine high-quality computer animation to prominent specialists with powerful workstation computers. Instead, people can now download most animation software on home computers to produce high-quality computer animations. This has created new opportunities for individuals and companies to experiment with animation.

Nowadays most CGI software can be easily downloaded and used by the common public.

Epilogue

To be honest, just knowing the history of CGI isn’t going to help you understand how to use this software. These posts were simply to give you a little insight into the world of computer animation and perhaps give you a nudge in the right direction.

You never know.

CGI may be your true calling into the ever-expanding universe of technology.

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