Modern Special Effects and CGI owes a great deal of credit to George Lucas, John Lasseter and Industrial Light and Magic.

John Alan Lasseter

(born January 12, 1957)

is an

American animator,

director and

the chief

creative officer

at Pixar

and Walt Disney

Animation Studios.  

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple and served as the CEO in 1976.

During the late 1970’s while working for George Lucas on Star Wars, John Dykstra headed the special effects crew that developed many improvements in existing effects technology for the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic. His crew advanced model making and special effects as far as possible working with motion picture cameras and live-action films.


Inspired by PONG and other video games, Disney’s 1982 film, TRON, was one of the first feature films to make extensive use of any form of computer animation. Because programs needed to combine computer animation with live action were non-existent, animated sequences were interspersed with the filmed live action. With only 2MB of memory, the computer used a disc that had a maximum of 330MB of storage.


By 1981, animator John Lasseter had seen some video tapes that demonstrated crude animated forms that had been constructed in a computer and rendered on film. This was the beginning of computer animation and Lasseter realized that computers could be used to make animated films and was intrigued with the countless possibilities.


In 1984, Lasseter left his job at Disney animation to work for Lucasfilm. Teaming with “Interface Designer” Ed Catmull and his colleagues, he agreed to be “animator designer/consultant” on a project that used no animators and resulted in the first crude computer animated short: “The Adventures of Andre and Wally B.”


Financially crippled from his divorce and without the additional tens of millions required to complete the programs that would make computer animation a reality, George Lucas reluctantly sold Lucasfilm Computer Graphics to Steve Jobs in 1986. Apple acquired the unit with John Lasseter and renamed it Pixar. As an animator, Lasseter would eventually oversee all the new company’s projects as executive producer.

Exploring new possibilities in the early 1980’s when Apple was selling one megabyte of storage space for $700, George Lucas hired Ed Catmull and associates from the New York Institute of Technology to work with Lucasfilm Ltd. Lucasfilm Computer Graphics became an offshoot of ILM and the new division showed great promise. Research and development soon required tens of millions of dollars to pioneer and create the new programs that would enable animators to create virtual images in a computer and bring them to life on the motion picture screen.

By 1989, Western Digital was selling 40 megabytes of storage for $1199 and Steve Jobs was forced to pour tens of millions into his new company to continue the work that George Lucas had started. 1992 saw CAPS (Computer Animated Production System) win joint Academy Awards for Pixar and Disney and 1993 saw Pixar earn another Oscar for RenderMan. 


Realizing that interface designers and computer technicians were not and could not become computer animators, Lasseter hired old media animators to be re-trained using the new technology. The programs had cost up to $160 million to pioneer and high end computer systems were still expensive but prices were falling almost every year. Each animator learning computer animation needed to save his work and the cost of storage was still very expensive.


By 1990, the cost of one gigabyte of storage space had fallen below $9000. Most of the new “computer animators” worked every day for one or two years to become proficient using the 3D computer programs and saving high-end detailed animations could easily require hundreds of gigabytes.


Even if an old media animator could afford the computer and the memory and have the ability to sit in front of a screen for two years to learn, only a few at Pixar had access to the programs needed. For these reasons, the first generation of computer animators was very small. They were as skilled as surgeons and as such, these specialists commanded salaries of up to $3200 per day for their work.


Finally in 1995, the new programs proved their worth. TOY STORY, the world’s first completely computer generated commercial feature film premiered and it became an enormous financial success. Digital pixel manipulation (a new media term for “animation”) made it clear that all films would eventually incorporate animation and even become animated.

In 2001, my 3D Studio Max teacher at Pratt Institute in NYC explained why 3D animation experts were paid so much because no one else in the entire world possessed the knowledge and expertise that they had. Up until the year 2000, 3D animation experts were being paid $100/hour but salaries were dropping. He noted that every year there were more and more training to be experts since the cost of computers, memory and the 3D programs keeps falling. He left the teaching field a few years later when the salary 3D teachers were paid had dropped to $35/hour.


Computers became faster and faster every year and in 2011 a terabyte of memory  could be purchased for less than $100, Newer 3D animation programs were suddenly in reach of any artist who had a dream. The distinction between live-action films and animated films was no longer evident. 


John Alan Lasseter

BEN HUR (1959)

Long before the advent of computer generated effects, Ben Hur required compositing matte paintings with live action photography to achieve special effects on wide format motion picture film.

Long before the advent of computer generated effects, BEN HUR (1959) required compositing matte paintings and live action photography to achieve special effects.

The outdoor sets built for the chariot race scene were the largest ever built at the time. Requiring 15,000 extras on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, the race took five weeks to film with every shot, crash and stunt in the hands of second-unit director Andrew Marton. When director William Wyler saw the final version of Marton and lead stuntman Yakima Canutt's work, he remarked that it was "one of the greatest cinematic achievements" he'd ever seen.


Industrial Light and Magic was responsible for the film's visual effects. Using CGI techniques, it was possible to depict Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump meeting deceased personages and shaking their hands.

Hanks was integrated into each scene after being filmed against a blue screen along with reference markers so that he could be lined up with the archival footage used with the help of such techniques as chroma key, image warping, morphing, and rotoscoping.

The CGI removal of actor Gary Sinise's legs was achieved by wrapping his legs with a blue fabric, which later facilitated the work of a "roto-paint" team that painstakingly painted out his legs from every single frame of film.

The scene where Forrest spots Jenny at a peace rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. required visual effects to create the large crowd of people. 1,500 extras were rearranged and moved into a different quadrant and with the help of computers, the extras were multiplied to create the appearance of a crowd of several hundred thousand people.

Changeling (2008)


Director Clint Eastwood used CGI digital extras walking on the streets and in crowd scenes creating their movement by using motion capture.

VICON House of Moves handled the full-body capture of men and women using the motion data in conjunction with artificial intelligence crowd software Massive to generate realistic-looking background crowds of extras moving that evoked the attitude of the time period.

Massive was challenging when it came to blending digital pedestrians with live-action extras who had to move from the foreground into the digital crowd.

Computer Generated Images are expensive and besides costing money, real extras can sometimes be difficult to handle. The church scene in Changeling was populated with 400 inflatable extras supplied by the Inflatable Crowd Company.

© 2011, Stanley N. Lozowski. All Rights Reserved.     

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