A brief history of 3D/CGI

By Nils Munk Wirell

A brief history of 3D/CGI

Everyone knows the magic of special effects in movies. Today a majority of these effects are made using CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). What you might not know is that CGI has taken a step outside movies and is now used in almost all forms of digital communication.

When George Lucas started producing the first Star Wars movie, he realised that the Special Effects department of the movie studio 20th Century Fox could not provide him with what he wanted in terms of special effects. In order to match Lucas’ vision, he created one of the first dedicated special effects companies, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in 1975. Star Wars Episode IV was the first feature film produced by Lucas and ILM that contained extensive CGI.

tron_1982.jpgImage courtesy of Forbidden Planet UK

The results of CGI in the early 1980s were very impressive, considering the hardware that existed then. When Steven Lisberger created Tron in 1982, it contained over 15 minutes of CGI. This was done on a computer with 2MB of memory. To put this in perspective, that is about 1/2000th or 0.05 per cent capacity of a normal desktop PC today.

During the 1980s and 1990s, both hardware and software became a lot cheaper, and the feature film industry continued to be the driving force of advancing CGI development. Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and other titles that were released in the mid-1990s showed the power of photorealistic CGI. 


Image courtesy of Zooma

As both CGI software and hardware became progressively cheaper, the advancements in CGI trickled over to other industries. In the mid-1990s, CGI was starting to get used for product and environmental visualisations. The more widespread availability of photorealistic CGI also meant possible areas for application outside the movie industry continued to grow.

Photorealism meant that using CGI became a huge time and cost-saver for some industries like the automotive industry. Today there are virtually no car, truck or even bus advertisements done without using CGI.


exterior_feature_two_wintertires2_8D2FBE746114AD53-1.jpgImage courtesy of Volvo Canada

CGI is now also used in some areas where one would maybe not imagine. If you have ever gone to a hamburger restaurant and you are disappointed in how the food looks compared to the pictures of it, it is probably because the food pictures could be completely CGI based.


x60cgiburger-1.jpg Image courtesy of x60cgi (http://x60cgi.com/burger-academy/)

The future for CGI looks really bright. The areas of use continue to expand as new technologies emerge. The growth of 3D printing drives the development of advanced CGI to create and visualise models. 3D printing is estimated to have had a cumulative annual growth of more than 25% during the last 25 years; therefore, it will obviously be an important market driver for CGI.


Both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will also drive the development of CGI in consumer and business applications. A recent example of the successful use of CGI in augmented reality is Pokémon Go, which is a great example of how far the technology has come since the first CGI movie. 


Investments in other forms of 3D visualisation will continue to spur market growth in the coming years. Market drivers range from medical imaging to the increased use of 3D in construction and automation. The entertainment industry will still continue to be a strong market driver.

Zooma is a pioneer in the Swedish 3D/CGI history. We have been providing business-critical CGI to multinational companies for over 15 years. Please contact us if you are interested in how to use CGI in your business successfully.

Nils Munk Wirell
Director of Visualisation at Zooma, 2016-2019.
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