The 5: Erikka Innes’ 5 Most Important Films in the History of CGI

In this week’s edition of The 5, nationally touring comedian (and Stanford University grad) Erikka Innes celebrates the nerd in all of us with a look at the 5 most important films in the history of CGI. And she knows what she’s talking about. She’s like your best friend’s little sister, adorable, nerdy, smart, except she’s all grown up now. Erikka has a brand new stand up comedy special out, called Unicorn Dance Party 2 where she covers nerd stuff, dick jokes and more. When Erikka‘s not performing or writing comedy she’s probably dreaming about being a starship captain, looking for the perfect vintage dress, or authoring a technical manual. Her debut album, “Sex with Nerds” was released on New Wave Dynamics in 2011. Her second album “Smells Like Nerd Spirit” was released in 2013. You can find both albums in stores everywhere. If you want to listen for free, check her out on Pandora and Spotify! Follow Erikka on Twitter @nerdgirlcomedy to keep up on everything or visit

Ever wonder what films were key in the history of CGI? There are a lot of them. So many, in fact, that anytime someone posts a list, each item is hotly debated. This list will be no exception. Without further ado, here are 5 key moments in the development of CGI special effects, and a description of the software used to create them.

5. Westworld (1973)

Westworld is widely touted as the first major film to make use of 2D computer-generated images. Scenes showing the point of view of the robotic gunslinger make use of rasterized graphics, which were created by Gary Demos and John Whitney Jr. using equipment for the graphics, but if you ask me they trained a camera on someone’s old Atari games. This one makes the list because Atari-type graphics were pretty impressive for the time!


4. Tron (1982)

Tron was one of the first movies to make extensive use of computer animation. While many people think much of the animation was done wiht computers, in truth only about 15-20 minutes worth of material involves actual CGI. These graphics were created in part by Triple-i using the computational engine, called the F-1 (often referred to as the Super Foonly). Only one F-1 was ever built, so enjoy those Tron graphics! Or, if you’re like some people and find them lacking compared to today’s, thank your lucky stars they only built one Super Foonly, and go see the Tron remake.

3. The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix was not the only major groundbreaking film during the 90s, but besides Terminator 2, it’s one of the most iconic. You’d have a tough time denying how influential The Matrix trilogy has been to filmmaking (even if you too thought it spiralled downhill after the first one). It’s the first film that made bullet time effects (moments where a character freezes or slows down while the camera pans around him/her) look really amazing by using CGI interpolation. The CGI work for The Matrix trilogy was done using Mental Ray, a rendering application developed by Mental Images.

2. The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

There are many interesting CGI effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but what makes this series a standout is that it’s the first set of films to use artificial intelligence (AI) for digital actors. CGI work was done using Maya, a powerful 3D modeling, animation, and rendering system developed by Alias from older software called PowerAnimator. The AI for digital actors was created using Massive. Apparently the AI had to be repeatedly dumbed down though, as digital characters repeatedly determined the best course of action for survival in battle was to run away. Who says machines can’t be as clever as humans?


1. Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the first film to create a complete CGI 3D, realistic looking world. To create the film, Cameron and his team created the idea of ‘performance capture.’ They used helmets with cameras mounted directly in front of the actors’ faces in order to capture all the nuances of their performance and migrate those to a digital universe. They also created a tool that allowed them to see virtual environments in real time. The actors would act in an empty space, but using the tool, Cameron and his team could see what the actors would look like in the environment that would end up in the film. The main technologies used to create the film came from Weta and ILM, but countless other companies donated their time and software too.

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