Pixar, CGI, and 3D

02.05.2016 |

One company, one visual effects style, and one gimmick.

We’ll start with the oldest of the trio: 3D. A three-dimensional film is a movie that generates a depth perception illusion, where flat 2D images appear to jump off the screen. 3D goes as far back as motion pictures themselves, with William Friese-Greene pioneering and patenting one of the earliest known 3D movie processes in the 1890s. He had two films playing at once, and then had audiences view the films through special stereoscopic lenses (the ancestor of modern 3D glasses). In those days, the 3D effect was difficult to create convincingly, and it quickly fell out of popularity after 1915.

Thanks to technical improvements in stereoscopic filmmaking, 3D had a resurgence in the 1950s. The style was popular for science fiction, fantasy, and monster movies of the time. This led to the negative connotation of 3D as a gimmick meant to thrill lowbrow audiences. 3D again went out of style for a time. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that a company called IMAX began using 3D technology to produce its large format documentary films. The spectacle of IMAX in 3D made the “gimmick” popular once more. The advent of digital filmmaking helped entrench 3D as an acceptable and viable filmmaking style, and now we even have complex cameras designed to shoot specifically for three-dimensional exhibition. In contemporary times, many blockbusters are released both in “Standard” and “3D” formats. It appears the third time’s the charm, and 3D could very well be here to stay.

Andy Serkis, actor and motion capture pioneer

Andy Serkis, actor and motion capture pioneer

If you’re looking for a great read, check out Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the president of Pixar Animation Studios, and his book traces the fascinating history of Pixar, computer animation, and the intersection of art, business, and technology related to moviemaking.

Pixar began in 1979 as a division of George Lucas’ production company Lucasfilm. In 1986, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bought out the majority shareholder position and helped transform the company into an independent corporation. The studio produced the first CGI-animated feature film, Toy Story, in 1995. Over the next decade, Pixar had a close and sometimes tumultuous relationship with the Walt Disney Company, which purchased Pixar in 2006 for a cool $7.4 billion.

Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar Animation Studios

Throughout its history, Pixar has developed a reputation for cultivating some of the most talented artists and computer engineers. Beyond technical achievements, Pixar productions consistently rank on the lists of highest grossing and critically celebrated films. The studio has won 15 Academy Awards, and two of its films (Up and Toy Story 3) were nominated for Best Picture.

Pixar’s success, and the success of many movies today, would be impossible without computer generated imagery (CGI). Since the 1970s, computer graphics have improved dramatically. Thanks to innovative companies like Pixar and Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic, CGI is widely used in many movies today. These visual special effects (VFX) are used either to complement expensive practical effects or to replace practical effects entirely. The first 2D CGI was featured in 1973’s Westworld, while Ed Catmull and Fred Parke developed 3D CGI for the film’s sequel, Futureworld (1976). Today, the use of CGI is firmly embedded in the filmmaking process.


Did You Know?

Jurassic Park (1993) combined photo-realistic CGI dinosaurs with life-sized puppets controlled by hydraulics. This combination of practical and computer effects helped coax audiences into the “suspension of disbelief” that made the animations appear real.


Five Films to Watch

A Computer Animated Hand

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Jurassic Park

Toy Story



Recommended book

“Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull



Share with friends