2000-2020: How Has The VFX Industry Changed?

Intro

Because it's now been officially two decades since the start of the century, I thought it might be fun to look back at the industry twenty years ago. A lot of the information listed here will be about turning points in VFX, and how our jobs developed over time. I've written two other articles that might help you dig a little deeper on the software development and film industry side of things. One is about the history of Houdini(HERE), and the other is about the development of AI in the film industry.(HERE) Feel free to check them out. 

I also want to place down a little disclaimer. By no means was I working in the VFX industry 20 years ago. But I think it's highly important to understand and pay respects to our colleagues who have, and to the industry that was. So let's learn more about our history, and how our current jobs came to be. This article won't be covering everything that has happened pre 2000s, but I will do my best.

What Was Happening in Visual Effects 20 Years Ago?

A lot. A lot of things were happening 20 years ago......Let's fly back all the way to 1997.

1997 -  Marvin the Martian in the Third Dimension, was a 12-minute Warner Bros film. It opened as a feature of the Warner Bros. theme park in Australia. It was the first computer-animated CG film that was to be viewed with 3-D glasses.  Around this time, DVDs (Digital Versatile Discs), became the new generation of optical disc storage technology. It also began to be sold to consumers.

1998 -  DreamWorks Antz became the first computer-animated film to receive a PG rating. Up until this point, animated films had to be PG-13 or higher. It was also the first computer-animated feature film to use computer software to simulate and make CGI water.

1999 - The first of three Star Wars prequels (released from 1999-2005); Star Wars: Episode I -The Phantom Menace opened and became the top grossing film of 1999. It also featured a completely CGI-generated main character named Jar Jar Binks. It is widely considered one of the worst sequels/prequels of all time. This was also the debut year of the popular personal digital video recorder (PVR or DVR). It had the capability of recording movies and episodes of favorite programs, quickly skipping past the commercials and even pausing and rewinding live TV. Also debuting this year was Disney's animated film Tarzan. According to Guinness World Records, Tarzan was the most expensive film produced in animation till the release of Treasure Planet (2002). It was the first film to use a 3-D painting and rendering technique dubbed 'Deep Canvas', which allowed 2D hand-drawn characters to exist in a 3D environment.

2000 -  The first live-action feature film to be entirely digitally color-corrected (or color-graded), was the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It was the first film in its entirety to be graded digitally on computer, by scanning in the whole film and then digitally coloring it. Also during this year, the movie The Perfect Storm developed FX techniques of depicting digital water. It used advanced software that both realistically displayed life-like droplets of water as well as the large waves of the raging ocean. No miniatures were used in the film. Everything was CGI.  

2001-2003 - In Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy debuted. The largest battle sequences involved more than 200,000 characters, and were created by MASSIVE software (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment) developed by New Zealand's Weta Digital. It also used Artificial Intelligence to depict the independent movements of each of the characters in the scenes. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), became the first fully computer-generated feature film with photo-realistic characters. For the time, it had one of the most complex CG human characters ever created. This was the character Dr. Aki Ross, who was reported to have 60,000 individual strands of hair. The film also pioneered and successfully used full-motion capture technology. At the time of its release, it was the most-expensive video-game-inspired film ever made.

Influential Films in Visual Effects.

By no means is this a complete list of every single VFX film that has impacted us over the coarse of our lives. However, I did want spotlight a couple that changed how we approached simulations, motion capture, and other forms of visual effects. Others not mentioned her, might be mentioned later on in the article because of their overall impact, so stay tuned....

 

Toy Story:

This feature film first came out in 1995, and was directed by John Lasseter. It was the first  computer-animated feature film, and the first feature film from Pixar. Toy Story was first developed from an earlier Pixar short called Tin Story(1988). After rejecting an offer from Disney to develop the film in their studio. Lasseter and his crew rewrote Toy Story to better reflect what their studio wanted to present to the world. After the film's debut, various industries were interested in the technology used for the film. Graphics chip companies approached Pixar to help develop imagery similar to the film's animation for personal computers and game developers.  The film is also one of a handful that have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress within a year after it's release.  Fun fact for all my SCAD buddies out there....Professor Deborah Fowler worked on this film as a lighter. Go give your teacher a round of applause.  She's helped impact the world of VFX more than you know.

2012:

 

The film 2012, did not get released in 2012. Rather it was released in 2009. It is an American disaster film directed by Roland Emmerich. Over 315 shots of CG mayhem exist in the film. If you or your buddies worked at Pixomondo around this time, good chance you worked on this film. Over a dozen VFX companies came together to work on this film. Some including: Uncharted Territory, Scanline VFX, Digital Domain, Double Negative, and Sony Pictures Image-works. However, Uncharted was the biggest vendor of the movie and their team worked on 433 VFX shots to help complete the film. They had to make the CG environments look as real as possible and break and be destroyed as realistically as possible. They also had to deliver 103 shots within three months. Which is a tremendous task for any VFX studio to complete.

Life of Pi:


Life of Pi is one of the most bittersweet movies from 2013. It was a huge success and earned over US$609 million worldwide. It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. At the 85th Academy Awards it had eleven nominations, and won four. This included Best Director and the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. However, barely any thanks was given to the VFX team when they spoke and collected their Oscar. They were cut off mid speech and the jaws music played through the last seconds of their ovation time. Rhythm & Hues Studios, who provided most of the visual effects for the film, filed for bankruptcy the same year before they even won their Oscar. This sparked a demonstration of nearly 500 VFX artists who protested outside the 2013 Academy Awards.

Furious 7:

In 2015, the seventh installment in the Fast & Furious franchise was released. This movie was a bit of a challenge as one of the main actors (Paul Walker) in the franchise had died in a car crash the previous year. In order for his character to be removed from the story gracefully, the filmmakers had to figure out how to film using doubles and CGI. The filmmakers hired Peter Jackson's Weta Digital visual effects company. Weta gathered as much reference of the deceased actor as they could, and started working. The studio hired Paul's brothers as stand-ins, and used body scans of their profiles for the VFX teams. They then digitally replaced their faces with that of old footage of Paul Walker from previous films. 

Mad Max Fury Road:

 Max Max was released in 2015. It contains over 2,000 visual effects shots. The lead effects company was Iloura(Now owned by Method Studios), but there were many others who helped pull the whole film together. Some other studio were: Method Studios, Stereo D, 4DMax, Black-Ginger, The Third Floor and Dr. D Studios. The frame rate of the film was also a bit different from others. It was also manipulated so at certain times during the action sequences the viewer could better understand what was going on. Half of the film ran at less than 24 frames, and when the standard paced scenes were taking place, the frame rate would jump back up to 24. The VFX teams had to not only add your basic explosions, but also had to alter lighting and time of day, weather effects, terrain replacement and plate composition. They also had to replace the sky in many shots. The night scenes were filmed in bright daylight, deliberately overexposed and color-manipulated.

Avatar:

Avatar was released in 2009. It is considered one of the most important visual effect films in the past 20 years. It is directed, written, produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. Two sequels of it are currently in development. Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 have completed  filming, and are scheduled to be released on December 16, 2022, and December 20, 2024. The film is renowned for it's 14 months of development of motion capture filming techniques, and use of video game technology. Originally, the film was planned out in the early 1990s by James Cameron, but he had to wait for better technology to develop to complete the film.  James Cameron also developed a system for lighting massive CGI sets and motion-capture stages, which had previously never existed. The process of performance capture in facial expressions was also created through the process of this film. The lead visual effects company was Weta Digital, which had to hire 900 people to help finish the film. Because of the huge amount of data which needed to be stored, cataloged, and available for everybody involved; a new cloud computing and Digital Asset Management (DAM) system named Gaia was created by Microsoft for Avatar. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest:

This movie was released in 2006. Originally starring Johnny Depp, and having one of the most iconic soundtracks of any film, it also helped develop visual effect technology. The Flying Dutchman's crew members were originally conceived by writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio as ghosts, but Gore Verbinski disliked this and designed them as physical creatures. This change in development suddenly forced the VFX team to think more creatively. The animators and artists studied various creatures in David Attenborough documentaries to nail the movement of sea anemones and mussels. By doing this they were able to create the sea-grow mummy looks as seen in the film. All of the crew are computer-generated, with the exception of Stellan Skarsgård, who played "Bootstrap" Bill Turner. The designers also made Davy Jones appear with a beard of full-blown tentacles. These were also a challenge for the VFX team, as the skin of the character also had to be blended in with the other facial features. To portray Jones on set, actor Bill Nighy wore a motion capture tracksuit so the  animators at Industrial Light & Magic could track visual effects to his body. The Kraken was difficult to animate as it had no real-life reference. So the animators once again pulled up something they could work with. They started watching Godzilla movies and King Kong. On the set, two pipes filled with 30,000 pounds of cement were used to crash and split the Edinburgh Trader, and make the sinking scene as realistic as possible.

The Matrix:

The Matrix is a 1999 science fiction action film. It is one of the most iconic movie in pop culture. Recently, it was added for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2012. The film is known for popularizing a visual effect called "bullet time", which allows a shot to progress in slow-motion while the camera appears to move through the scene at normal speed. The method used for creating these effects involved a technically expanded version of an old art photography technique known as time-slice photography, in which an array of cameras are placed around an object and triggered simultaneously. Each camera captures a still picture, contributing one frame to the video sequence, which creates the effect of the illusion of a viewpoint moving around an object that appears frozen in time. Another developed VFX method was using real photographs of buildings as texture for 3D models. Which allowed the visual effect team to digitize all data, such as scenes, characters' motions and expressions. It also led to the development of "Universal Capture", a process which samples and stores facial details and expressions at high resolution. With these highly detailed collected data, the team were able to create virtual cinematography for all characters and  locations.

District 9:

This film was released in 2009. It is a  science fiction action film directed by Neill Blomkamp. The aliens in District 9 were designed by Weta Workshop, and the design was executed by Image Engine. Blomkamp originally wanted Weta Digital design the creatures, but the company was busy with effects for Avatar. Aside from the aliens appearing on the operating table in the medical lab, all of them were created using CGI visual effects. Weta Digital designed the 2½-kilometre-diameter mother-ship in the movie and the drop ship. While the exo-suit and the little pets were designed by The Embassy Visual Effects. Zoic Studios performed overflow 2D work. The on-set live special effects were created by MXFX.

Software

Here are some softwares that were responsible for developing visual effects as we know them now. Let's give them their piece. These are only a few, but they probably helped build your favorite childhood shows.

Softimage:

Softimage, Co. was a company located in Montreal, Quebec. It produced 3D animation software. It was once owned by Microsoft in the 1990s, then it was sold to Avid Technology, who would then sell it to our big software friends: Autodesk. Its first product; Softimage 3D, was used in the creation of special effects for movies such as Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Titanic and The Fifth Element. It was then developed into a better build; Softimage XSI. This build would be used in the production of Happy Feet, 300 and Charlotte's Web. It would also help the production of video games. Some being: Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the PatriotsIn 1997, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Softimage a Scientific and Engineering Award for it's software development. Sadly, Softimage 2015 would be the last version release of the software. 

Power Animator:

Power Animator was also know as "Alias". It was the precursor to what is now Maya and Studio-tools. It had a relatively usage, which started with Technological Threat in 1988 and ended with Pokémon: The Movie 2000 in 1999. Power Animator was also used to create the water creature in the 1989 film The Abyss, as well as the T-1000 character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The cost of generating these characters was $460,000 per minute because of the software, personnel, and development costs. It was also used heavily for the many visual effects of the 1996 film Independence Day. Power Animator was also the sole software to produce early South Park episodes. 

3Ds Max:

Autodesk 3ds Max, formerly known as 3D Studio and 3D Studio Max, is one of the many 3D softwares owned by Autodesk. It was created in 1988 and is still being used to the present. 3ds Max features shaders, dynamic simulations, particle systems, radiosity, normal map creation, rendering, global illumination, and its own scripting language. Many films have made use of 3ds Max, or previous versions of the program under previous names. Films such as Avatar and 2012 have used this software.

Prisms/Houdini:

(See previous article on Houdini, HERE) Houdini is a 3D animation software application developed by SideFX, based in Toronto. SideFX adapted Houdini from the PRISMS suite of procedural generation software tools. Its exclusive attention to procedural generation distinguishes it from other 3D computer graphics software. February 27, 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of Side Effects Software. As of 2020, SideFx is 33 years old.

Maya:

Maya is an animation product based on code from various other animation programs. The Advanced Visualizer by Wavefront Technologies, Thomson Digital Image (TDI) Explore, Power Animator by Alias Research, Inc., and Alias Sketch!. Most of these software companies and their products were bought out by Autodesk. The IRIX-based projects were combined and animation features were added. The project was then given the code name  Maya. Walt Disney Animation collaborated with Maya's development during its production of Dinosaur. Disney requested that the user interface of the application be customizable, and this then became a key feature in the software. Maya 1.0 was released in February 1998. Maya was bought by Autodesk in 2005. It was then renamed Autodesk Maya. On March 1, 2003, In 2005, and on February 8, 2008, Maya was awarded the Academy Award for Technical Achievement.

Light-Wave 3D:

 

Light-Wave 3D is a 3D computer graphics program developed by NewTek. It has been used in films, television, motion graphics, digital matte painting, visual effects, video game development, product design, pre-visualizations and advertising. In 1988, Allen Hastings created a rendering and animation program called Videos-cape 3D, and his friend Stuart Ferguson created a complementary 3D modeling program called Modeler, which were then both sold by Aegis Software. NewTek planned to incorporate Videos-cape and Modeler into its video editing suite; Video Toaster. In 1990, the Video Toaster suite was released, incorporating Light-Wave 3D, and running on the Commodore Amiga computer. Light-Wave was used to create special effects for the Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager, Space: Above and Beyond, Lost, and the Battlestar Galactica television series.

Blender:

The Blender Foundation (2002) is an independent public benefit organization. It produces the software Blender. Its spin-off corporation Blender Institute (2007) hosts the foundation’s offices. It currently employs 15 people who work on the Blender software and creative projects to test Blender in production environments. As a community-driven project, it has different paths of how it leads to new features, responsive bug fixes, and usability. Blender has no price tag. But other programs have tried to take advantage of its success by repackaging and selling modified versions of it. Examples include IllusionMage, 3DMofun, 3DMagix, and Fluid Designer. NASA has also used Blender to develop an interactive web application called: Experience Curiosity. This app made it possible for students and users to operate the rover, control its cameras and the robotic arm and reproduce some of the prominent events of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Nuke:

NUKE is a node-based digital compositing and visual effects application first developed by Digital Domain. It used for television and film post-production.  NUKE was sold to Foundry in 2007. But keeping that in mind, it was involved in numerous productions before.

NUKE (Came from the name 'New compositor') It was originally developed by software engineer Phil Beffrey and  Bill Spitzak for in-house use at Digital Domain in 1993. The second build of NUKE introduced a GUI in 1994, and was built with an in-house GUI toolkit developed at Digital Domain. NUKE also won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 2001. In 2002, NUKE was made available to the public for the first time, and in December 2005, D2 Software released NUKE 4.5  which introduced a new 3D subsystem developed by Jonathan Egstad. NUKE is now the only problematically used compositing software across the globe.

Evolution of Visual Effect Techniques

Now, let's talk a bit about how visual effects are being developed. As well as which mediums it originated from.

 

The earliest visual effects were produced within the camera. This included simple jump-cuts and superimpositions, miniatures, back projection, and matte paintings. Optical effects came a bit later as this was a hard effect to produce. These effects were, using film, light, shadow, lenses, and chemical processes to produce the film effects. Even later these effects would evolve into film titles, fades, dissolves, wipes, blow ups, skip frames, blue-screens, compositing, double exposures, and zooms.

Cell animation, scale modeling, claymation, digital compositing, and animatronics would also evolve from the need to create realistic effects. As well to better connect the viewer to the story. The use of prosthetic makeup, and computer graphics are just some of the more modern techniques that we use today. Now that we have a very brief summary of the backbone effects we've come to base our careers around, let's take a look on how they are evolving in the modern era.

VFX Innovations

Most of the innovations through visual effects come through filmmakers being challenged in their film-making process. They also come from demands from clients, and the stress of trying to create something that has never been down before. Listed below are some films, games, and moments where teams of artists were challenged and managed to develop a better process of making CGI.

Transformers: Age of Extinction(2014)

 

In the entirety of the Transformers franchise, conveying the size of the characters had always been a challenge. However in this film, the biggest  challenge was developing the scale for the Knight-ship. ILM was tasked with figuring out a way to convince the audience that this spaceship was larger than the Earth, as well as making it render-able for their servers. Using a bunch of different techniques, they were able to render a ship, but make it seem larger than life by playing with the scale of the Earth's atmosphere.

Battleship(2012)

In this film, most of the film took place on the oceans. But the majority of the film was in CGI. The filmmakers needed to convince the audience that the water in film was real, and the characters were in some actual danger. They also needed to save their render farm from dying from too many water simulations. Using a new ILM only water rendering technique, they were able to render at a much faster rate than before. Some of the shots required rendering hundreds of millions of individual droplets of water.

Star Trek Into Darkness(2013)

 

 City simulations can take a long time to build. As well as a long time to render, texture, and pan through. So building and creating a futuristic city for Star Trek was difficult. ILM once again stepped up to the plate, and dug their heels in.  They  decided to make a  futuristic version of San Francisco, and they analyzed modern urban design to determine how a futuristic society might look different from a modern one. 

Rogue One(2016)

 

Rogue One proved that you don't need to use a blue screen to add computer generated elements.  Considering that most of the film involved spaceship, aliens, CGI characters, explosions, and more...This was quite a feat.  It managed to do this through using different tracking elements, and AI software. Essentially, they lined up elements with the use of computerized tracking and virtual cameras. Knowing that CGI backgrounds can now move in relation to a virtual camera based on camera/lens metadata fed into the computer, the artists were able to operate cameras in a virtual environment. If this sounds a bit complicated, then think of a character running around in a video game. You are controlling that character, and you are viewing the story from that character.

Present Day

This past year has been difficult to say the least. The corona-virus pandemic caused havoc for the film industry. Almost all major films and TV shows were postponed. Movie theater closures went into effect throughout the world, and a predicted global box-office loss was about $17 billion for the film industry. Overall, this year has really limited our development as artists and our field's growth. But I think a good decision for all of us would be to take a look back on the development of ourselves, and where we stand in this industry. If we can't grow in our jobs, let's look at ourselves outside of it.

 In the wake of mass protests over racist police behavior, streaming services limited and cut ties with shows that are now not acceptable for their content matter. Such as HBO temporarily removing the classic Civil War historical drama-romance Gone with the Wind from its library. Now more that ever we need to be self aware as artists and understand what we are creating in the world, and how our actions will affect others.

The 2010s was also the first decade since the 1960s, with zero female writing Oscar winners.

Looking back on the previous two years, we can also say that our media is continuing to grow. In 2018, The domestic box-office totals reached $11.9 billion for the first time, and the worldwide box-office totaled $41.7 billion.

We can also say that some good representation has happened. In 2018 as well, Ava DuVernay became the first African American woman to direct a live-action film with a $100 million or more budget. (A Wrinkle in Time (2018)) 14% of the directors of the top 100-grossing movies in 2018 were black, according to a report by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Keep in mind, that is a low percentage, but I like to think we are making progress. Let's bump it a bit higher. :)

References

WHAT IT TOOK TO MAKE ‘STUART LITTLE’S’ FUR, 20 YEARS AGO: https://beforesandafters.com/2019/12/05/what-it-took-to-make-stuart-littles-fur-20-years-ago/

‘Mission: Impossible’: ILM’s pioneering vfx 20 years on: https://vfxblog.com/2016/05/23/mission-impossible-ilms-pioneering-vfx-20-years-on/

Remembering this killer ILM shot from Deep Impact, now 20 years old: https://vfxblog.com/2018/05/06/remembering-this-killer-ilm-shot-from-deep-impact-now-20-years-old/

Can Special Effects Be Special Again? How the VFX industry plateaued  — and where it might go from here: https://www.vulture.com/2018/12/special-effects-can-they-be-special-again.html

GLOBAL VFX: STATE OF THE INDUSTRY 2019: https://www.vfxvoice.com/global-vfx-state-of-the-industry-2019/

CELEBRATING WORLD SPACE WEEK 2018: https://www.dneg.com/dnegaliens/

The History of Computer Graphics and Effects: http://www.spherevfx.com/the-history-of-computer-graphics-and-effects/

Throwback: The history of VFX in Hollywood films: https://www.toolbox-studio.com/blog/history-of-vfx-in-hollywood/

The History Of Visual Effects: https://www.ukessays.com/essays/film-studies/the-history-of-visual-effects-film-studies-essay.php

History of Visual Effects: https://blog.pearsoncollegelondon.ac.uk/2019/04/10/history-of-visual-effects/

10 VFX Moments That Changed the Industry Forever: https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/10-vfx-moments-that-changed-the-industry-forever/

Andy Stout: Writer & Editor :An online repository of work and other projects: https://www.andystout.work/history-of-vfx-1895-2012

 

RENDERMAN AT 30: A VISUAL HISTORY: https://www.vfxvoice.com/renderman-at-30-a-visual-history/

 

The Evolution of VFX-Intensive Filmmaking in 20th Century Hollywood Cinema: An Historical Overview: https://www.academia.edu/3361280/The_Evolution_of_VFX-Intensive_Filmmaking_in_20th_Century_Hollywood_Cinema_An_Historical_Overview

History of computer animationL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_computer_animation#The_first_digital_image

Shake (software): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shake_(software)


Top 10 Animation/VFX Tools of the Year: https://www.animationmagazine.net/vfx/top-10-animationvfx-tools-of-the-year/

A History Of CGI In The Movies: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/history-cgi/

The 'Matrix' Invented: A World of Special Effects: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/03/business/the-matrix-invented-a-world-of-special-effects.html

Reality & Effect: A Cultural History of Visual Effects: https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=communication_diss

The Visual Effects Society Unveils “50 Most Influential Visual Effects Films of All Time”;https://www.studiodaily.com/2007/05/the-visual-effects-society-unveils-a%C2%A2aeaoe50-most-influential-visual-effects-films-of-all-timea%C2%A2aea%C2%9D/

Film Milestones in Visual/Special Effects (F/X): https://www.filmsite.org/visualeffects.html

How James Cameron's Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar: https://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/movies/a5067/4339455/

Linux Helps Bring Titanic to Life: https://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2494

PowerAnimator: https://www.wikizero.com/en/PowerAnimator

Stuart Little : Production Note: http://culture.com/articles/222/stuart-little-production-notes.phtml

Teaching Texture Mapping Visually: http://graphics.stanford.edu/courses/cs148-10-summer/docs/1997--wolfe--teaching_texture_mapping.pdf

 

Top 5 Discontinued compositing software: https://topicroomsvfx.com/2018/05/26/top-5-discontinued-compositing-software/

Celebrating and Comparing VFX Innovations From The Star Wars Movies: http://www.digitalcinemasociety.org/essay/vfx-innovations

Timeline of Greatest Film
Milestones and Turning Points
in Film History:
 https://www.filmsite.org/milestones.html

2012': The End of the World as We Know It: https://www.awn.com/vfxworld/2012-end-world-we-know-it