From chroma key to CGI: technology on screens

The evolution of hardware and software for the film industry shows how a sector that demands technology development ends up boosting the creation of equipment that, at some point, will be part of our daily lives.

The Toy Story example is crystal clear. In 1995, the volume of data (1 Terabyte) to process and deliver the story of Sheriff Woody’s class to theaters impressed experts in the field: it took 800,000 hours to complete the rendering of the images. Currently, a quarter of a century later, there are models of home computers capable of processing this volume of data and rendering a 120-minute movie in less than an hour.

On the other hand, the production of content for cinema is more sophisticated and this industry demands increasingly qualified professionals. And the eventual failures of these teams are not forgiven by the public. For each new Marvel film or series, for example, computer-generated imagery (CGI) errors are pointed out by fans.

But it was competitor DC Comics that offered the last notable slip. While recording scenes from the feature film Justice League (2017), actor Henry Cavill also worked on another film (Mission Impossible) in which the character wore a mustache. The special effects team of the DC Comics film believed that they would be able to remove the mustache with post-production, in CGI. The result was bad, and the public spent weeks producing memes and games with the hashtag # supermanmustache (Superman’s mustache).

Disruptive technologies are always welcome, but must be at the service of a project; there are cases where simplicity may be more interesting. Good control of schedules and more care in portraying the character could have solved the issue.


Innovation DNA

Innovation has always been a differential in the audiovisual universe – after all, the very existence of cinema and television is due to techniques and equipment that revolutionized communication. The television series “Batman”, starring Adam West, was one of the first color productions to reach American homes in the 1960s. Two decades later, the sitcom “Hulk”, with actor Bill Bixby playing scientist David Banner and physioculturist Lou Ferrigno giving life to the green superhero, was another milestone of the special effects in the 1980s.

After that period, in the late 1990s, the use of chroma-key and increasingly sophisticated makeup and machinery techniques were essential to successes such as James Cameron’s Aliens. But the leap in disruptive technology became evident with computer graphics: special effects breaking through an evolutionary barrier. Examples of this are the blockbusters Terminator 2 (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Toy Story (1995), Titanic (1997), and Star Wars – Phantom Threat (1999).

The history of technology development dialogues with numerous areas. Advances in film production have transposed the entertainment industry, reaching the day-to-day, as in image processing technologies for clinical purposes.


Accuracy in Imaging Technology

Even though  Lucasfilm is linked to the Star Wars franchise, the film productions of  Marvel and  DC Comics owe thanks to the work of the company’s technology core. The first computer-controlled camera was created by the team of George Lucas, which brought the motion-control to productions.

The greater precision in the control of image capture was decisive for the results of computer graphics that, after the 1990s, underwent evolutionary leaps in sequence driven by the development of computers with hardware and software increasingly capable and accurate.

The second era of computer-generated imagery (CGI) brought advances that were unimaginable in 1973 when the film Westworld premiered with the use of digital image processing. That is, from the innovation of pixelating the image to simulate the android point of view, the next works with CGI began to create characters, objects, scenarios, and even entire films.

In 1995,  Toy Story inaugurated the market for feature films produced entirely in CGI. And the franchise is a true museum of the evolution of computer graphic machines: just compare the image result of the dog fur present in the first film with what was obtained in the fourth episode for a cat in 2019.