If there’s one industry that mirrors mobile tech when it comes to ingenuity it’s the movie business. Just look at The Hobbit now blazing a trail in cinemas around the world. It’s the first film to make use of the TS-5, a two-camera system that behaves like a single camera for better 3D. While this revolutionary tech is stunning to the eyes,The Hobbit is far from the first blockbuster to dramatically change the way movies are made.
Star Wars (1977)
Heard of an animated 3D wireframe graphic? You would have seen it for the first time during the trench run briefing scene in the first Star Wars film. It had been formulated by Larry Cuba working at the Circle Graphics Habitat – later the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) – at Illinois University. Ridley Scott would later use the same technology in Alien, when the ship flies over the alien planet. Star Wars was also the first to use Dolby Stereo – so the Force really was with you.
OK it wasn’t technically a blockbuster at the time but it was the first extensive use of 3D. The 3D cycle race was a neon wonder. Triple-III, who had pioneered CG in Westworld, were also on board. Pre-internet – computer animation was outsourced to a number of different companies. Polaroids of progress were posted to director Steve Lisberger, who admitted that ‘…the biggest computer we had on the whole movie was 256K……you have more computing power on your cell phone than we had on the whole first movie.’ Still looked fab though!
Jurassic Park (1993)
It’s hard to imagine that first reveal – dinosaurs that looked as if they might step out from the screen. It was a brave advance demanded by director Steven Spielberg – the first physically textured CGI. Film crew also used stop-motion miniatures and animatronics. The whole enterprise would succeed or fail on the power of digital characters – another first. In an astonishing twist, Ray Harryhausen, the genius of stop-frame animation, was visiting the studios at the time. He was shown some footage of the dinosaurs and exclaimed ‘Now there’s the future!’
Toy Story (1995)
Only 27 animators worked on this Disney/Pixar production, the first full 3D animation. Disney had been an innovator, but computer-generated animation fast replaced the traditional hand-inked method. Experiments in 3D – in Beauty and the Beast’s ballroom scene and the Wildebeest stampede in The Lion King – excited a whole industry. A palette of thousands of colours could be used. Toy Story’s technical director Bill Reeves proudly said ‘We were essentially kick-starting an industry in terms of CG films.’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Dreamworks (later, Dreamworks Animation) would later say that ‘more is never enough.’
The Matrix (1999)
Call it time-slice or bullet-time – there are a number of other special effect names – it was used first in the super cool The Matrix. Green screen technology, lasers and high-speed full-motion cameras – where the action slows down or freezes as the camera seems to circle 360 degrees around the characters. Actors are placed on wires, with wires erased in post-production. It wasn’t completely about the special effects –actors still had to do over a year of martial arts training, as well as having a zen-like reading list.
Of course films are now astonishingly tech-savvy and keep making amazing advances – but will we ever again have that child-like ‘wow’ feeling that these films gave us at the time? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.