In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Reference Articles
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Animation
  • Industrial and Technical Resources

Cinema and Media Studies Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)
Bob Rehak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0068


Computer-generated imagery or CGI is an area of digital visualization and image manipulation practices that, following its emergence in the late 1960s, quickly came to hold a privileged relationship to film production—affecting in particular visual effects, animation, and the big-budget blockbuster. In these areas, digital imaging is consistently pushed to its limits by an ever-advancing state of the art. In a view promoted by the industry through plentiful “making-of” coverage, CGI is strongly identified in the popular imagination with spectacular visual effects, demonstrating Hollywood’s prowess at realizing fantastic visions. But CGI plays a more significant if quieter role in its so-called invisible effects, which begin with the unnoticeable retouching of filmed “truth” and ripple outward to what some have warned is the destabilization of the cinematic medium itself, replacing the industry at every level—from production to exhibition and distribution—with its digital other. Academic attention to CGI grew slowly alongside its emergence as a powerful if alien force in filmmaking and film culture during the 1980s and 1990s but took off after the crucial year of 1999, when The Matrix heralded the fusion of analogue and digital cinema. CGI has become a key focus of popular attention on “behind the scenes” information, and an industrial entry point for fledgling filmmakers with access to cheap digital production tools. But even as it extends the powers and profits of the film industry, CGI has challenged established practices and definitions, destabilizing film’s ontological base, its indexical relationship to reality, the tenets of classical narrative structure, and even the boundaries separating film from other media such as video games, experimental art, and virtual reality.

Foundational Works

Although early and classical film theory paid some attention to cinema’s uncanny and spectacular elements, it was not until Bazin 1967 (originally 1945) defined the chief strength of film as its power to record and reproduce reality that critical awareness of the medium’s opposite tendency—creating “unreality” through manipulation—began to crystallize. While Youngblood 1970, Metz 1977, and Gunning 1990 each lay a piece of the groundwork for discussing the synaesthetic, psychological, and spectatorial functions of specifically cinematic spectacle, Heilig 2001 (originally 1955) and Sutherland 2001 (originally 1965) come at similar questions from the viewpoint of a different medium, the computer, placing emphasis on interactivity, design, and spatial architectures that would later become important aspects of virtual reality and video gaming.

  • Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” In What Is Cinema? Vol. 1. Edited and translated by Hugh Gray, 9–16. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    A cornerstone of realist film theory, this republished 1945 essay situates cinema within a long tradition of arts that share the ideal of freezing or “mummifying” reality. For Bazin, cinema’s unique aesthetic properties flow from its automatic reproduction of profilmic reality, promising to reveal our world with new objectivity. Originally published as “Ontologie de l’image photographique,” in Les problèmes de la peinture, edited by Gaston Diehl (Paris: Confluences, 1945) (accessible online).

  • Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Films, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” In Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 56–62. London: British Film Institute, 1990.

    A crucial rethinking of film form and reception in its first decade, arguing that early cinema was spectacular rather than narrative, organized around the presentation of startling, theatrical “attractions” rather than the seamless verisimilitude that came to dominate with the rise of classical Hollywood narrative.

  • Heilig, Morton. “The Cinema of the Future.” In Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. Edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, 219–231. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

    This republished 1955 essay by a Hollywood cinematographer paints an embryonic picture of virtual reality, extrapolating from then-current exhibition formats of 3D and Cinerama to eventual modes of immersive simulation involving all five senses. Originally published as “El Cine del Futuro: The Cinema of the Future,” Espacios 23–24 (1955).

  • Metz, Christian. “Trucage and the Film.” Critical Inquiry 3.4 (Summer 1977): 657–675.

    DOI: 10.1086/447911

    Building on his masterpiece The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), Metz’s short essay examines film “trickery” or trucage from a psychoanalytic perspective, emphasizing the spectator’s knowing disavowal and providing a taxonomy of types and degrees of photographic manipulation. Includes the famous statement “All of cinema can be considered, in some sense, a special effect.” Translated from the French by Françoise Meltzer.

  • Sutherland, Ivan. “The Ultimate Display.” In Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. Edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, 232–236. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

    First published in 1965, this essay by an MIT computer-graphics pioneer surveys in both speculative and concrete terms the types of input and output devices needed to create immersive, 3D environments through digital technology. First published in 1965, Proceedings of IFIP (International Federation for Information Processing) 65.2: 506–508, 582–583.

  • Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970.

    A visionary, impassioned screed in the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, assessing the entangled evolution of filmmaking, communication technology, and human consciousness. While the focus ranges from television to cybernetics and holography, key chapters examine then-cutting-edge forays into machine-assisted filmmaking and the work of pioneering computer animator John Whitney. Introduction by Buckminster Fuller.

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