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Recreating Real Life in a Virtual World

We may not quite have reached the immersive cinema-going experience described in sci-fi classics like Brave New World, but we’re certainly on our way. If the first cinema-goers of the 19th century could see modern movies now, with their CGI special effects, virtual reality motion tracking and 3D glasses, it’s safe to say they’d be astounded. These days, cinema is less about a faithful representation of the real world on screen, and more about using the technology available to us to create a brighter, bolder and more fantastic version of the world we’re used to.

The success of movies like 2009’s Avatar and the recent 3D remakes of Disney classics like The Lion King, Aladdin and The Jungle Book, just goes to show how much audiences enjoy this new school of techniques. Here we’ll take a look at the main categories of technology when recreating life on screen.

Computer Generated Imagery

CGI, or computer generated imagery, has actually been around for a long time. Michael Crichton’s highly influential 1973 masterpiece, Westworld, is widely credited with being the first mainstream movie to use CGI. However, since the 80s, moviemakers have been able to truly push the boundaries between real and computer-generated with developments like water effects, physical textures and photorealism. The technique is now taken as a given aspect of most mainstream films, particularly blockbusters, action films and fantasy films.

Studios can now create hyper-realistic landscapes and environments for their characters to explore, all using computer programmes rather than having to build handmade and hand-painted physical sets. They can also create battle scenes well beyond what film studios were capable of achieving before the advancement of CGI technology.

3 Dimensional

A technique that goes somewhat hand in hand with CGI is that of 3D films. 3D CGI graphics began to make an appearance in films back in the mid-1970s (think Star Wars: A New Hope and Futureworld), but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that digital 3D filming techniques made a significant impact on the mainstream cinema-going public. Although production companies had begun experimenting with 3D movies such as Bolt and Coraline, it was the release of Disney/Pixar collaboration Up and worldwide phenomenon Avatar that really got the ball rolling.

New generation 3D movies use a complex filming technique involving polarising filters and two side-by-side camera lenses. The glasses the viewer then receives at the cinema refine the polarised images, creating the illusion of a 3-dimensional world ‘on screen’.

World Wide Web

The internet has had an incalculable impact on modern society, but the way in which its affected the film industry is more than obvious. Just as many other popular leisure activities like photography, reading magazines, gaming and fitness have moved to have a strong online presence, films are now expected to be available to stream almost as soon as they leave the cinema (if they make it there at all). This has had a positive effect in that it empowers smaller online-based production companies (Netflix, Amazon Studios, etc.) to fund kookier projects, and gives independent filmmakers a greater chance of reaching their intended audience. However, the negatives include lower audience numbers in brick-and-mortar cinemas, depleted box office takings and an increase in pirated material being made available online.

Virtual Reality

The next big advancement in the world of movie-making is sure to be VR, or virtual reality. Gaming giants like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have already begun developing technology and content for customers, but the film industry is yet to catch up with their vision. Whilst it’s true that film fanatics can immerse themselves in the on-screen world using 3D glasses, CGI motion capture, an IMAX screen and surround sound, a fully engaged virtual cinema experience is yet to be created.

Watching movies in VR at home is now possible due to apps already available for use with your personal VR headset. First reports are positive, though there can be some side effects such as nausea and headaches. Once they fine tune the technology to enable VR movies on a large scale, it’s sure to be a worldwide hit.

Sets, costume, prosthetics etc.

Despite the meteoric rise of computer-based technologies in the film industry, old habits die hard. And sometimes with good reason. The use of physical sets, costumes, prosthetics and make-up predates cinema all the way back to the original theatres of the Ancient Greeks. So many people argue: if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Stand out examples of modern make-up and prosthetics work include the multi-award winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pan’s Labyrinth, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Mad Max: Fury Road. Recent award winners for set design range from last year’s Black Panther to sci-fi romance The Shape of Water to well-loved ode to Hollywood, La La Land.

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