When you hear the term CGI you may suddenly be catapulted to the bright lights of Hollywood and the ground-breaking graphics of feature films such as AvatarJurassic World or The Matrix.

Sophia Harris  |  Ed Clare Deal  |  31 August 2020

Certainly, from the earliest 3D animated feature film, Pixar’s universally loved Toy Story which provided the blueprint for many of the animated special effects we see in use commonly today, to the original unrefined CGI from blockbuster Westworld, the film industry’s big budget iterations of computer-generated imagery for the big screen has defined the medium.

But, what is CGI and what does it mean for the progression of the digital art industry? In its most simple terms CGI, Computer Generated Imagery, refers to animated visuals that are generated using computer software – this can be anything from animated characters we see on the big screen to the computerised products we are familiar with in television adverts; and it has had resounding implications for across creative industries. To get the root of GCI’s far-reaching applications for artists today we have to travel further back in time.

© Courtesy of the artist.

Avatar (2009), 20th Century Fox


The term computer graphics was coined in the 1960s by William Fetter, an Art Director at The Boeing Company, around the same time Fetter created a research programme to examine how computing could be used for design and he even became illustrious for creating the first CGI model of the human body. Fetter’s consequent work on The Boeing Man, which was a wireframe drawing used to model a pilot’s ableness to reach aircraft equipment, set the stage for the CGI superheroes we know today and the huge leaps into a virtually designed world CGI affords.

The Boeing Man (1966), William Fetter


The capabilities of CGI haven’t stayed stagnant since Fetter’s simple demonstrative linework. Since the 60s CGI programming has been entirely revolutionised, giving animators, artists and developers the option to render not just in 2D but also 3D, create sophisticated vector art and animate human-like actions onto computer-generated characters with deft precision.


The gaming industry clearly delineates the spectacular progression of design possibilities created by CGI. Game developers and animators can manipulate CGI to craft whole metropolises, recreate eerily realistic lighting and shadow, craft emotion and imbue human-like movements onto entirely computer-generated characters with extreme fineness. We can see these developments across gaming series such as Red Dead Redemption, where lighting, colour tone and recent forays in 3D have given these western landscapes, and vengeful cowboys in-game a convincingly detailed finish.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), Rockstar Games


In contemporary art, the advancements in the capabilities of CGI have opened the door to a cacophony of new voices in digital art over the last few decades.


Ruby Gloom, for instance, is a net artist based in Hong Kong who typifies the high fantasy VR characters that can be created using CGI. She shares a portfolio of subversive, fantastical Chinese girls who ooze adventure and break down limitations; from 3D renderings of hyper-feminine vigilantes to high-fashion cyborgs. Her pieces encapsulate that the medium is moving ever forward as a  mode bold self-expression. In contrast, CGI can also be used for photorealistic art and to create characters that feel like they could step right into our world. 

This can be seen in artists Telyuka who in 2015 started a project to craft an entirely computer-generated photorealistic school girl; avoiding the potential pitfall of CGI images to seem uncanny, their creation feels authentic, and almost seems to emote.

© Courtesy of the artist.

In the world where controversial 3D rendered supermodels and influencers like Shudu and lilmiquela are becoming normalised, the design possibilities of CGI show no signs of slowing down. It has even been suggested that film companies have started to consider routinely replacing extras with CGI characters in the wake of Covid-19. Although difficult to perfect, CGI is a compelling proponent of digital art and marries seamlessly with the innovations we are seeing continuously develop across digital art forms.

Discover more digital artists and exclusive interviews.