How CGI Has Shaped Horror Films

CGI has come a long way in the past fifty years, ushering in an entirely new film genres and bringing scenes and characters to life which would otherwise not be possible. Of course, we have seen some frighteningly bad examples of computer effects in horror, but has the increasing technology shaped the genre in a positive way? Perhaps you’ve even looked into using using your own computer for DIY VFX. We’re going to take a look at some of the highs and lows of computer generated visual effects in horror history, as well as how the technology might shape horror films in the future.

Early experiments into using computers for visual effects began in the early 1960s, with the first venture into horror territory in 1968. Nikolai Nikolaevich Konstantinov and his colleagues at Moscow University used Soviet mainframe computers from the 50s to display a moving image of a cat on screen. Their 90 second film ‘Kitty’ was the first attempt to depict animal movement digitally, but part way through the short film the cat transforms into a jagged, menacing face to alarm the audience. This crude animation could now be seen as the first horror visual effect in history achieved with computing technology.

The 1970s is when CGI began to cross over into major horror film productions. Winner of an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, ‘Alien’ is seen as a stand out example of practical effects. However, it also made use of early CGI – in the form of a raster wireframe 3-D model rendering for the spaceship Nostromo’s navigational charts on its computer monitors. The perspective of the terrain was seen changing on the monitors as the ship moved – an impressive effect for 1979.

Science fiction horror ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ brought visual effects to the mainstream in 1991. No longer an experimental technique, horror fans were finally able to glimpse at the possibilities the technology could bring to future film projects. Over 300 special effects shots made up 16 minutes of the film’s running time, as well as marking several important industry firsts. The liquid-metal, chrome T-1000 cyborg terminator could morph into any shape, take on other forms and change it’s texture at will. This massive leap forward required a team of 35 animators to bring to life. Though technically not the first film to use morphing techniques, it opened up the possibilities for countless transformation scenes in horror films to follow.

The adaptation of Stephen King’s short story ‘The Lawnmower Man’ was the first to introduce concepts of virtual reality to horror cinema, as well as the first to use Body Motion Capture suits to capture the movements of real actors. Techniques including motion capture, particle systems, and algorithmic-based paint were developed for film which, although not well received, has an important place in horror history. Horror is also responsible for now ubiquitous concept of using an actor’s face on a different body – now commonly seen in stunt sequences. Following the tragic death of Brandon Lee while filming ‘The Crow’, his face was composited onto the body of a stand-in actor, allowing the horror film to be completed.

CGI and horror developed further in the 1990s. Tim Burton’s horror-comedy ‘Mars Attacks’ produced some of the most detailed characters created using visual effects – the distinctive aliens seen throughout the film. For the first time, using computer visual effects was not an expensive experiment – being chosen over puppetry due to cost issues. This shift in the accessibility of the technology ushered in the modern era of filmmaking, where computers were becoming more viable options than the traditional techniques. Although epic disaster films were the fad of the late 90s, horror continued to develop the possibilities of the rapidly developing computer power. However, movies like the US remake of classic kaiju film ‘Godzilla’ prompted the question of whether this new type of visual effect was right for every film, when fans voiced a strong preference for the original monster created using a rubber suit.

Horror and action merged in the 90s also, with films like ‘The Mummy’ re-telling old stories with the technology which was now available. The remake of the Universal classic also demonstrated something which horror is truly the champion of – blending digital and practical effects. The central character was depicted with rotting flesh and exposed muscles, with studio Industrial Light & Magic using motion capture as well as makeup and live effects to create a more advanced animated character.

This ability to combine traditional and more modern effect elements is what sets horror apart from other genres in the present day. While visual effects might be more commonly associated with action and superhero movies, that is because horror tends to blend the effects into the story more effectively. The effects do not take viewers out of the scene, but make it overall more effective. Films like ‘Mama’ use a real actor, with contortionist abilities – but visual effects allow for even more exaggerated movement of the creepy central figure. ‘The Walking Dead’s’ effects use a blend of traditional techniques and the overlaying of computer-generated imagery onto makeup for more realistic gore. The acclaimed ‘Stranger Things’ demogorgon is a man in a detailed costume, but it’s skin is given a more inhuman effect, and it’s movement exaggerated digitally.  

Horror has a unique position in the film industry. With fans that are aware of the effects more than other genres, filmmakers continually search for ways to bring monsters and nightmares to life in innovative ways. The blend of old and new techniques seems to be the best route forward for horror, where both innovation and respect for the classics is paramount.

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