What is CGI? An Actor's Guide

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The term “movie magic” may seem like an exaggeration, but there’s a fair amount of wizardry that goes into making your favorite films and TV shows. Often, CGI is front and center in bringing a project to life. 

Whether you’re an actor or a crew member, when you run into CGI on set, you should know how it fits into your work. Keep this handy knowledge in your back pocket.

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What is CGI?

Computer-Generated Imagery, abbreviated as CGI, refers to the visual effects (VFX) work done by filmmakers, artists, and animators to create an asset, character, or effect that is not captured by the camera. Instead, it’s built within a computer program. It’s a tool that can solve many problems during production. It can be used to create full characters from scratch, replace an actor for a particularly dangerous stunt, and animate explosions. Imagine recreating a famous city street without ever leaving the soundstage—that’s CGI.

How does CGI work?

The technology used in CGI has roots in the 1960s, but the use of 2D and 3D animated models found filmmaking popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s. 1993’s “Jurassic Park” introduced audiences to the full potential of CGI, with its blending of hyper-realistic CGI dinosaurs and animatronic technology. Animatronics were used in scenes in which the animals were stationary or in close-up, allowing the actors to interact with the object on set.

As digital filmmaking evolved, creating fully realized CGI characters like Jar Jar Binks in 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace” meant that filmmakers didn’t need to rely on robotics, stop-motion technology, or labor-intensive makeup and prosthetics.

Now, CGI is standard in most films and TV shows. Increasingly, filmmakers are using CGI to have complete control over environments and bring their specific visions to the screen. Animators fulfill the director’s creative concepts by building computer-generated models, characters, and effects, from flames engulfing a building to an alien ship flying through space. Though CGI may get a bad rap for being less artistic than traditional filmmaking techniques, it is the work of highly skilled artisans and craftspeople. CGI animators train at arts schools, receive cinema-related degrees, or learn on the job through internships and entry-level positions. 

CGI artists can require months—if not years—of labor to produce the final product. They can establish to-the-minute details within a frame (e.g., adding snow to an eerie shot in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) or creating entire immersive, virtual sets (“The Mandalorian”). 

How do actors fit into CGI?

CGI frees up filmmakers to create worlds that were inconceivable only a few decades ago, but the technology presents a certain set of challenges for performers. 

CGI sometimes requires actors to engage with environments and characters that don’t exist on the day of filming. Preproduction sketches of virtual characters, descriptions of the setting within the screenplay, and guidance from a director all help the process. Ultimately, an actor needs to evoke a believable, sustainable emotional state in order to perform the scene well. 

There are ways you can prepare to work with CGI before you show up on set. It’s important to exercise your imagination whenever possible. Rehearse scenes with a special focus on eyelines, and become comfortable with performing dialogue with an imaginary partner. 

CGI can open up a lot of possibilities if you’re willing to embrace it as an art form. Motion capture, popularized by Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, allows filmmakers to shoot an actor’s performance then digitally sculpt over it in postproduction. Increasingly, the technology has been used to de-age a performer so they can play a younger version of themselves. Actors have even been recreated wholesale via CGI, like the late Peter Cushing and a younger version of the then-living Carrie Fisher in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.

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