Since the creation of cinema in the 1800s, technological advancements in the movie industry have transformed films into technological works of art, very different from what they were at their inception. Digital animation, or computer-generated imagery (a.k.a. "CGI"), in movies has allowed filmmakers and animators to tell stories in a different way, and some would argue, more successfully than in the past. Digitally animated and live-action films (two genres that use digital animation the most) were the two top-grossing production methods in the film industry from 1995 to 2010, grossing more than $156 billion combined.
Digital animation in film actually came about because of the desire for more realistic training and simulation instruction in the military. During the mid-20th century, John Whitney, a pioneer in establishing one of the first digital animation studios, Motion Graphics Inc., developed analog computer-generated light effects. In the 1970s, acclaimed Star Wars director George Lucas began the special effects company Industrial Light and Magic and later, PIXAR Animation Studios, the immensely popular Academy Award-winning computer animation studio. In the 1990s, movies like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Jurassic Park" and "Alien Resurrection" became known for their successful use of CGI in creating extremely realistic components.
According to Los Angeles-based filmmaker Gavin Heffernan (of Sunchaser Pictures), the primary function of digital animation in the movie industry is to create images and effects that look more realistic, while enhancing and augmenting the “spectacle” of what an audience sees on screen. A secondary function of digital animation is to lessen the amount of “leg work” that goes into making a movie by the cast and crew, and to more fully utilize the newest computer-generated and digital technology that is created every year.
Though digital animation is known for being used primarily in big-budget action sequences and for fully animated films, it is also used in other, less mainstream genres. Horror films like "Drag Me to Hell" use digital effects to produce realistic blood, guts and gore; musicals and romance films like "Moulin Rouge" use digital animation in more subtle ways, often to enrich and enhance the background of a scene. Drama films like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" use digital animation to make certain characters appear younger or older.
According to the Bright Hub article, "Importance of Digital Technology in Films," CGI technology and digital animation have now surpassed various other forms of technology in film because digital animation is safer than having actors perform dangerous stunts, it’s more cost-effective than creating effects live in the studio and technicians have more control over digital effects than they do live effects. Digital animation has become a more contained way of adding effects than “real” live action allowed in the past.
Arguably, the most innovative use of digital animation happened in 2009, when director James Cameron created his 3-D sci-fi spectacle, "Avatar." Going a step beyond traditional digital animation, Cameron was able to combine digital effects with the actual bodily movements and facial expressions of the actors. Ultimately, Avatar is 40 percent live action and 60 percent photo-realistic digital animation.