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4 Scenes Everyone Thinks Are Computer-Animated But Aren't

The idea of computer-generated graphics predates the capability of computers to create them effectively and cheaply. Hollywood, always the masters of illusion, has found ways to convince us we're seeing the work of computers while still working with conventional techniques. Here are four of them you might have been fooled by.

1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981)

The Sequence: In this comedic BBC sci-fi series, everyone in the universe consults a computerized guidebook called the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the series, we see brief depictions of various entries. The series was praised for the Guide entries, depicted as short computerized sequences.
Why It's Not: In reality, the guide sequences were drawn by hand by a team led by Rod Lord. They used a variety of techniques to make them look like computer animation.

2. Escape From New York (1981)

The Sequence: When the president is held hostage, tough guy Snake Plisskin has to go in and rescue him. At the beginning of the movie, there's a scene where Snake flies into New York and we see a 3D wireframe map of the city.
Why It's Not: The city is actually not computer generated. It's a physical model of the city. Director John Carpenter had the idea to take the miniature set of New York City from other scenes, and put reflective tape along the edge of the model buildings. When filmed under black light, just the tape lights up, and it appears to be a 3D animation.

3. Max Headroom (1985)

The Sequence: In the movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, Max Headroom is a wisecracking artificial intelligence seen only as a blocky head and shoulders in a computer generated world.
Why It's Not: At the time Max came out, many people believed his sequences were computer generated. Max himself, of course, was later revealed to be actor Matt Frewer, wearing heavy latex makeup and a shiny looking costume made of fiberglass. Frames removed from the footage to give it a jerky look, and Max's trademark stammer, were all meant to suggest flaws in the rendering process. However, not everyone knows the boxy lined backgrounds were also drawn and animated by hand. Yup, no CG whatsoever.

NOTE: I couldn't find a good clip from the movie, so here's one of his commercials.

4. Tron (1982)

The Sequence: When a computer programmer is pulled into the computer program he created, we see a surreal and fantastic digital world.
Why It's Not: Now don't get me wrong. Tron has been called the first computer-animated movie, and it is. Sort of. While there is a lot of computer animation, there's not as much as you'd think. A lot of it is conventional animation. After filming the live-action footage, Disney printed the cells out and drew in a lot of what we see on screen. The flying disks are Frisbees with the color and lines drawn in. Likewise, all the glowing lines on the costumes are hand drawn. The scene where the lightcycles form is entirely hand drawn, even though the cycles themselves are computer animated. And all the computer animation was rendered in black and white and meticulously hand painted in color. There were matte paintings used in backgrounds as well.

Did you know these weren't CGI? Any other sequences you know of?

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  1. I knew Tron wasn't true animation. But they used just enough computer to be dissed by the Oscars.

  2. Funny I thought Tron had more CGI. I loved Max Headroom! I remember the local Mall had a Coca Cola store where you could trade your red tabs off your Cokes for Shirts and stuff. They had Max on a video loop playing all day long. And yes I had like 2 purple Coke shirts they were rad in the 80's!

  3. I didn't know that's why they didn't win, Alex

  4. I loved Max, David. I wish I had one of those t-shirts

  5. That was interesting. I really thought practically everything in Tron was CGI.


  6. Yeah, they weren't eligible because they used computers to animate. It was the equivalent of cheating, I guess. Ironic that everyone uses computer animation now.

  7. Prolly from a time where it was starting to be cool but still too expensive to do CGI work. Coolness.

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYdpOjletnc&sns=em

  9. Trons amazing special effects takes me back to my Spriteman days. Its such awesome fun racing around and so easy to lose yourself when technology takes over.

  10. The special effects used in that animation was really great it looks like a computer animation but it is different not. Thank so much for sharing your experience with us and keep posting more info in future.

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  11. There's a surprising amount of non-CGI in Tron Legacy too: most of the sets are real with only the distant background added as CGI.


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