Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Digital Disruption in the Film Industry – Gains and Losses – Part 3: Digital FX Emerges

Posted on | March 17, 2024 | No Comments

“To succeed predictably, disruptors must be good theorists.” – Clayton Christensen

I had a chance to attend a special showing of The Wrath of Khan (1982), the second Star Trek movie, with my daughter a few years ago at the University of Texas in Austin. It included a live appearance by William Shatner, who starred as the infamous Captain Kirk in the movie as well as the original series. Shatner told the story of how Paramount executives were jealous of the success of Star Wars (1977) and how that led to the resurgence of the Star Trek franchise and incidently, the first use of digital special effects in a movie.

This post discusses the beginning of the digital or computer-generated imagery (CGI) revolution. Previously I wrote about the emergence of the digital camera and the digital disruption caused by non-linear digital editing. Incidently, I happened to be one of the first academics to teach non-linear editing with the University of Hawaii obtained the first Avid.

It seems appropriate that Star Trek would make both film as well as computer history. Its first attempt, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), was moderately successful, but very expensive due to its grandiose sets. The second movie was given over to Paramount’s television studios who tightened the script and economized on the sets. They also hired George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to produce some of the effects for the second movie. ILM created an entirely computer-generated sequence for a movie when it demonstrated the effects of the Genesis Device on a barren planet in what turned out to be the Wrath of Khan.

But was it the first? Or was it Westworld (1973) Going back in history another case emerges that might lay claim to the first digital scene.

But first some background on the move from analog film to digital visual media. Previously, most special effects in films were done by artists using various analog methods. Animation was mainly drawn by hand, frame by frame. Even another futuristic 1982 movie, Tron, displayed results that were stunning for the time, but they were painstakingly done frame by frame.

The origin story for digital FX goes back to 1964 when NASA was directing the first flyby of Mars. NASA was working with its Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to develop an imaging system for Mariner 4. They needed to code the shading of 40,000 dots to construct the first image of Mars. Numbers were sent back to Earth from the spacecraft and the first images were actually colored in a “paint by hand” project based on the digital numbers. Some 240,000 bits were aggregated into a series of numbers on a globe.

John Whitney Jr. wrote in the American Cinematographer (November, 1973) that Brent Sellstrom struggled with a problem of representing a robot’s point-of-view (POV) on film. The script of Westworld called for a way to show how the evil robot cowboy, played by bald 70s icon Yul Brynner saw the world. The post-production supervisor for Westworld had to find a way to get the audience’s viewpoint into the head and eyes of the evil robot, the way the mechanical device was seeing the world. The POV shot takes the audience into a character’s head to give them a first-person, or subjective experience. [1]

Sellstrom suspected that JBL’s digital scanning methods might be used to construct the robot’s point-of-view in Westworld. JBL’s estimate to do the job for two minutes of animation would take nine months and cost $200,000. This price was way over their budget so they hired another company Information International, Inc. to scan footage of the robot’s POV and convert it to numerical data with similar techniques to the ones developed at JBL. It used a series of 3600 rectangles. They had to make sure that clothes of the actors and other items were contrasted to other items on the set. It took a minute for each frame and eight hours of processing for 10 seconds of film footage. The scene provided needed POV shot that brought the audience into the robot’s experience and movie went on to be a major hit. In 1976, a sequel called Futureworld scanned and animated its star, Peter Fonda’s head, for the first appearance of 3D computer graphics in a movie. Obviously, a precursor to Max Headroom.[2]

Throughout the 1990s, advancements in computer hardware and software, particularly in rendering and animation technologies, enabled more realistic and sophisticated digital effects. Films like Jurassic Park (1993) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) showcased groundbreaking CGI that blurred the line between reality and computer-generated imagery. The rise of dedicated visual effects studios, such as Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Pixar, and Weta Digital, played a crucial role in driving innovation in digital FX. These studios employed teams of talented artists, technicians, and engineers to push the boundaries of what was possible with digital technology.

Filmmakers began integrating live-action footage with CGI elements seamlessly, allowing for the creation of fantastical worlds, creatures, and visual sequences. Films like The Matrix (1999) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) pushed the boundaries of digital FX, setting new standards for realism and spectacle. The development of digital character animation techniques, exemplified by films like Toy Story (1995) and Shrek (2001), revolutionized the animation industry and paved the way for the creation of lifelike digital characters that display complex emotions and personalities.

Technologically, ILM’s Renderman, that was spun off to Pixar, has been particularly noteworthy. RenderMan was one of the first rendering software packages to enable the creation of photorealistic images in CGI. Its advanced rendering algorithms and shading techniques allowed filmmakers to achieve lifelike lighting, textures, and reflections, enhancing the realism of digital environments and characters. RenderMan’s impact on digital FX has been recognized with numerous awards, including Academy Awards in 27 of the 30 films to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects by 2018. Its contributions to the field of computer graphics have been instrumental in advancing the art and technology of filmmaking.

Finally, a note on digital disruption from Clayton M. Christensen talking about the corresponding changes in the computing industry. Christensen argues that the tendency of good customers to always listen to their best customers and improve their products leave them open disruptive innovations. The early digital cameras for example completely surprised film supplier Kodak. More currently, the digital camera has made possible DIY streaming services like

In my next post on this series, I intend to explore the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) to the digital televisual world.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2024, Mar 17). Digital Disruption in the Film Industry – Gains and Losses – Part 3: Digital FX Emerges.



[1] Background on the role of JPL on digital movie-making from American Cinematographer 54(11):1394–1397, 1420–1421, 1436–1437. November 1973.

[2] Frances Bonner. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of the Narrative (1992) in Slusser, G. and Shippey, T. eds. (Athens: University of Georgia Press)


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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