What’s The Difference Between CGI and 3D Animation?

Posted on

When was the last time you saw a movie or series containing elements that don’t exist in real life? Chances are, the last show you watched had faux visual objects — probably without you even knowing.

It’s easy to find a piece of media containing non-real elements produced through software. In movies or television series, whatever the genre is, visual elements generated with a computer are useful for many reasons. They can populate a scene, manipulate the setting, or even add a bit of flair to real-life objects. And sometimes, when we’re supposed to notice these non-real elements, like in the case of the dragons in Game of Thrones, we suspend disbelief so easily because they look and move like real creatures.

People generally refer to these non-real elements as CGI, but there has been some confusion between that term and 3D animation. And in this article, we’ll put this confusion to rest. 

CGI and 3D animation by NarraSoft

What Is CGI?

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is the broad term for any static or moving visual element created with a computer or software. It refers to any piece of art — whether 2D or 3D — that veers away from raw footage or manual composition and instead relies on technology’s capacity to render its form. 

However, the term now connotes visual effects involving realistic 3D graphics incorporated into live-action films. So it is understandably surprising for some people to find out that Vertigo (1958) is cited as the first film to have CGI, even though it appears only in the opening credits.

Today, however, CGI is a far cry from what it was in Vertigo. It has evolved so much that its inclusion goes beyond matters of stylistic choice. CGI has become a necessity, and it’s even used in real-life settings to enhance a scene. With the right software and hardware, movie editors are able to display on-screen the illusion of CGI interacting with actors and existing in the physical world. 

To achieve this, artists generally use a technique called compositing, which is the process of assembling separately produced elements into one coherent scene. It branches out to a system of other techniques, such as keying and rotoscoping, that contribute to the desired output of compositing. 

What Is 3D Animation?

For a piece of work to be classified as having 3D animation, it must satisfy two elements:

  1. There should be 3D models or graphics.
  2. The movement exhibited by these graphical elements exists beyond the x and y axes.

We typically think of two industries when we hear 3D animation — the film industry and the video game industry. And this is expected, considering players in these industries commonly apply 3D animation in their work. There’s also a common perception among industry leaders and consumers that dictates 3D animation is superior to its earlier counterpart, 2D animation. While this is true in some fields, the same cannot be said for either movies or video games.

A figure waving, with the starting point and endpoint of its animation. The intended transition, which is demonstrated by the arrow, is achieved through inbetweening. Art by NarraSoft

The Difference Between 3D Animation and 2D Animation

On the surface, the distinction between 3D and 2D animation could not be more obvious. The former is concerned with making 3D graphics move, while the latter does the same for 2D graphics. But let’s break this down even further. 

In 3D animation, artists generally follow this process:

  1. Rigging and skinning
  2. Animation
  3. Asset integration

Through rigging and skinning, an artist gives a figure the ability to move. Artists construct bones, which they then fuse into the model, enabling animation. After animation, the figure becomes integrated into the intended environment, which artists achieve through different techniques, such as compositing.

Whereas in 2D animation, the process looks like this:

  1. Rough animation
  2. In-between keyframe
  3. Full render

The first thing an artist does, whether they’re animating on the computer or by hand, is to create a rough sketch of the figure. The sequence’s starting point and endpoint are first drawn, after which the artist will create transition frames between the two. After refining the sketches, the artist renders their work.

What’s the Difference Between CGI and 3D Animation, and How Do They Work Together?

Now that we’ve defined both CGI and 3D animation, we can easily pinpoint where the two intersect and differ. CGI is the umbrella term for graphics created with software, and it includes any type of image, whether or not it is moving. On the other hand, 3D animation always has dynamic 3D graphics. So rather than asking what their differences are, it is better to ask how these concepts work together.

Diagram showing the relationship between CGI and 3D animation

What’s regarded as the first-ever piece of animation is a topic subject to debate. Many consider the history of animation to coincide with the invention of photography, while some may argue attempts at animation span back to as far as 3,000 BC. But for the purposes of this article, we will start with the type of animation that comes after photography. 

Film enthusiasts and historians regard Fantasmagorie (1908) as the first cartoon animation. French animator Émile Cohl drew the cartoon’s frames on paper and photographed his drawings to create the sequence he wanted. This method approximates what it’s like to do traditional animation. But with CGI and 3D animation in the picture, giving motion to figures is not as unnecessarily laborious anymore — and the two can achieve a more realistic output.

Fantasmagorie (1908) is hailed as the first-ever cartoon animation.

With animation and digital art software, artists now have the tools to animate CGI more efficiently. Over the years, animation and CGI have worked together to address people’s entertainment needs. But the application of the two branches out to other fields as well.

What Are CGI and 3D Animation Used For?

While people often associate CGI and animation with games and movies, other industries derive benefits from this technology, too. Here are some of the other ways CGI and 3D animation work hand in hand to create meaningful and valuable output:

  • Medical explainer videos
  • eLearning modules and experiential learning 
  • Outer space simulation 
  • Virtual home staging 
  • Marketing collaterals

In previous blog posts, we have explained the significance of CGI and 3D animation in medical explainer videos, eLearning, experiential education, and marketing collaterals. The articles explore how computer-generated graphics, coupled with animation, improve a person’s learning experience, simulate remote environments, and even increase a company’s conversion rate. Essentially, animated CGI makes accessible experiences that can be difficult to attain. But did you know real estate can also benefit from this pairing?

Virtual home staging provides two solutions in the real estate industry. Unlike traditional staging, virtual staging saves time and money for both the agent and the buyer, cutting down travel costs and placing the property in the buyer’s immediate surroundings. Moreover, it allows a person to visualize a fully furnished space in an empty home. It also offers a third solution during a health-induced crisis requiring isolation — potential buyers can visit multiple homes without fearing exposure. While it is not common practice yet, virtual home staging has several proponents whose research is geared toward improving real estate’s virtual reality technology.

In Summary

CGI and 3D animation are not directly comparable. Still, they have their similarities and differences.

The former is an umbrella term that encompasses static and dynamic elements created using a computer. This means 3D animation is a part of CGI, but not all CGI is a form of 3D animation.

The two, however, work hand in hand to create entertaining and informative content. You can find their application in various fields, including medicine, marketing, and real estate. 

NarraSoft offers 3D digital art creation, animation, augmented reality art development, virtual reality art development, and so many more!

We also provide other outsourcing services, including software development using different technologies and game development with Unity.

Send us an email today at sales@narrasoft.com! We can’t wait to hear from you.

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.