Everything You Need to Know About CGI (Plus Examples)

Feb 3, 2023 / Industry Insights / FOTW

CGI is a type of technology used to create visual elements and environments in films, television shows and commercials. In recent years, it’s hard not to come across a piece of entertainment that doesn’t use CGI — whether it’s to brighten the weather or to get actors to fly across the sky. CGI has become a mainstream tool for filmmakers, and it’s being used more frequently to create CGI TV advertisements.

Considering that the first noted use of CGI was Albert Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo — albeit two-dimensional — this technology has grown in leaps and bounds over such a short period of time. Keep in mind, personal computers weren’t even invented until the 70s! They used mechanical computers developed for anti-aircraft cannons to produce the shapes seen during the title sequence.

But what is CGI, really? What does it mean, and how does it work? When did it all begin? Learn all you need to know about this incredible technology in our article.

What does CGI mean?

CGI stands for Computer Generated Imagery. It refers to the use of digital technologies to create images, animations and special effects in films, television, video games and other forms of media, including TV advertising. This can include anything from photorealistic depictions of real-world environments and characters to fantastical creatures, bespoke or realistic environments, and special effects that would be impossible to create using traditional techniques. 

The goal of CGI is to create images and animations that look realistic, to the point you would never know and to enhance the overall visual experience of the media in which they appear.

A short history of CGI

The history of CGI can be traced back to the late 1950s when computer graphics were first used for scientific and military purposes. In the following decades, advances in computer technology and graphics software made it possible to create increasingly realistic and complex imagery for entertainment purposes. As we mentioned earlier, the first instance of CGI imagery in film was in the title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo which used a military, mechanical computer to generate those funky animations, thanks to the “father of computer animation”, John Whitney.

Following Vertigo, the earliest examples of CGI in film include the futuristic cityscape in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was created using a process known as slit-scan photography. In the 1970s and 1980s, CGI became more widespread in the film industry alongside the development of the early consumer computers, with the release of science fiction and fantasy films such as Star Wars and Tron. These films made extensive use of computer-generated special effects, including space battles, alien creatures, and futuristic environments.

The rise of the personal computer and the development of graphics software made CGI increasingly accessible to artists, filmmakers, game developers and creative advertising agencies. In the 1990s, CGI became an essential tool for the creation of animated films, with the release of popular films such as Toy Story, as well as the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King movies. 

Using CGI in animated films allows for more creative freedom in terms of aesthetics, as well as the potential to realise elaborate worlds and characters that would have been impossible to realise with hand-drawn animation methods.

CGI in the new millennium

In the early 2000s, the increasing sophistication of CGI technology led to its widespread use in live-action films, allowing filmmakers to create realistic creatures, environments, and special effects in a way that was previously impossible. For example, the 2002 film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers used CGI to create the hobbits, dwarves, elves, and other creatures that populate Middle-Earth — whereas the original 2001 film utilised clever VFX tricks for certain characters. Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight used CGI to create the iconic Bat-Pod motorcycle, among other special effects.

In recent years, CGI has continued to evolve, with advancements in computer hardware and graphics software making it possible to create even more realistic and complex imagery. Think James Cameron’s Avatar or BBC’s His Dark Materials. These technological advancements have led to the widespread use of CGI in video games and even within TV advertising, where it is used to create everything from realistic environments and character models to complex physics simulations and special effects.

What is CGI animation?

Image credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Full-blown computer-generated imagery (CGI) films have been the most enthusiastic adopters of the technology in the film industry. Even though many animated films were still done by hand, stop-motion animation was pretty popular for a while. It was the most extensive effort ever put into filmmaking and the closest we came to true 3D animation.

However, stop-motion needs you to plot out each bit of movement that will be presented on-screen, which makes the process very time-consuming. But that didn’t stop the likes of Tim Burton or Nick Park from creating Nightmare Before Christmas or Wallace and Gromit, respectively.

It wasn’t long until CGI made hand-drawn and stop-motion animation almost obsolete — although many animation artists still live by those techniques to this day. Due to advancements in computer graphics, it is now possible to make fully realised, non-realistic 3D environments for use in movies and TV series. But computer animation also gave directors the freedom to create whatever surreal or realistic worlds they desired.

The difference between CGI and CGI animation

Is there really a difference between CGI and CGI animation? The short answer is: Not really. 

On one hand, CGI refers to the use of digital technologies to create images, animations, and special effects in films, television, video games, and other forms of media. This can include anything from photorealistic depictions of real-world environments and characters to fantastical creatures, environments, and special effects that would be impossible to create using traditional techniques.

On the other hand, computer-generated animation (or CGI animation) refers more narrowly to the practice of making animated films and TV shows with digitally-generated imagery. Animation in 3D is the process of taking a digital model of an item, character, or environment and animating it frame by frame so that it may be played back as a single, seamless motion picture.

So, in a nutshell, CGI animation is a subset of the broader “computer generated imagery” umbrella.

Why is CGI important for TV advertising?

Image credit: Shahbaz Zaman

It may come as a surprise to many, but CGI technology has been essential to the TV advertising industry for many years now. In a world full of unknowns, it’s become increasingly important to provide companies and brands with a variety of options when it comes to TV advertising creatives.

With that said, CGI technology is important for the TV advertising industry for several reasons:


Characters and settings, whether photorealistic or completely fictitious, can be created in a controlled and reproducible manner using CGI. Because of this flexibility, CGI content can be made and remade far more quickly and easily than in a live-action film. We can also use CGI to recreate a product, whether that’s a speaker, a car or even a Wi-Fi box we can zoom in and around the product showing off its features and easily update the colour if there’s different options.


Unlike live-action filming, the possibilities for originality in computer-generated imagery are practically endless. Advertisers may use this to their advantage by making incredible TV commercials that stand out from the crowd and leave a lasting impression.


In many cases, the use of CGI can be more cost-effective than traditional live-action filming because it does not require the costly preparation of locations, the construction of sets, or the hiring of actors. For companies that want to dip their toes into TV advertising, like MrQ, creating a CGI advertisement is a great way to get introduced to its benefits.


The use of CGI allows for the production of an advertising campaign with a unified aesthetic, which can help with both brand awareness and continuity of presentation. When creating CGI TV commercials, assets or products can be reused and repurposed to develop multiple types of adverts with the same branding and style.  


With the help of CGI, dangerous or hazardous settings and scenarios can be created in a safe and regulated manner, protecting the actors and crew from injury. CGI technology can be used to create great big fireworks and effects without the need for pyrotechnics or explosions. Plus, CGI can be utilised to keep the advertising industry running even in times of social distancing, as we ourselves have personally experienced.

3 examples of CGI in TV advertising

As we’ve said before, CGI has become increasingly prevalent within media, and TV advertising is no exception! It has been a great tool for developing incredible worlds, safely creating big effects and even a low-cost way of adding famous film characters to TV ads. Trust us; we speak from experience.

Here are some great examples of using CGI in TV advertising using TV adverts that we’ve created — no bias intended!

1. MrQ — No Nonsense

The online gaming company, MrQ, spent a lot of its early years on pure online marketing. And while they found great success through those channels, MrQ thought that it was time to dip their toes into TV and radio. That’s where we came in.

To maximise their entry-level budget, Fall Off The Wall crafted a colourful DRTV advertisement using pure CGI (and some amazing voiceover work of Joe Wilkinson). With that fully CGI advert and a sprinkle of classic British dry humour, the UK TV audience was introduced to the “no nonsense casino you’ve never heard of”. Since appearing on TV, MrQ’s website has seen a 32% spike in organic visitors, and they’ve since continued pushing TV as a marketing avenue with great success. In fact, we have just finished filming their epic third TV commercial with enough content to span 12 months across TV and social channels!

2. Sky Bingo — Everyday Excitement

This is a great example of blending live-action and CGI to create a fun TV advertising experience. When it came to developing a new series of commercials for Sky Bingo, whom we’ve worked with since 2008, we wanted to bring the excitement of bingo into “the real world”. But how? Two words: Everyday excitement.

We were able to shatter the stereotype of internet gaming as something done in isolation by having our characters enjoy a game of Sky Bingo in group settings. This triumphant mood is represented visually by an explosion of purple powder, created purely with CGI. The “purple burst” has been a consistent theme throughout the campaign across various ads and we also can’t forget the incredible voiceover work by the one and only, Rylan Clark-Neal, to help tie things together.

3. Oddschecker — Testing Lab

From creating a laboratory to (safely) “throwing” app features at our live-action actor, both CGI technology and special effects were crucial to developing this fun TV ad for the online gaming company, Oddschecker. The company wanted to create a memorable DRTV advertising campaign to bring attention to their new app (and download it, of course).

We used a leaf blower to create the effect of the actor’s face being “blown-away” by the many features that come with the new Oddschecker app. Our incredibly talented animation team not only created the lab using CGI, they also used it to create effects within that wind tunnel to highlight the many features that the Oddschecker app has. Here’s a video breaking down the Oddschecker advert, if you’re keen on checking out that process!

Final thoughts

Imagery, animation, and special effects in media such as movies, TV shows, and video games are often created using computer-generated imagery (CGI). This technology paved the way for the regulated and reproducible production of photorealistic settings and characters, as well as completely fabricated ones. In comparison to live-action filming, CGI is both more economical and allows for a greater range of creative expression.

In addition to the film and video games industry, CGI has been essential in the world of TV advertising. The television advertising industry relies on CGI technology because it provides an accessible, innovative, low-cost, and secure means of producing eye-catching visuals. If you’ve recently been interested in dipping your toes into the world of TV advertising for your brand or product, getting in touch with a TV advertising agency with experience in creating successful CGI ads is a great way to start.

Keen on seeing what TV advertising can bring to your brand? Get in touch with an experienced advertising agency who’ll be able to help you get the job done!