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First CGI Sequence in Feature Film – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – 1982 AD

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First CGI Sequence in Feature Film

Alvy Ray Smith (b. 1943)

For all the incredible computer-generated imagery (CGI) milestones in film, one of the most spectacular and technologically significant was the Genesis sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The sequence is pure movie magic—that intangible thing that transports audiences to a place of suspended disbelief—due in part to the amazing visual effects of computer-animated cinematography.

The Genesis sequence begins with a CGI retinal identification scan of Captain Kirk’s eyeball that triggers the start of a video describing the Genesis Project. The Genesis device, in the form of a missile, shoots through dark space into a barren planet. An explosion occurs on impact, sending a shockwave across the surface, spreading a rippling fire growing around the entirety of the planet. The point of view (POV) of the audience sweeps along for the ride, and as it pulls out, the planet is now covered with life where none existed. Trees, water, forests, animals—all come from nothing. There are additional POV shots showing flybys around the now-Earthlike planet, covered with streaks of blue and white.

At the time, this sequence was groundbreaking for a movie. While more technically complex than other CGI efforts before it, what sent the Genesis sequence into the history books for movie fans and tech geeks was how well it paired with the story, dialogue, and accompanying music. It both was dramatic to watch and advanced the plot at a critical point in the movie. The Lucasfilm® computer division did the work in collaboration with George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM®). The sequence was rendered on DEC VAX computers, direct descendants of the PDP-1, with some frames taking more than five hours to complete.

The Genesis sequence was designed and directed by Alvy Ray Smith, who, along with Ed Catmull (b. 1945), would go on to cofound Pixar Animation Studios® as a spinoff entity, building upon the work done at ILM.

SEE ALSO PDP-1 (1959), Star Trek Premieres (1966), Pixar (1986)

The “Genesis” sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a landmark achievement in the use of CGI in film.

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