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CGI vs. photography: Is there a market for both in the future?

Are CGI images destined to make real photographs obsolete, or is the CGI market not quite as robust as we think it is? CGI vs. photography: competition of the old and the new.

Technology marches on, and computer imagery is no exception. Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, has already had an enormous impact on the arts in more ways than one. Modern computer graphics technology can render CGI images that are photorealistic, even hyper-realistic.

Naturally, these technological advances are not only creating new possibilities for artists but also impacting the markets in which those artists operate. So what’s the deal with computer-generated images in the modern day, and what could they mean for the future?

Is CGI overtaking photography in advertising?

Over the past decade, the famous furniture outlet IKEA has shifted from photography to CGI for its advertising. In 2014, 75% of its catalog photos were CGI, and most people couldn’t even tell at first. A testament to the sheer power of CGI marketing.

The technology has advanced so much that taking elaborate, staged photographs isn’t necessary. The field of “product photography,” taking staged pictures for advertisements, is still going strong, but CGI is starting to make an entry.

IKEA’s catalog is mostly CGI at this point, but that doesn’t mean photographers aren’t needed.

The furniture brand is even replacing human models with CGI in many of its advertisements, creating hyper-realistic graphics that look almost exactly like real people and environments.

Of course, this isn’t a simple process. CGI photography takes a long time to set up and a lot of computing power to render. Plenty of people’s labor is involved.

So while this isn’t automation putting people out of work, like in factories, it does represent a significant change to the medium and thus the art scene.

CGI in Entertainment & Design

CGI’s impact on the entertainment industry has been much more visible to the public and accelerated rapidly over the past decade. It is perhaps the clearest example of CGI vs. photography.

When a 2007 film re-telling of the story of Beowulf was made in CGI, it was experimental for a big-budget film.

This is all computer-generated – in 2007. And you can tell. It looks weird, right?

The film looked kind of uncanny, but the CGI used was state-of-the-art at the time. Even in retrospect, the imagery is pretty impressive.

Now, it’s more feasible to render near-photorealistic CGI video. Take the past ten years of video game graphics advancements as another example.

2020 graphics technology can provide hyper-real imagery like what you see above – and that’s incredible! But CGI is not the threat to live photography it might seem to be.

After all, more realistic CGI requires more use of references. Those references have to come from somewhere – from photographers! Thus CGI vs. photography is not as much a sparring battle as it is a symbiotic relationship.

Besides, where CGI shows its potential most isn’t in reproducing live photography and videography on a computer. CGI has the potential to show us images that can’t exist in real life, but with photographic precision. What makes this a step beyond paintings and drawings?

CGI can be interactive, that’s what.
Impossible environments like in Manifold Garden are a great demonstration of the potential of CGI in entertainment and the arts

The cost of it all

While the ability to generate hyper-realistic imagery is impressive, it is anything but simple and cheap. Creating high-quality renders like the ones in current IKEA catalogs takes teams of digital artists working to get every detail right.

When you’re aiming for photo-realistic, you need plenty of photos for reference, and each individual object in the frame needs to be rendered with care. This isn’t a case of artists being made irrelevant by automation – it’s actually a rich medium in need of talent.

In the case of furniture, CGI is the economical choice because it takes shipping costs out of the equation.

No longer must furniture be shipped to a facility where the photographs are staged and taken. Instead, each piece is carefully replicated – by digital artists – and placed in a virtual environment.

The work of digital art is time-consuming and painstaking, but at least you don’t have to ship bulky and fragile furniture halfway across the globe to make it.

The benefits of CGI marketing and the cost of CGI in entertainment

In advertising, not having to ship in physical materials may save money overall. But in entertainment, especially video games, advances in CGI technology, and the demand to keep up, have caused production costs to skyrocket for decades.

Computer graphics take the work of armies of artists, modelers, animators, and programmers. Not to mention the sound designers making more realistic sounds to match the more realistic visuals. The cost to produce games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Last of Us II? In extreme cases, upwards of a billion dollars.

That’s right, a billion. Advanced computing tech is expensive. Hiring hundreds of artists and animators is expensive. It’s all so very expensive that only massive companies can finance the kind of realism on display in CGI-based films and games.

What does the future of the CGI market look like?

While CGI is definitely disrupting the market for photography, it’s not the death sentence for photographers many would assume it to be.

With computer-generated imagery, somebody still has to produce the images. AI-created photos are possible but A) remain formulaic while producing unpredictable results, and B) require massive amounts of photo input to prevent some disturbingly bad results.

In fact, live photographers are being inspired by CGI to create new types of images. As we’ve found, CGI can produce impossible images – but what if they’re not impossible?

Photographers like Andrew Hall are responding to CGI by pushing the boundaries of live photography.

It’s true that CGI is making a splash in the photography world. However, at the end of the day, it’s just a new medium. It could continue to expand the possibilities for art, rather than taking opportunities away from artists.