Is CGI and animation the same

What are 3D visualization, 3D animation and CGI

What are 3D visualization, 3D animation and CGI? What are its advantages and how can you use them for your products and services?
This blog article about 3D visualization, 3D animation and CGI should give you an overview. What exactly is a 3D visualization and how best to use it. Perhaps you are also faced with the question of whether you should have a visualization created. Then this article is exactly what you need.

What is a 3D visualization?

It first describes the representation of virtual models in a three-dimensional space. These can be simple or complex 3D models. It does not necessarily have to be a single object. When visualizing interiors, for example, many objects are put together in a 3D room. Floors, interior walls and windows are objects or surfaces that represent a virtual space. The pure representation of a 3D model on the computer screen is already a 3D visualization.

How did the 3D visualization come about?

In the beginning there had to be a way to create computer graphics. Ivan Sutherland (born 1938 in Nebraska, USA) presented the “Sketchpad” drawing system in his dissertation in 1963. A milestone in the history of computer graphics. In the same year John Lansdown (born 1929 in Cardiff, Wales) began to write his own CAD programs and Steven Anson Coons (1912-1979) developed techniques for parametric modeling of surfaces. In 1969 the first commercial CAD graphics system with the name LDS-1 (Line Drawing System-1) was introduced. These developments paved the way for the possibilities of today's visualizations of 3D data.

What is rendering and what is a 3D rendering?

You now know that the pure display on the screen is already a 3D visualization. Which is not bad for the beginning either. But it only gets really interesting when we can output it in some form, right? And exactly this process is called “rendering” in 3D computer graphics. When rendering, the software calculates the final image.
In contrast to 2D graphics, the image is not simply saved. The display on the screen shows the viewer the current scene. It consists of objects that usually have certain material properties. There are also light sources for illumination. Last but not least, at least one virtual camera is part of the scene. They define the position and the viewing direction of the observer. Now it becomes clear why the software cannot simply save the image. Several tasks have to be solved during the calculation.
  • Shading - representation of surfaces and their material properties
  • The concealment calculation - determination of the visible objects
  • The calculation of the light distribution - reflective materials illuminate other objects indirectly

What is shading?

With shading, the colors of the surfaces and the light directly incident on them are calculated. However, the direct illumination of other surfaces is not taken into account.

How does the occlusion calculation work?

In a scene with multiple objects, they can obscure each other. Depending on the angle from which you look at the scene. So-called ray tracing is used to calculate the occlusion. An algthmus based on the emission of rays. The principle is similar to the structure of a pinhole camera. Only that the direction is reversed in ray tracing.

What happens when calculating light and its distribution?

Lights have a certain area. The intensity of the light emitting from this area decreases with the square of the distance. This physical property is taken into account in a realistic rendering. Depending on the surface, the emitted light particle is either refracted, absorbed or reflected into the interior of the object. With the exception of metals. Here the light cannot be refracted inside. In addition, non-metallic objects scatter the light inside. Overall, this results in a soft appearance. This property of light is called volume scattering. We are not aware of it in everyday life. But every non-metallic object refracts and scatters the light inside differently. The 3D visualization is only photorealistic when the volume distribution also matches the material during rendering.
To do this, the method “Separable Subsurface Scattering” is used when rendering. It was developed by the Vienna University of Technology, the University of Saragossa (Spain) and the game manufacturer Activision-Blizzard. In this video, Károly Zsolnai explains exactly how it works.

What is a 3D animation?

The word animation comes from the Latin “animare” and means “to awaken life”. In an animation, a moving image or moving image is generated from many individual images. Incidentally, this technique is always used when we watch films. On TV, in the cinema or on YouTube. From a frequency of around 24 frames per second, we experience an almost fluid movement. This makes the 3D animation an extension of the 3D visualization. For this purpose, at least 24 images per second are calculated during the final rendering and a video format is written.
You probably know the term CGI. Or you've heard it somewhere. CGI is the English technical term for Computer Generated Imagery. The term stands for images created in 3D, for computer simulation, film production and visual effects. These film images can only be generated on the computer or combined with real images. The first CGI film scene appeared on the big screen in 1977 and lasted about 40 seconds. It was the animated wireframe model of the Death Star in Star Wars. But how do the actual movements come about now?

There are various techniques for doing this in computer animation.

  • Keyframing and interpolation
  • Animation over hierarchical objects
  • Animation based on motion capture

Keyframing and interpolation

In classic keyframe animation, there are at least two keyframes. The start frame and the end frame. For example, the object to be animated is now in a different position in the end frame. Then the interframes in between are generated by the computer. They are interpolated. This process is also called tweening (from English in betweendt. Between, in between). It ensures that everything runs smoothly - from the first to the last frame of the animation.

3D animation about hierarchical objects

The objects are organized in a tree-like structure. They are connected to one another and are positioned relative to one another. As a designer, this structure is very familiar to you. Because assemblies are organized in the same way in the CAD program. Let's say you want to animate a robotic arm. Then this robot will definitely have various types of joints and other moving parts. All connected in one component and flexible in their function. This type of assembly is animated using kinematic techniques. This is already integrated in many CAD programs. For example with Creo, the former Pro / ENGINEER.

3D animation based on motion capture

Motion capture is a process used to capture movement. Which can then be recorded, analyzed and further processed. In our case the objects of a 3D animation. Motion capture or motion tracking is used, among other things, to display computer animations more realistically. The facial expressions of a person or the particularly natural sequence of movements of a running person. Do you know the computer animation film "Happy Feet" from 2006? The story is about the emperor penguin Mamble. The outsider cannot, like the other penguins, sing, but is all the better at tapping. The motion capture process was used for animation. The film won an Oscar in 2007 in the “Best Animated Feature Film” category. Not bad, right?!

How is a 3D visualization created?

Let's assume you need a 3D visualization or 3D animation of one of your products or assemblies. In this case, the first 3D models usually already exist. Constructed with a CAD program, they are further processed accordingly.
The model can also come from another source. There are countless programs for creating 3D models. Many even free of charge and freely available. There are solutions with which even inexperienced users can get good results. Industry has a natural interest in it. You will now ask why? This development also has something to do with the rapid development in the field of 3D printing. Because if everyone can create 3D models, 3D printers also sell better. You can now create 3D models on all platforms. On the desktop computer, via app on smartphone and tablet or even online. Yes exactly! The browser-based creation of 3D models is also possible. Just crazy!

Created exclusively for this purpose.

CAD programs also have rendering and animation functions, as do many 3D modeling programs. However, in very few cases do they lead to photo-realistic images or animations and the processing options are limited. You don't have to be able to do that either. The focus of these software solutions is on designing or modeling. Other programs can do better at creating photorealistic visualizations. Those created solely for this purpose. We are talking about rendering software solutions.
So if you have your 3D model at hand, you can start editing the visualization. There are various tools and setting options in the render software for this purpose. Usually you can access a whole range of materials, lights, lighting situations and environments. Are the specifications not sufficient? Then you can create your own. When it comes to materials, it starts with simple settings such as color or roughness and goes on to complex modifications in which several material properties and textures are combined with one another. Almost everything can be simulated in the environments. Special places, positions in dangerous situations or complete photo studios. Nothing is impossible…

When was the 3D animation / CGI created

You already know that the Star Wars Death Star was the first protagonist in a CGI film scene. Since then, work has continued on this technique. The higher computing power of the computers always produced better results. In 1982, Disney Studios brought the US feature film Tron to theaters. Although only about 15 to 20 minutes computer-generated sequences were used, it was a milestone in computer animation.

What are the advantages of a 3D visualization?

3D visualizations have their advantages in many areas. Therefore, below I will discuss the advantages in relation to each area.

3D visualization for product development

In product development, it is a great advantage to be able to access photo-realistic images from the very first CAD model. Investors and decision-makers can be convinced with prototype visualizations. Because the images convey a realistic picture at an early stage. Another advantage is the decision-making aid for color and material combinations. In many cases, the purely visual assessment of a certain combination can lead to deselection. If you hadn't checked this beforehand using 3D visualization and instead had a corresponding prototype made, you would have wasted a lot of money.

3D animation for product development

With an early 3D animation based on construction data, the shapes and proportions can be assessed very well. The later functionality is also conveyed in a simple and understandable manner. Technical backgrounds can be described excellently with a 3D animation. For example through exploded views.

Illustration generated on the basis of CAD data

Product documentation with the help of 3D visualization

3D data form the ideal basis for all kinds of documentation. Functional description, operating instructions or repair instructions. Without good illustrations, these documents are worthless. Nothing is worse than a functional description with poor or no illustrations. If, on the other hand, the images are of good quality and represent the facts optimally, then the user can grasp and implement them more quickly. The rendering of the 3D data is not only possible in a photo-realistic manner. Rather, it is possible to create illustrations. The advantage: Unimportant elements in the image are simply hidden when rendering. The simple illustration representations show no unnecessary details. One directs the focus to the essentials. What matters. What works for product presentation is mandatory for many product documentation. By that I mean exploded view, sectional view or schematic representation. No problem with illustrations based on CAD data.

3D visualization based on CAD data

3D visualization for product presentation

The photo-realistic visualization of 3D models has made the lives of some photographers more difficult. Because in many technical areas, 3D visualizations are many times cheaper than a comparable shoot. This does not only apply to shoots in dangerous areas or, for example, complex shoots for offshore wind turbines. The automotive sector was one of the first to use these options. Since then, vehicles have been modified more and more often and not photographed. Who is surprised? If you take a closer look at the effort.

Here is a small example:

An automobile manufacturer would like to have its latest vehicle depicted in a large-scale campaign. The vehicle images should be able to be used in all media and on all platforms. For this purpose, the executing agency draws a picture in which the vehicle can be seen in an urban setting. The vehicle drives through the big city jungle. As a highlight there should be an additional picture in which the vehicle is standing on a helipad, which is located on the roof of a house.
What might the cost of creating these images with conventional means alone? The vehicle, the photographer, the crew, the technical equipment and the entire logistics behind it. In addition, roads have to be cordoned off and permits obtained. Unforeseen factors, such as the weather, can drive costs up further.
Now it quickly becomes clear why the automotive industry relies on 3D visualization. Even conventional product photos. Produced in a studio. Even then, 3D visualization is the alternative to product photography. You don't need a photo studio (for vehicles), no technology and not even the car. With the vehicle visualization, several colors, designs and equipment can be rendered. This makes the client much more flexible. Can spontaneously decide on a different vehicle color or version for his campaign.

What are the advantages of 3D animation / CGI?

Computer-generated film images go one step further than 3D visualization, so to speak. Seeing the product in moving images is of course a completely different experience. Interesting tracking shots, unusual angles and perspectives ensure enthusiasm for the viewer. With the right music and a coordinated cut, you create a user experience with the product. They generate positive emotions. And it is well known: no purchase decision without emotions.
CGI productions can therefore be used very well for image films, product films, trade fair films and commercials. But CGI can do even more. Computer Generated Imagery is also ideal for films and short videos to convey information. This enables complex processes and technical backgrounds to be conveyed very well. Here, too, sectional views, exploded views or schematic representations can be integrated. It enables operating instructions or assembly instructions to be created, some of which do not require text. This also means that you can use them internationally without using translation services. If you can't do without it, at least only to a minimal extent.

Why is CGI / 3D visualization interesting for a product configurator?

In the render workflow, you position the product, set the light, assign the materials and adapt the environment. With the fixed camera positions, the finished setup is in place. Unlike in product photography, it is still possible to change the product design, colors or materials at this moment. Perfect for creating images for product configurators. The CGI images are often rendered as PNG files. The advantage: You support transparency. The images are arranged in levels in the product configurator. For example, the images of different rims are on top of each other. Appear accordingly when the user selects them. Since there is only information in the picture at the position of the rims and the rest is transparent, only the rims change optically.


With the help of 3D visualizations and 3D animations / CGI, images can be created for many areas. Above all, it is comparatively cheap, quick and targeted. From product development through product documentation to the final marketing.Employed correctly, you will convince everyone who comes into contact with your product or service.

Did you like this article or do you have any further questions? Then just leave a comment. Or you can write me an email to [email protected] I am looking forward to your feedback.

Best wishes