Difference Between CGI and 3D Animation

CGI technology became widely known thanks to the motion picture industry, which is now barely imaginable without it. But computer graphics may seem quite overwhelming with all its confusing terms and technology. Let’s puzzle out some technical definitions and find out the difference between CGI and 3D animation.

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Is CGI The Same As 3D Animation?

First things first, let’s clarify the technical definitions of CGI and 3D animation.

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What is CGI?

CGI stands for computer-generated imagery. Simply put, CGI is any 2D or 3D image produced using a computer. But in the industry, CGI tends to define images generated in 3D software.

CG stands for computer graphics and is the same as CGI. A CGI project can either be fully computer generated or can have CGI technology implemented into live-action scenes. There are different techniques to blend live-action scenes with CGI. For example, motion capture and greenscreen/bluescreen technologies.

3D animation is a process of creating moving 3D models for games using computer animation software. It seems quite similar to traditional animation, but its fundamentals are different. Traditional animation is a 2D animation process with frames drawn by hand. Sequential drawings screen quickly one after another, creating an illusion of movement. To follow the standard frame rate, a traditional animator manually draws from 12 to 24 frames per second.

Unlike video game animation, 3D computer animation is less time-consuming while still having the advantage over live-action scenes. Computer animation can be created in numerous fascinating art styles and express everything not seen in the real world.

Original game styles not only impress the viewers but distinguish projects from one another.

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CGI vs 3D Animation

CGI (computer-generated imagery) is an umbrella term. It comprises digitally rendered particles, static environment, backgrounds, moving animated objects, VFX, and much more. Since 3D animation is the process of creating moving images, it’s a CGI module. Whereas CGI, standing for computer-generated imagery, includes both static and moving ones.

Is All 3D Animation CGI?

3D animation is a process of digitally generating animated images. All 3D animation is CGI (computer-generated imagery) since it’s made using computer 3D animation software, and it also can be referred to as 3D computer animation.

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The First Animation Ever Made

Animation emerged in 1832 with the first device to project it, the phenakistoscope. A spinning disk with sequential drawings placed around created an illusion of moving images. But on big screens, animation emerged only in 1900. The first silent animated film was a series of photographed drawings, shown one after another. But the real development of hand-drawn animation started almost 30 years later.

In 1928 Walt Disney animation studios released their first successful cartoon, “Steamboat Willie”. That was the debut of their most famous character Mickey Mouse. His appearance started an era of traditional animation.

Traditional Cel Animation

Cel animation is a traditional method of animating using hand-drawn cels. Cels are transparent sheets of plastic-like material. They were layered on each other to animate each character separately, while the background remained unchanged.

The complete image consisted of several hand-drawn cels. These static scenes were further placed and photographed frame by frame to create an illusion of movement. In the 1980s cel animation process became much more efficient with the advent of specialized computer software. Each frame could now be scanned onto the computer, digitally colored, and composed. Besides cel animation, there are other techniques, such as:

  • Rotoscoping – creating dynamic images by tracing over a real footage
  • Stop motion animation – using real objects, moved and photographed frame by frame
  • Motion capture – the technology of digitally capturing actors’ movement
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The Emergence of 3D Animation

Meanwhile, computer science developed, and it was a matter of time for computer-generated graphics to glow. The first computer graphics emerged in the 1960s when several simple visual elements were projected onto the earliest computer monitor. They were just wireframe demos looking nothing like modern computer-generated images.

In the 1980s, Pixar animation studios released five 3D animated short films to show the potential of computer animation. They had been developing computer graphics technology year by year until, in 1995, they released the first 3D animated feature film, “Toy Story”. After the 1990s, computer graphics started to grow up. Computer-generated images frequently appeared on television, while hand-drawn animation was slowly losing popularity. Disney animation studios wanted to compete with Pixar and started production of their own 3D animated features.

What Is CGI Animation in Game Industry?

CGI animation is widely known thanks to animated movies. But there’s a huge difference between computer animation in movies and in video games. So what is so special about CGI animation in the game industry?


Movies are fully pre-rendered and polished to achieve the impressive photorealism of the final product. Each movie frame takes hours of the pre-rendering process. Video games, however, can’t afford any pre-rendering time. They use only the user’s hardware and real-time rendering. Since video games’ framerate should be at least 30fps, the engine has only about 0.03 seconds to render and display a single frame on a computer monitor.


In movies, viewers see the scenes only from the intended angles. In video games, the camera angle changes drastically, depending on how the player moves the character around. Thus animation for games should look good from any angle. Moreover, computer game animators elaborate all the scripted character interactions with props and other characters.


Since the player controls the character, there are numerous possible scenarios for their actions. Each animation should smoothly transition to the next one. For example, if the player runs and then suddenly stops, there should be a switch animation from run to idle mode. Such animations should exist for all of the eventual scenarios. Otherwise, a transition between actions will look fitful and unnatural.


Visual effects are not only elements of the environment. They are also a part of gameplay. One of their main jobs is to communicate with players using different shapes and colors. Thus players understand whether VFX relates to causing damage, activating a shield, or casting a spell. For example, the damage is usually associated with red-colored sharp forms, shields are commonly blue spheres, and spells may look like green magic beams.


Computer games should show high performance without spoiling the gaming experience. And mobile games should be even cheaper on the hardware. Here are some optimization tricks used by developers:

  • Polycount limitations for quick render
  • Using retopology of original character sculpt to replace models with high polycount
  • Pre-rendering and baking textures with extra details
  • Showing low res textures, if the player is far from the objects
  • Visual effects pre-rendering to put them into sprite sheets

The RetroStyle games team knows how to optimize animation efficiently for both computer and mobile games. Our team creates game-ready characters from scratch, starting with character design, modeling and rigging, and ending with smooth and expressive animation.

Key Components of CGI Animation Pipeline

3D animation is an extremely complicated process with lots of people involved. In order to animate CGI, everybody should be on the same page and have a clear picture of the final project. Otherwise, the production can easily be stuck at any moment or won’t even start. To avoid it, studios follow an animation pipeline. A CGI animation pipeline is a system of people, hardware, and software. It describes all the essential steps to take the project from start to finish. This process may not always be linear, and sometimes it can go back and forth. But generally, there are three main stages of creating computer animation.

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The better pre-production is done, the easier further stages will be. It’s a planning phase where a team creates a work plan, determines the budget and timeframes, and tries to anticipate challenges. Pre-production puts both the team and the client on the same page. Furthermore, it’s the easiest stage to make changes. At the pre-production stage team goes through several steps:

  • Creating a concept. Since every great product starts with an idea, a team thinks over a story outline.
  • Writing a story. Here the idea starts to grow into something bigger. A story defines a conflict, main characters, and events.
  • Writing a script. Script transforms a story into the form of dialog. It also describes the scenes and action in them.
  • Storyboarding. A storyboard is a kind of comic book version of a story. It has sketches of all the main scenes. The static scenes show the camera positions and character poses.
  • Animatic. With animatic, the storyboard comes into movement. It’s a rough animation portraying the sequence of timings.

Design. The final look of the project is decided at this stage. Character design is based on a story and its personality, and game environment design is based on the atmosphere and setting.


Production is the stage where everything planned gradually comes to life. Unlike traditional animation, the 3D animation production process is much more technical. The production stage consists of 8 steps: Layout, Modeling all the characters and assets, Texturing, Rigging, Animation, VFX, Lighting, Rendering.

During all the steps, team leaders coordinate the process, making sure it goes according to the plan.


Post-production is a stage of adding extra details, polishing, and final rendering of the project using video production software. The post-production process consists of four steps:

  • Compositing. It’s the process of putting all of the rendered elements together.
  • 2D VFX. Some effects are easier to achieve in 2D rather than rendering them in a 3D environment. It can be lens flares, blur, camera shakes, dust, sparks, raindrops, etc.
  • Color correction. It’s the last step before the final render. Color correction or color grading makes the project look more consistent.
  • Final rendering. The final output is usually presented in one of the popular video formats.

Team RetroStyle understands the importance of following all the deadlines. That’s why we always stick to the animation pipeline and make sure we’re on the same page with our customers to achieve top-notch results in the shortest time.

3D Animation Production Process for Games

Production is the most complicated and time-consuming stage in the animation pipeline. To bring an idea to life, a team of artists goes through the following steps.


Basically, a layout is a 3D version of an animatic, but with proxy 3D models and low resolution. Proxy models give a better representation of how the final models and 3D animation will look like. It outlines the basic shapes and sizes of characters and objects.


The next stage is to replace models from the layout. Artists create 3D models of all the characters, environment, and props. These models have just the surface grid without any color or surface properties.


Proper textures are key to achieving photorealistic and appealing 3D models. Besides coloring, a texture artist sets physical properties for the material, determining how its surface will respond to light. For example, human skin is translucent. It not only scatters the light but also absorbs part of it. If this property is not set, the skin will end up looking like plastic.


3D rigging is the process of creating a virtual skeleton. A rig, or a skeleton, consists of special controls connected to each body part. That system will further help to animate the model.


Animating a 3D character feels like playing with a puppet but in computer animation software. An animator moves the controls of the virtual skeleton and sets the keyframes. Those frames are further interpolated by a computer to smooth the transition between them. It creates an illusion of moving images without the need to animate each frame separately.


VFX stands for visual effects. It also can be shortened to visual FX. Simply put, VFX is computer generated simulation of everything that’s too complex to be animated by hand. VFX for video games is made in game engines, using particle systems. The particle system technology is used to simulate complex “fuzzy” objects such as smoke, water, fire, etc. These effects are created by adjusting physically-based properties, so VFX can react with gravity and collide with other objects.


Lighting helps to set the mood for the whole scene. It’s not just a process of putting light sources. It’s more about the atmosphere. Viewers will feel different emotions depending on the amount of light, the light sources, and the whole color scheme of the scene.


Rendering is the production finale when everything starts to play together. It’s a process of generating a sequence of images ready to assemble. Complex scenes are separated into multiple layers, such as background, foreground, and objects. Rendering each layer separately gives more options to tweak the image at the post-production stage.

CGI Software

3D animation is created and digitally rendered using special CGI software. No 3D software alone is enough to fulfill all the needs on the 3D animation pipeline. Each production step requires a distinct software package, starting with 3D modeling software up to software for rendering the final image.

Autodesk Maya and Autodesk 3DS Max are the most used 3D software when it comes to professional 3D modeling and 3D animation in video games. They give a good balance of modeling, UV unwrapping, backing, rigging, animation, and so on. In general, they both have everything necessary for creating characters, props, and environment, except Maya is superior when it comes to rigging and 3D animation.

Blender is a professional 3D software that has pretty much everything that 3DS Max and Maya can do, but with some extra features in addition. It can be good for 3D modeling, texturing, rigging, animating, sculpting, etc.

ZBrush has been widely used for sculpting highly-detailed characters and all different types of monsters. Also, ZBrush has tools for UV creation and retopology.

Substance Painter is a one-stop shop for artists when it comes to PBR texturing and painting.

V-Ray and Corona Render are plugins used to achieve a high-quality image with physically based rendering.

Adobe Premiere Pro is a video production software used for compositing, color correction, and additional effects.

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CGI Examples

As a game art and animation outsourcing company, we specialize in various types of computer graphics. And we want to show you that CGI is used for any purpose, from character animation to interior design.

Maiden Assassin

Game-ready animated character with 4k PBR textures and materials, realistic skin with visible pores and subsurface scattering (SSS), and 16 ready animations of combat, running, jumping, and idle.

Superhero 3D Trailer

A CGI mobile game trailer with all the variety of breathtaking VFX. It has the simulation of smoke, lasers, explosions, shooting FX, and lightning strikes.

Interior Design for Zen Match

Cozy interior rendering with a simulation of realistic cloth, soft relaxing pillows, and plants all around, so the rooms feel pleasant and alive. Each room has four types of lighting to set the right mood, depending on the time of the day.


CGI technology is developing and doesn’t get any simpler over the years. 3D animation creation is intimidating for a person with zero experience in it. Moreover, it’s the process that requires not one creator but an entire team of professionals to bring it to an end.