Every decade since the invention of motion pictures has seen advances in the technology behind them. In the case of the Seventies, one of those advances was in computer graphics imagery or, more simply CGI. CGI first appeared in Westworld. It would also play a role in that movie's sequel, Futureworld and, more significantly, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In 1982 Tron would make the first significant use of computer animation (although it is less than many have supposed). As the decade passed, CGI advanced. Pixar would create the first character generated by CGI in Young Sherlock Holmes, released in 1985. The Abyss, released in 1989, featured the first photorealstic CGI in the form of the water creature.
By the Nineties several major motion pictures included significant use of CGI and to a degree computer graphics imagery even became commonplace. Indeed, 1995 would mark the release of the first completely computer animated feature--Pixar's Toy Story. It was only a matter of time before live action movies would be made in which the sets were entirely generated on a computer. The age of the digital backlot or virtual backlot had at last arrived.
Quite simply, the term "digital backlot" describes productions in which the shooting occurs entirely against a greenscreen or other blank background, with the "sets" later added through CGI. It is difficult to say what was the first film shot on a digital backlot actually was, as three such movies were all released in 2004. The first to be released was Immortel (Ad Vitam), a French film based on the comic books La Foire aux immortels and La Femme piege. It debuted at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Films on March 13, 2004. The second was the Japanese film Casshern, which was based on an earlier anime of the same name. It was premiered on April 24, 2004. The third film to be shot on a digital backlot was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was released on September 24, 2004. Of course, which film was released first does not solve the problem of determining which was shot first or, worse yet, who came up with the idea first. That having been said, that honour should perhaps go to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow--director Kerry Conran had set to work on making his own film. The concept Conran developed would become Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Regardless, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was not a great success at the box office (although it is a very good movie in my opinion), which may well have left many with the question of how viable films shot on virtual backlots really were. That question would be answered in 2005 with the release of Sin City. Based on Frank Miller's series of graphic novels, Sin City was shot entirely against a greenscreen using CineAlta high definition cameras. The movie proved very successful, making a total of $158.7 million worldwide. It proved once and for all that films shot on digital backlots could be successful. Mirrormask, a production of the Jim Henson Company, was also released in 2005. Its screenplay was written by Neil Gaiman of Sandman fame and directed by comic book illustrator Dave McKean. Although it only received limited release, it has become a bit of a cult film. It seems that the digital backlot is here to stay.
Indeed, at least one film shot on a digital backlot is being released this year. 300 is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae and directed by Zack Snyder. It debuts March 9 of this year. Two more films to be shot on digital backlots have also been announced. Madman, based on Mike Allred's comic book, is to be co-directed by Allred and George Huang. The Spirit, based on comic book legend Will Eisner's most famous creation, is going to be directed by Frank Miller (of Sin City and 300 fame).
I think it is safe to say that there will be even more films shot on a digital backlot released in the coming years. While I doubt that there will ever come a time when movies will be shot entirely on a digital backlot (there will always be movies shot on physical sets in the real world), I think it is safe to say that there are many that will be. After all, digital backlots offer certain advantages over shooting on a physical set. Not only does the director have nearly total control over the environment, he or she can also create sets that could not possibly exist on planet Earth. It seems to me, then, that the digital backlot could be an absolute boon for science fiction and fantasy films. Landscapes that do not exist on Earth and would be difficult even to create with miniatures could easily be done so through computer generated imagery. It's for that reason I rather suspect that as time goes by we will see more and more films produced using digital backlots.