Smash Cut #4 – CGI: Curse or Gift?

CGI: Curse or Gift?

In the world of filmmaking there is a saying that typically is reserved for times when the production crew is feeling dismissive about something they’re shooting – either because they can’t figure it out or don’t think it will matter in the final cut. “Fix it in post.” Usually said jokingly on smaller productions, it feels to many of us that this feeling has become a mantra to modern, big budget films. For many of these films, everything is done in post. And it’s done using CGI.

CGI – or Computer-Generated Imagery – has been around for a long time. Among its many milestones are WESTWORLD in 1973 (the first use of CGI in film), YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES in 1985 (the first fully CGI character), JURASSIC PARK in 1993 (first photo-realistic use of CGI in film), and TOY STORY in 1995 (first feature length computer animated film). While in many ways CGI builds upon techniques used before its time, these days it’s hard to come by any movie or TV show that doesn’t use green screen in some form or another. But…is that a bad thing?

Isn’t it?

First, let’s talk about why CGI is seen as a bad thing in the industry these days. While there are many arguments against it, there are three major ones (and that’s all I’m focusing on here, so deal with it).

1. Too Much CGI!

The most obvious is its overuse. As mentioned above, just about everything uses CGI in some way in modern filmmaking. Many things you may not even realize…

Wait…they CGI’ed a person for this?

Because filmmakers have this tool at their disposal, they know they can cheat certain things without the audience catching on. It becomes unnecessary and the audience can usually feel that something is off. Maybe (assuming you watch whatever the hell “Ugly Betty” is) the above scene passed you by without you seeing the digital effects at play, but something still felt off about it. Maybe it was the lighting or the performance, but something in our brains tells us that it doesn’t quite look right, regardless of how good it is.

2. Bad CGI Killed the Movie

Another complaint you’ve undoubtedly heard (or made yourself) is how bad CGI can kill a good movie experience. The feeling becomes that if a studio or director insists on relying on computerized graphics to sell a scene in their movie, they should at least put the effort in to make it look awesome. The most famous blunders in this area comes from the 2001 film THE MUMMY RETURNS.

Yep, this came out the same year as GLADIATOR.

While visual effects have improved drastically since 2001, we can still see issues that come from poor artistry and planning. The above can be attributed to shading and textures, but sometimes the problem goes deeper and more subtle than that. Take, for example, STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (part of a prequel trilogy that already was panned for its overuse of visual effects). When the villain General Grievous squares off with Obi Wan, we see this:


The CGI of Grievous himself isn’t bad, but if you look at Obi Wan in the foreground, that’s where the issues are. He literally just stands there not reacting to four lightsabers spinning in his face. And that’s because the actor, Ewan McGregor, is just standing there staring at a green tapestry probably waiting for someone to tell him what to do while they were shooting. The performance suffers because there’s nothing to play off of.

3. Screwed Over Animators

The final, and most damaging, complaint with CGI actually comes from behind the scenes. Computer animators are in a weird position in the industry right now because they are severely needed (see argument #1 above), but are treated horribly by those who employ them. Much of this came to light following the acceptance speech of Ang Lee after winning the Best Director Oscar for the 2012 film LIFE OF PI. The complaint was that Lee didn’t mention the hard work put into the film by the visual effects department, which, arguably, created the film.

And they did do an amazing job.

Though if you ask me, I think this was a little blown out of proportion since the Rhythm and Hues animation studio did receive some recognition earlier that evening when they won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects on the movie. Still, protests were made when supporters of the animators changed their profile pictures to green boxes. Not that it changed anything, because much more serious situations kept cropping up.

For the deep and moving expose on meat consumption called SAUSAGE PARTY, horror stories abound about working under studio Nitrogen to meet deadlines to not get paid for overtime or even for your name to be removed from the credits. As most animators will tell you, this isn’t as uncommon as outsiders might think. There’s always someone else that is willing to come into the office on a weekend for free for fear that they might lose their job or get blacklisted. Similar to film editors in Hollywood’s early days, computer animators have yet to obtain the recognition they deserve.

But wait…

After all of that, how can CGI be good for the film industry? Well, there are a few ways. And to keep things even, I’ll name off three of them (again, deal with it).

1. It’s Sometimes Useful

Digital effects are a tool, just like any other. As a director, you get to choose what you want what’s in the frame to look like. You have a choice, then, whether that image contains real-world objects or computerized models. Hell, you can even ride the fence and do both, adding some effects to a practical stunt. Originally JURASSIC PARK was planning on using stop-motion for the dinosaurs (the go-to at the time for that type of situation) until ILM was able to convince Steven Spielberg that they could create photo-realistic dinos on a computer in 1993. Which means the velociraptors almost looked like this:

At least their tongues didn’t stick out.

Amazingly, dinosaurs only appear on screen in this film for a total of about 15 minutes, 6 of those being CGI. Compare that to the digital orgy that is JURASSIC WORLD and tell me which movie you find to be more intense.

That being said, digital effects can actually improve the immersion of a film by creating hyper-realistic elements that move in a way that couldn’t be done practically. There, that’s one reason down.

2. CGI is a Technical Art Form

One of the issues listed above was how digital animators don’t get their fair share of the spotlight. This happens not only when talking about the studios and their treatment of their employees, but also with the general audience.

I’ve spoken to someone who shall remain nameless in film academia who claimed that the film GRAVITY was a waste of time because its visual effects could never compare to the practical effects of Kubrick’s 2001. He stated that when they wanted to create an image of the sun, they simply pointed a bright light at the camera and that ingenuity is lost on modern digital effects artists. While I make no claim that 2001 is anything short of eye-bleeding beauty on celluloid, I also think his statement is dismissive and kind of ignorant.

Can’t both movies be good for their own reasons?

I do agree that obstacles do generate creativity, but in the end the image on screen is what matters. If we’re talking a purely esthetic stance, then yes, 2001 is better than GRAVITY. But if we’re talking about intensity, believability (it’s a word), and immersion, I think GRAVITY holds up.

How would Kubrick have done this?

There are incredibly talented artists out there in the computer graphics field who deserve their work to be shown and implemented in filmmaking. They are the ones making our Pixar films, hiding rigs in our CORALINE and BOXTROLLS, and de-aging Carrie Fisher to include her in ROGUE ONE (but hopefully leaving her alone from now on).

3. CGI Creates Immersive Worlds that are Otherwise Impossible

While I do miss noticing an incredibly well-done matte-painted background in a film, there’s something to be said about the living, breathing world that CGI creates in some of our most fantastic looking movies. Looking back at 2009’s AVATAR, I remember that the biggest deal about the film was the digital effects. The realistic and incredibly detailed world that James Cameron and the artists at Weta Digital created made the lackluster story seem insignificant.

“Blue cat-people playing Pocahontas” is easy to ignore when it feels like you’re standing in front of them.

How could a world like that be created – and taken seriously – without a digital effects team hard at work? That sense of immersion can only be created through CGI. You could argue all day long about how overused the AVATAR story may be, but in the end that’s not what we’re talking about (so stop changing the subject, reader!). Your feeling that CGI movies are terrible is likely more about the writing, directing, or studio interference than it is about the digital effects themselves.

In the end, a film’s merit is based on how (and if) it makes you feel. The digital creations and manipulations can help or hurt the overall experience, but the involvement of a computer does not automatically dictate the quality of a film.

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