Wednesday 13 January 2010

To CGI, or not CGI...don't make the Phantom Menace mistake

Celebrated sci-fi author China Mieville has written this post for The Wall Street Journal to explain just why CGI is rotting sci fi cinema from the inside. For the most part, I'm only too happy to agree with him. If you ever read my post about Pixar, you'll know that I like CGI only if it adds something to a film.

Back in the good old days of Ray Harryhausen (see the photo that accompanies this entry), the effects looked ropey, but at least you knew that somewhere on the planet, those models existed. They had a sense of tangibility, and concrete 'realness' that CGI still can't replicate. Even look at a film like Jurassic Park, and compare it to Titanic. Jurassic Park is older, but it doesn't look quite as dated since a lot of the dinosaurs are animatronic. The actors are working alongside something that exists in the real world. The dinosaurs have weight, texture, and above all, believeability. Titanic, on the other hand, looks laughable. Move further forward to the 1980s, and matte paintings were de rigueur, instead of the contemporary crap that gets splashed across green screen.

We all know why CGI is there. In today's society, where everything has to be faster, shinier and altogether more 'wow' than what came before, CGI is cinema's way of twirling about going "Look at me! Look at me! I'm AMAZING!" It's almost being so fake because it wants you to notice it and admit how pretty it is. But unfortunately it ends up feeling like you're being followed around by an obnoxious six-year-old in a princess costume singing a Les Miserables medley while you're trying to read Wuthering Heights.

I love cinema. I really, really do, and I love big explosive action movies or giant set pieces as much as the next person...but you know what? You can actually do a lot of that without CGI. Just watch the 'making of' feature on the DVD for the latest Star Trek film to see that visual trickery is still possible even when you're using CGI. J.J. Abrams utilised everything from models and miniatures to mirrors and special lighting, and while he also used some CGI, I think the film feels a lot more organic as a result of the more hands-on approach.

It's true that special effects have been part of cinema since its inception (check out the work of Georges Melies for a good example, or the famous 'see through floor' shot from Hitchcock's The Lodger in 1929) but I don't think that an entire film should be one long special effect - they're called 'special' and should be used sparingly, otherwise they're not so special any more, are they?


ChloƩ P. Kovac said...

Too right. That's why I maintain that something like Attack of the Clones doesn't have any special effects. Because there is so much in the way of effects its not special any more.

Its a shame, when I watch a film from the days before CGI and see something truly spectacular I'm moved to think to myself "WOW, how did they do THAT?" where nowadays its usually "ho-hum, CGI".
Another thing about CGI is that its very very hard to pull it off and make it look "right". There are many many movies out there with CGI that either doesn't quite cut it or is just atrociously cheap looking (cheap looking, regardless of the actual cost of it).
CGI also takes away a lot of the charm of a movie, and ironically, even the most realistic CGI can take away from the realism of a film.

For example, the Millennium Falcon in the old Star Wars movies looked beat up, it looked used, because people had painted the models to have that aged and used effect. The ships in the newer Star Wars movies lacked that "used" look. So they don't come across as genuine as those old motion captured models.
Many movies that use CGI for the "wow" factor are going to date horribly. Many have already.
Filmmakers should treat CGI as a tool, and use it tastefully and sparingly in movies where its not required that it be this big hulking predominant *thing* (Pixar et al obviously excluded). Overuse of any effect is going to suck all of the good out of it.
Its like Linn Drums. The Linn Drums drum program and the gated snare were all over music in the 80's, and have thus dated a lot of music produced during that time period that utilized them.
My point is, CGI is great for achieving effects that are impossible to achieve via other means, but shouldn't be used as the crutch that they are at this point in film history.

Icy Sedgwick said...

It's also a bit like the 'filters' option in Photoshop. Rather than trying to achieve a certain effect when you initially set up and take a photograph, you end up just throwing hundreds of filters at it, and it just ends up looking...well...naff. I like CGI when it enhances a movie (e.g. the actual transformers in Transformers look amazing, but then I know that they actually built a life-size Bumblebee) but I still maintain you don't actually need it. Moon had very little in the way of CGI and it was still great.

ChloƩ P. Kovac said...

Using filters in such a manner is cheating. Naffness shines through when corners are cut. In anything.

Melissa Donovan said...

I figured that filmmakers are turning to CGI to save money on production costs. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, but the technology is relatively new, and I think they're still figuring out what works and what doesn't. Ultimately, the demands of the audience will drive how films are made. If the people demand quality, Hollywood will be forced to deliver.

Anonymous said...

I think the key word in your post is 'sparingly'. When films use it to 'twirl about' as you so aptly put it, it's awful. But some people use it well. Spielberg's War of the Worlds is much better than than Phantom Menace because he combines real effects (actually cutting a plane in half) with CG ones. Let the Right One In uses a lot of CGI, but it's done sparingly to help tell the story, and most of the time you don't even notice it. The few effects in Paranormal Activity are all the more effective for the sparing way in which their used. I guess you could say CGI is a good servant but a bad master.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Melissa - I hope you're right! Maybe the over-use of CGI will just be a fad and then the industry will use it when it's needed, rather than whenever they can.

Dan - Very very good point! To be honest, I didn't notice a lot of the CGI in Let the Right One In, which proves that CGI CAN be used in a really effective way...when it serves the story.

Eisley Jacobs said...

I think they use CGI for cost reasons... it costs much less to blow up a CGI creature and remake him then it does to blow up a "model" and forget to roll film.

They are getting better... but you are right. They are still not there.

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