The vilification of CGI

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After reading this Scott Beggs article from Film School Rejects, it got me thinking about the recent backlash against CGI in Hollywood movies.

Many are the people who find today’s Hollywood output lacking. Like 1950s Biblical and historical epics, they are more concerned with spectacle than story, fearful of losing the audience’s attention to cell phones, television, and video games. The prominence of CG in these pictures has associated such imagery with schlock and laziness as though the presence of CG itself were the problem. That is simply untrue. Imagine if 1950s audiences said color film is inherently terrible because it was often paired with overdone movies like Quo Vadis and Raintree County.

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“[T]here’s been a resurgence in championing practical effects lately. It’s a necessary resurgence because practical effects demand our respect, and there’s something profoundly sad about Rick Baker retiring. At the same time, there’s also some horrendous practical work out there because, like CGI, practical effects (broadly labeled) are tools that can be used brilliantly or poorly. If you aren’t slathered completely in nostalgia jelly, you know the horrendous practical stuff that we’ve

Beggs is right. As much as I love practical effects, they are not always superior. The 1989 Batman sports poor miniature work. The 1976 remake of King Kong arguably aged worse than the 1933 original in terms of effects, replacing the otherworldly stop motion Kong with what often seemed to be a man in a gorilla suit. Nostalgia for childhood and the movies of yore obscures imperfection to us.

One commenter on Cartoon Brew brought up something rather interesting in regards to the “resurgence” of practical effects:

“I wonder just how much of it is due to the romantic notions of practical effects. Kids grow up in awe of the puppets and makeup and models and whatnot, but there’s nothing romantic about sitting in front of a computer. No kid comes out of a movie dreaming of being a DI colorist.”

There really is a sense of romance to practical effects and the folks who made them happen. We may not be convinced by George Melies’s camera tricks or the stop motion skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts or the miniature shots in Metropolis, but they take on another dimension when one is aware of the craftsmanship behind them.

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Beggsseems to blame the reactions against the infamous Star Wars prequels for the CG backlash:

“My other assumption is that the birth of the lazy version of CGI backlash came after the Star Wars prequels. Not only did those movies not live up to expectations, they also didn’t look like the movies that came before it. George Lucas had become enamored with an emerging technology, and he was vilified for it. (As if green screen were the main culprit and not bad writing.) This judgment call is so widely accepted and prevalent that it’s become a major (maybe even necessary) sales point for The Force Awakens. J. J. Abrams and company practically got a sore throat repeating, “real sets, real puppets, real sand, real aliens, real robots” in their Comic-Con pitch. Their message was clear:

“We didn’t let George Lucas near this thing, and we didn’t cover the set in green screen.”

No one liked the cartoon element of the prequels, they got the message, and they want everyone to know they got that message.”

Bad writing may be the prime reason for the failings of the Star Wars prequels, but the writer seems to misunderstand why people lash out at the overt use of CG in these movies. One drawback of CG is that the actors have no physical element to react off. In the Red Letter Media review of The Revenge of the Sith, this is spelled out clearly during the analysis of the battle between Obi-wan and General Grevious:

“Another pretty clear example of green screen disadvantage is when the actors don’t know what they’re doing. Like when Obi-wan confronts Grevious. I’m going to guess they just had Ewan [McGregor] standing there looking into green nothingness and someone was telling him that Grevious was there. Like the thing is, [Grevious] lights up all of his swords and does kind of like this karate show-off stance thing, but it happens quickly, right in front of Obi-wan’s face. Grevious could have just lunged right at him super fast and cut him up into twenty pieces. [McGregor] doesn’t even flinch or react to this, probably because Ewan had no idea what he was supposed to be looking at… This kind of stuff stands out to me and it takes me out of the movie because it looks fake.”

The CG ends up working against the scene in this instance. It strips away the tension and believability. No one ever condemned Lucas for wanting to push the limits of visual effects; they condemned him for lacking discipline and restraint in the execution of those effects. They condemned him, as they now condemn the likes of Michael Bay or Peter Jackson with his Hobbit films, for giving us tons of spectacle paired with a shoddy story and uninteresting characters.

I don’t think CG is inherently evil. The CG effects in Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings have aged well. Stylized films like Sin City and 300 look good. I don’t think practical effects are inherently superior to all else either, but this backlash against CG does not find its origin in laziness or a dislike of three poorly written movies. Perhaps audiences are starting to hunger for some kind of substance. Not art films, just stories which are entertaining and emotionally engaging, with special effects, whether they be CG or practical, in service of what really matters when we go to the movies.

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9 thoughts on “The vilification of CGI

  1. Yes, it always goes back to characterization. Give them a story with human characters, and the audience cares. Without it, you have crap.
    If someone can meld the two, characterization behind a good story along with CGI, they will be the future of cinema.

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  2. Very interesting and thought provoking article!

    I agree with the author that it is often bad writing, acting, or directing that is really what ruins these movies. It just so happens that CGI spectacles are often big budget, adventure films, and their audience is basically the least common denominator.

    That said, some of the CGI is cartoonish and not fantastic. Peter Jackson deserves some of the blame for his Hobbit films, as you alluded, which are overdone with effects, whereas the LOTR trilogy had the right combination and I consider it one of the better uses of CGI (there were excesses — like Legolas skateboarding or jumping onto a horse, but they are forgivable).

    CGI when done well can be extraordinary. Life of Pi and Hugo are both great examples. Game of Thrones on TV rivals films, plus it strikes a good balance between character and action. Some of the superhero films do it well, like Guardians of the Galaxy from last year. The Avengers can overdo it, but they get it right more often than not. And of course Avatar is the benchmark of CGI and 3D filmmaking. You can criticize the writing, but the visuals are breathtaking.

    Good comparison with color. We are in a new era. The better directors will learn how to embrace the technology, like Ang Lee did, but there are always going to be bad directors that will mis-use it. Of course even without CGI, bad directors are going to make bad films.

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    • When a friend and I went to see the last Hobbit picture at the theater last year, we were almost howling with laughter at some of the silly CG stunts. CG is supposed to help immerse us in the world of the film: some of the poorly rendered CG characters and Legolas managing to survive being on an exploding bridge are just too Looney Tunes in this epic fantasy world.

      Like you said, the original LOTR trilogy was fantastic in the realm of special effects because it blended CG with practical effects. The same goes for Cameron’s Titanic. We do need something tangible and the actors need something to interact with; green nothingness just won’t cut it. Mixture and discipline are sorely needed.

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      • I haven’t seen the Hobbit movies (not my thing), but I saw the thing with Legolas doing Wiley Coyote online. Genuinely thought it was a fan creation at first! I love that kind of silliness, but it would have been so out of place in that film.

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  3. Good article! 🙂

    As an avid watcher of World Cinema where filmmaking is still considered a form of artistic and personal expression, there is no argument that Hollywood’s “style over substance” remit is very much becoming their undoing.

    I’ve always felt that CGI should be the means to an end and not the absolute end – in other words while it may be cheaper to have say, CGI blood the effect is less convincing and invites our scorn. CGI clearly has its uses and I am sure ILA would have killed to have that technology in their possession when making the space battle sequences in the original Star Wars trilogy, but the issue is how the movie industry – in Hollywood mostly – has become over reliant on it for almost everything.

    A while back an SFX expert came to my film club to give a talk on CGI and show us a clip of a US TV show, which involved two characters leaving a building and walking across a busy street. The whole thing was done before a green screen! I know the perils of street filming are problematic but to me something so straight forward and fundamentally real being 99% fake is astoundingly shallow.

    And as an amateur filmmaker one gets to appreciate the value of turning someone’s living room into a dungeon or a hotel room or a police office, while your mum’s vase or your dad’s book collection is in the background! 😛

    I won’t dissent that CGI has its place in modern cinema for making the impossible seem possible but there is also merit in keeping it real when it needs to be real. 🙂

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    • Absolutely! On-location shooting and using real animals are a hassle, sure, but when the result looks so much more authentic and immersive, isn’t that worth it? Unless what you’re aiming for is theatricality, of course, such as in Olivier’s Henry V from 1944 or James Whale’s Frankenstein movies.

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