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.
“[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.
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.