Wednesday, March 4, 2009

CGI and Movies

Look, I'm just gonna lay it all out right here and right now. I hate CGI special effects. Don't get me wrong, much like the professional wrestling promo and the videogame cutscene, they do have their place, but their place is small, and shouldn't supplant traditional special effects.

Why? Because they just aren't good enough yet. They simply are not convincing. It's very rare that CGI manages to fool anyone, let alone a savvy moviegoer. CGI looks too clean, to artificial, too much like a videogame.

I'm sure you're wondering what, exactly, spawned this dose of vitriol directed at recent film special effects. Well, I'll tell you; there're two things. One, I watched a very interesting one hour documentary called "Fantastic Flesh: The Art of Make-Up EFX" via my XBox and Netflix. It was very facinating, featuring interviews with Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Quintin Taratino, Robert Rodriguez, Greg Nicotero and a host of other make-up artists and filmmakers. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in filmmaking, particularly horror filmmaking (though other genres are discussed).

The other thing is a recent re-watching of Blade Runner (the workprint version, if you're curious). Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies of all time, based on one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. In fact, I owe Blade Runner and Total Recall a special debt, as they're the reasons I got into Philip K. Dick in the first place (tragically, young moviegoers today will probably be driven away from his work thanks to crap like Next and Paycheck). Now, if you watch Blade Runner today, any of the five versions of it, it looks more convincing than anything released lately.

The work of the entire effects team (whose names you can read here, if you like) continues to be lauded to this day, and rightfully so. The film creates a cohesive reality of the future of Los Angeles, a solid and believable backdrop for the film. No, not a backdrop. More than that. The aesthetic created in Blade Runner continues to inspire filmmakers to this day, the settings are so tangible and so convincing that they could be considered a character unto themselves. Shot of the Los Angeles skyline that opens the film still inspires the awe in me it did when I first saw the film something like 15 years ago, as a pre-teen geek.

The worlds of the 2nd Star Wars trilogy, or the Lord of the Rings films have a strange, glossy look to them. They look fake. The feeling they resonate is similar to the feeling you have looking at the old painted backdrops of films from the first half of the 20th century. They make you realize that this is supposed to take place in a certain setting, but you realize it on an intellectual level. "Oh, this is supposed to be Middle Earth. Ok." Blade Runner creates a setting that you believe on an instinctual level. "This is Los Angeles in the future."

Why is that? Simple. Because all of the set pieces are actually there. They're miniatures and composite shots, sure, but they are things that actually exist. They weren't generated by a computer.

Now, I understand why computers are used, they're much cheaper, require fewer people (which means fewer salaries, which means, well, cheaper) and are faster. And I realize that CGI is going to be the way it's done for the most part from here on out, but nothing would do my heart better than to hear of a big budget, effects laden film that planned on going old school on all the effects. Of course, it all means nothing if the story is crap, but all other things being equal, I prefer the old methods.

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