Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lazy World Of CGI

In that interview in the previous entry, Alan Moore basically expressed what I've long been frustrated with, that is the extent to which CGI is being used in movies. It's true that there are movies that wouldn't have been possible without the advent of computer graphics, but I think the usage of CGI has become increasingly reckless and less thoughtful.

This kind of led me to thinking, what if several famous movies from the past - long before every household could afford a PC, or even before it was invented - were made today?

1. In Star Wars Episode IV, C3PO would be a CGI character. We'd never hear of an actor named Anthony Daniels.

2. In Jaws, Bruce would be a CGI shark. The production would have been on schedule and within budget.

3. John Carpenter's The Thing would feature CGI monsters, and the Blair Monster in the end sequence would become a reality.

4. Linda Blair's transformation in The Exorcist would probably be quicker on screen just to show off what CGI can do.

5. Ray Harryhausen would be out of a job.

Consider this. There wouldn't be any human mime artistry to C3PO. The CGI robot would just follow the exact motion-capture movements of an English butler. There is no sense of awe such as in seeing the wonder of human talent in putting together a metal-like suit that fits a slim actor, so flawless in its design that it doesn't give away any seams.

Seeing a CGI shark (Deep Blue Sea is the prime example), no matter how perfect the computer simulation, just isn't the same as wondering how they made the mechanical shark so life-like. And the fact that you know the mechanical shark is a physical presence on set and on screen, that it's really Robert Shaw caught in its munching jaws.

It's the same with The Thing and The Exorcist, that what occupies real physical space is somehow more believable and relatable to us than something you know isn't really there but was drawn in later.

The biggest draw of old-school special effects, as opposed to computer generated images, is the "How did they do it" factor. Those old enough to recall seeing Clash Of The Titans for the first time would surely remember the jaw-dropping amazement of seeing those mythical creatures come to life in stop-motion animation. Of course, it all looks hokey now compared to today's smoothly executed CGI, but the level of wonder cannot be replaced.

The first two films with CGI that I remember ever being truly awed by, were The Mask and Jurassic Park. We literally queued for miles to get tickets for those movies. They were the first time anyone's seen CGI done on a huge scale, although Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her predated both movies. But these two movies relied almost entirely on CGI.

Then, filmmakers started using CGI to do stuff just because they could. Reason and necessity went right out the window. I found the highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded utterly boring, compared to say the ones in Bullit or even Ronin. You know that in the latter two, they were real stuntmen choreographing and coordinating the real set-pieces for real close shaves. No CGI were added.

Two things I particularly hate seeing nowadays are the camera going underneath a truck or some big vehicle in a chase scene, and a piece of something flying towards the camera in an explosion. You just know that they're fake when you see it.

The only filmmaker whom I think uses CGI smartly is Zemeckis. Death Becomes Her being the only exception, his CGI is never showy (see Contact for a good example) and used out of pure necessity (like removing Gary Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump).

Not only does the rampant use of CGI destroy imagination and thought, I think it also breeds repetition. How many times have you seen the chase scene and explosion examples that I mentioned above? How many warring hordes clashing on an open plain do we need to witness?

I think the careless way filmmakers have plunged into the world of CGI has saturated the amazement we get from seeing the impossible on screen and bred laziness in terms of conception of ideas and basic creativity. It's reached a point where there has got to be something more.

But to be fair, I'm speaking as a person who grew up witnessing the advent of computer graphics and it's eventual takeover of traditional special effects. Therefore I have a certain amount of bias due to nostalgia. I can't speak for the generation who grew up seeing CGI and never knew a time when special effects were painstakingly created with clay, stop-motion animation, hydraulics, double exposure, forced perspective, matte paintings, etc. I won't purport to know how it is for them.

For me, the real wonder is still seeing something like the train sequence in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). From a close shot of the interiors of the carriage, it pans out and away from the window until you see the whole train chugging along the tracks, and the camera continues to follow the window from a distance for some while.

That, for me, takes real effort, talent and imagination.

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