Friday, January 14, 2011

When CGI was an artform

There was a time (believe it or not) when computer generated imagery showed great promise in the world of filmmaking. When artists first started making CGI short films, there was a wide array of abstract possibility.
This short from Apollo computers shows a dreamlike reality, with awesome texture and amazing visuals. I remember when the video compilation Beyond the Mind's Eye first came out and was blown away by the psychedelic kaleidoscope of imagery and eye candy.

In the early days there was an organic quality to CGI that was both interesting and impressive.

When Tron first opened in 1982, it created a primitive but captivating world set inside a computer generated universe. There was something so bizarre and interesting to the look and feel of the film that set new standards for cinema.
As time went on and graphics became more "lifelike" you started to see a decline in the more abstract and surreal imagery, and the movement towards photorealism started to take hold.
By the time that movies like Star wars: the Phantom Menace, and Final Fantasy came out, movies were using CGI for pretty much everything no matter how tacky and cheap it looked. 2d animation had also been replaced in favor of CGI and a string of really bad kid's films began showing up in theaters everywhere.
The only studio that I believe has managed to really make good CG animated features has been Pixar studios. The quality of their animation is excellent, but what really makes their movies a joy to watch, is the fact that their stories are always very well-written and filled with memorable characters.

Nowadays, the point of CGI is to try and recreate reality as closely as possible, which in my opinion is such a boring waste of a great tool. It's a shame that CGI has replaced everything; Sets, make-up, costumes, creature effects, pyrotechnics, props, and even actors.
Although CGI has great potential for animation, it just doesn't look remotely real or lifelike and has a weird sharpness to it that just looks phony and two dimensional. CGI has now become a tool for lazy and unimaginative filmmakers, and has pretty much destroyed media in general.

Good old-fashioned prosthetics can never be replaced by computers- just look at the photo underneath:
This is a still from the 1991 David Cronenberg  film Naked Lunch. The mugwump creature designed by Chris Walas has a so much depth, texture, and detail to it, and it's just impossible to recreate this with a computer program.
Just compare the mugwump to one of the CGI monstrosities from the film Avatar, and one can really see just how flat and two dimensional these photorealistic characters really are. I guess that didn't stop audiences from eating up the hype surrounding Avatar and flocking to the theaters to see what is basically a CGI version of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
This is unfortunate, as CGI has many great things to offer, but only when used in the proper context. If you're going to make a film you need REAL things for the actors to interact with, so that the audience will believe that it's really there. Just note the difference in these two clips.
The first is a clip from the brilliant children's film The Neverending Story, which was made before CGI took over the industry. Take a look at how realistic everything looks- there is nothing phony or cheesy looking about this sequence.
And now take a look at a scene of Jar Jar Binks from one of the new Star Wars films. Notice how goofy the movements are, and how the interaction with the actors is unconvincing and flat.

Now, on a final note, observe Rob Bottin's excellent make-up for the swamp witch from the film Legend with the computer generated Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. When you compare the two, you can really see just how pathetic this so called photorealistic junk really is.

Sure those graphics might look fine for a video game, but as a main character in a feature film? My only hope is that one day CGI will return to it's abstract and surreal roots, and people will once again rely on practical effects work and real sets instead of green-screened nonsense. If this happens, maybe we will see much more interesting motion pictures in the future of cinema.


  1. pshhh... forget about the animation in that apollo short for a minute, how amazing was that synth generated score?? gave me a chubby. beyond that though, the actual animation was actually very reminiscent of the old 20's and 30's cartoons. everything was moving like a 21st century rubber hose cartoon. good stuff.

  2. Although I am a huge fan of practical effects, and believe that the practical effects in John Carpenter's: The Thing are some of the coolest effects put to film, I have to disagree somewhat. Firstly CGI is still in it's infancy and will continue to improve over time. And secondly while effects such as the Mugwump and the witch as "depth" as you call it they look even more fake than modern CGI efforts, they look like expensive toys. In time CGI will be able, and is already beginning to, provide both more realistic and more fantastical effects than practical ones ever could. Although the production of CGI will never be as much of an art form as practical effects to me.

  3. Wholeheartedly disagree with Anonymous, this comes up in conversation a lot nowadays. But puppets will always look more real and grotesque than their CG counterparts, because they ARE real. I still find the swamp witch absolutely terrifying, far more so than any CG beastie anyone can come up with. Watch Hellraiser and the scene where frank first grows through the floor makes me feel a little sick! Purely because it's put together with real materials, rather than being completely digitized after filming. We need another Jim Henson