We Need to Talk About CGI

There has been a recent surge of viewers, and filmmakers, who are tired of the CGI-fest that is currently on display in the vast majority of films. The return to practical effects -- as was seen in Mad Max: Fury Road, and in many parts of The Force Awakens -- on a blockbuster level has been met with widespread approval from a wide array of filmgoers.

We need to talk about CGI for this reason, and for many others. Audiences are still spending their money on these kinds of films (of which examples will be provided throughout this post), but their approval of them -- and the overall quality of these films -- have seen huge dips in recent years.

Before we go any further, it is important to mention the fact that CGI (computer-generated imagery) extends far beyond what most people think. This video helps explain the ways in which CGI is used in modern filmmaking.

This video also has an important point, which is the essential crux of this blog post: CGI is a tool, and just like any tool it can be used poorly. If you took your hammer and punched a bunch of holes in your wall with it, you wouldn't be able to blame it for the end result. The same is true of CGI -- we can't really blame CGI itself, we have to blame the filmmaker(s) for misusing it.

But we still need to talk about CGI, because it is much more common nowadays to see poor effects work in huge films. When a film has a low budget, or there is a new director, or new team, behind a rather ambitious project, we may be more willing to forgive poor CGI. However, when a film has a large budget, and a substantial studio backing, these kinds of things become less forgivable.

While this is a popular trilogy of films to rag on when it comes to this topic, it is important to mention Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy.

Just look at this scene from The Battle of the Five Armies -- the final film of the trilogy -- as an example.

Part of the issue here is that nothing looks natural in its environment. There is nothing wrong with using CGI on a massive scale when it comes to epic fantasy. It is no longer economically feasible, nor safe, to hire extras to do this work. CGI cuts costs, and ensures everyone on set will not be harmed. But look at this scene -- the characters (aside from the main ones who we know are played by real actors) don't look real in the scene. The entire frame has this glossy aesthetic to it (while that is a constant thing throughout this trilogy, it only makes these action scenes feel more fake), and the action feels like it belongs in the cut scene of a video game.

The effects work isn't unwatchable, but it is poor -- especially when you compare it with this scene that Jackson directed eleven years earlier.

In 2003, Peter Jackson managed to construct a similar scene (to be fair there are only three armies in this scene, while there are five in the one before it) which feels much more real, and (almost) seamlessly blends CGI with practical effects. Of course there is CGI in the Battle of Pelennor Fields -- the point is that there are really only a handful of spots where you definitively can tell (and even at those points, you aren't taken out of the scene). In The Battle of the Five Armies, there is no point where you feel what you are watching could be real.

It's also important to mention that The Battle of the Five Armies had roughly $156 million more in its budget than Return of the King (approx. $250 million dollar budget vs approx. $94 million dollar budget, respectively).

So what happened? Well, to put it bluntly (and precisely) the studio got lazy. I don't think Peter Jackson himself was responsible for the way these films ended up looking, but I do think the studios cut a lot of corners. Making Azog, the main antagonist, a completely CGI character did not help things.

And if the Hobbit films were just the few examples of big blockbuster CGI feeling inorganic to a scene then we would not be having this conversation, and audiences would not be increasingly bored with modern blockbusters. But we are, and they are, and there are culprits: studios and directors.

The other issue with bad CGI is that it doesn't hold up well after the years have passed. I'm not even talking about the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. This scene from The Matrix Reloaded is the perfect example.

In this scene, sad to say, you can visibly see where practical effects stop and CGI begins (in terms of Neo, Agent Smith, and the fighting; as we've covered, CGI is everywhere in every film). The characters stop looking real, and become rubbery, smooth, and glossy.

There is even some of this in Bong Joon-Ho's 2017 film, Okja. 

Okja doesn't feel like a realistic part of the environment. Forget about the actual animal itself -- the image that the effects team has created doesn't feel like a part of the photo-realistic environment itself.

While it is easy to argue that these things do not exist in reality (or if they do, they are impossible to film realistically) we need only look to Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey to see that, even in 1968, you can create extremely photo-realistic imagery of something that is, currently, impossible to film.

Now, to be fair, something like this and Okja are very different, and the processes through which they are created are very different. But we need only look to the Apes films to see a drastic difference in animation and CGI.

It's night and day comparatively -- the most important difference, additionally, is when we zoom into Caesar's eyes. Those are real eyes. Regardless of whether or not they used actual eyes (AKA a practical effect) to blend into that image, or if those are completely created in the computer, those look like real eyes in every respect of the term. Caesar also looks like a realistic part of his environment. The dark light helps to blend him, but even when we go into those close ups, he feels like a natural part of the environment in a way that Okja does not.

Now I am not here to rag on CGI, and films with bad CGI (despite what everything above this sentence may indicate). I merely am of the mind that we need to talk about how we use CGI. Right now, a lot of filmmakers are leaning on it like a crutch. While I cannot provide an example of every film that does this, you know this by your own experiences in the theater. It is impossible to get away from these kinds of rubbery, glossy images that feel very separate from the world they are supposed to exist in. We need to stop using CGI as a solution to every problem, and instead work with it as we used to -- using it to complement existing imagery, or practical effects.

Some directors already do this -- Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Neil Blomkamp, and David Lynch all are rather good at blending CGI with practical effects for a more powerful, and realistic image. However, far too many directors (and far too many good directors) are using CGI to cut corners -- Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Gareth Edwards, and Guy Ritchie are just a few examples of people who have fallen into this trap.

We should not throw away CGI entirely. It does benefit films, and filmmakers, in a variety of ways. However, we need to take a harder look at how we use CGI, and when we should use it. These are important distinctions to make, because the more we rely on CGI to tell our stories, the less real our stories are going to feel.