Computer Generated Images: The Utilization in Hollywood Films
The further and further the film industry grows, the more and more people start to see that Hollywood films are starting to loose their creativeness, when compared to older films. Whether it is spitting out unnecessary remakes and sequels, or rehashing old ideas already seen millions of times; audiences always have new ways of pointing out the chinks in Hollywood’s rusty armor. One complaint constantly stated by many audience members is the over usage of computer generated images (CGI). People will say how much they are tired to death of the same old CGI popping up in every blockbuster now-a-days. The Transformers film and the Star Wars prequels are usually the easy targets when people are trying to show CGI at it worst; not just in quality, but in its usage.
On one hand it is very true that practical effects should be utilized more in films, just mix it up once in a while. On the other hand, it seems like audiences do not like giving credit where credit is due, when regarding CGI. People hate CGI because it is symbolizes what is wrong with Hollywood, which is a bit exaggerated. Villainizing CGI only does disservice to the great examples of CGI in films like in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Practical effects are great and really do bring imaginary creatures to life, but there is only so much you can do with it. Film is an evolving art form, and the way films are made needs to evolve with it. Keep in mind, this article is not trying to kiss the feet of movie studies everywhere, nor is it trying to only take the side of the audience. This article is only trying to show there can be a middle ground between CGI and visual immersion. With no further ado, it is time to play devil’s advocate and to explain why CGI is necessary in the film industry.
Before we understand why CGI is necessary in the film industry, it is important to understand why everyone loves hand made effects.To say that practical effects have brought to life unbelievable creatures is an understatement. A practical effect can be described as any effect that is not computer made. For example: animatronics where constantly utilized in sci-fi and horror films like Jaws, and in the Star Wars original trilogy. The only down side that came animatronics is that that that would malfunction a lot of the time, which seriously effected the films budget. Make up and costumes was also a useful tool in sci-fi and horror, and even though the costumes or make up were uncomfortable for the actors, it only proved how devoted they were to the role when they stuck with it.Great practical effects do admittedly give an undeniable realism that sometimes even CGI cannot perfectly capture; that does not mean it is necessarily better than CGI, it just simply has advantages.
A great example of an effect artist would be Tom Savini, who worked on the classic Dawn of the Dead, and From Dust Till Dawn. Another fantastic effect artist would be H.R. Giger, who is synonymous with creating the look of the necromorph for the film Alien. Practical effects may bring creatures and setting to life, but there are some things that even practical effects can’t do. A good example is the T-1000 in Terminator 2, which was one of the best effects at the time because it was so unique. True, there was once and a while a usage of practical effects, but for the most part, the effects were better suited for CGI because of all the transformation and shapeshifting that is being depicted. Now-a-days, we get films that we could have never of dreamed of before.
Let’s put this in to perspective: say Paramount studios made The Avengers with only practical effects and hand made sets. While the story would have stayed the same, the visual presentation would not be the same because they no longer have all those awesome and memorable action scenes. There would be no more Iron Man flying into the stomach of an alien beast, no more Hulk destroying alien hordes left and right, and no more puny god scene. Apologies if this sound like a movie executive talking, but it would be financially impossible to make The Avengers using only practical effects. Practical effects are expensive, and CGI should not be seen as a cheaper way of making films, but instead as just a simple way to enhance the experience. While The Avengers does use make-up and hand made sets, they simply use the CGI when it is absolutely necessary. That is the most important factor when judging a film on special effects.
Everyone remembers how amazing Jurassic Park was with its mind-blowing practical effects for the T-rex and Raptors. When Jurassic Park uses CGI it is only for the effects that were too hard to portray with practical effects. What audiences really want is at least a good balance of practical effects and CGI in a film, and not just one or the other. It is very apparent that there are films now-a-days that overuse CGI, even though there were some instances they could have used practical effects. Practical effects are not dying out, but Hollywood should to a better job to make sure in is utilized more often.
One of the best examples of hand made effects is stop motion. This is a long but worthwhile technique, in which a clay figure is shot every second, to create a feeling of movement. This was popularized in the classic King Kong, and was mind blowing at the time because it was a whole new way to create movement for bigger creatures. The undisputed king of stop motion was Ray Harryhausen, who made the creature effects for The Beast from 20,00 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans. He was a master of his craft, and his craft will always be synonymous with film history. Other films took inspiration from Harryhausen, like The Terminator and Robocop. Even though using stop motion in live action films is practically extinct, it still lives on in Animation, like in Wallace and Gromit and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Back to the topic of computer effects, one of the common complaints about CGI is how people can tell when it is being displayed on screen; it is clear when a monster, or setting is made of CGI. While that is an understandable point, it is a flawed argument when the same thing could be said for stop motion. Stop motion is still amazing and fascinating to look at, but there is always the sense that the creature are not really there, and are just very detailed clay figures. People say it is distracting when a character switches from the real actor, to a CGI model; the same could be said for stop motion. Take Clash of the Titans for example: The character Calibos is in one second a guy in make up, and the next second he is a stop motion figure. That is very distracting, and in a sense kills the immersion of the character. This is not trying to say stop motion is bad, which it absolutely is not the case. It is only perplexing that CGI is criticized for being clearly seen on film, while stop motion in not. Some may see it as unfair to compare CGI to stop motion because stop motion has not been used for many years, and has not aged as well. However, the point is not to say which one is better than the other, but how they are more similar than one may think. One is simply hand made with clay, while the other is made with computers. To further establish this point, the animation studio Laika has used both stop motion and computer effects to make their films like Coraline and Paranorman. Lets not think of them as two completely different special effects.
Good Examples of CGI
Now that we have tipped our hats to stop motion and practical effects, let talk primely about the benefits of CGI. Computer generated effects give the audience a new kind of flow when it comes to movement for character; whether it is fast movement, or a scene shot in slow-motion. When done right, action scenes become fast paced, while at the same time giving clear details so the audience can make out who is who. Pulling another example from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the recent Ant-Man trailer already gives us a whole new way of filming comic book styled fights, by showing rapid action seen from the perspective from our ant sized hero. Audiences have seen movies from small sized characters’ perspective like in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, but not to this extent. The best examples of good quality CGI isn’t when it is only there to show of all the good effects, but when it is helping to enhance the story itself. In other words, a film can work on its own with a good story, but the CGI gives it a distinct look, even an inventive artistic style. A popular film people will instantly think of when it comes to distinctive CGI is Sin City. A film that is almost all made with CGI, but does not come off as fake because the whole world is in the style of a black and white comic book, with a few reds and yellows to offer a unique artistic look.
Of course, CGI can lose the immersion of the character if their facial features don’t look convincing. Luckily, CGI has giving new wave of capturing facial features and distinctive movement with motion capture. It is when an actor gets in digital suit, performs the action for their character, and then animators match up the actors actions with the digitally made character they are portraying. More often than not, motion captured performances pay off beautifully in the end because the audience can believe that CGI character is really there. Once again, the Marvel movies gives us a great motion capture performance in Guardians of the Galaxy with the character Rocket, acted out by James Gunn’s brother, Sean Gunn. Yet, the undisputed master of motion capture is Andy Serkis, who blew everyone away with his eerie, yet sad portal of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies. Even since, he has show why he is the master, when in other films like King Kong (2005), Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Adventures of TinTin. There is a reason people are practically begging on their knees for Serkis to get an Oscar.
CGI is one of the best ways to portray something, or someone that is not really there. Because of that, CGI has become an immensely helpful tool when portraying actors who are sadly no longer with us. If an actor died during the time they are making a film, they can CGI the actor so their character can still be in the film. Some will say it would be better to leave the character out for the rest of the film, but that would just be disrespectful to the actor him/herself. An actor would want to see out their character to the very end, and CGI has given them that opportunity. A famous example is Brandon Lee in The Crow, in which he died on set, and since they were almost done, they simple placed a digital head of Lee on a body double to finish the rest of the scenes. The CGI team was on the top of their game when making the CGI head because even to this day, it is hard to tell when Brandon Lee is on the screen, and when he is not. The most resent example of this is a CGI Paul Walker in Fast and Furious 7. He died unexpectedly during the shooting of the film, and along with the help of his brothers who bare a striking resemblance to him, his character was able to have a good send off in the end of the film. Examples like these and others prove why CGI benefits Hollywood filmmaking.
Bad Examples of CGI
If anyone just got bad shivers down their spines by simply looking at the picture of Jar Jar, there is a good reason why. While CGI grants movie makers many benefit in their film, other films give the CGI art-form a bad name. When audiences say that their sick of CGI, what they really mean is they are sick of bad, or at least poor looking CGI in films. One of the prime examples of bad CGI is in the rightfully hated Star Wars prequels. While the CGI got a little bit better in Episodes II and III, The whole trilogy gave us awkward looking and simply childish alien designs. This is a prime example of films that easily could have used practical effects, and yet, the films heavily overuse their CGI instead. It was a big disservice because the original trilogy proved that you can use practical effects to give the audience bizarre, yet endearing alien creatures. Special effects don’t necessarily kill a film, but if the effects are bad, then a film itself will be solely judged on it merits alone, and not on the presentation. Remember, a film can be fine on its own without having good effects, but well crafted CGI can help a film to make it even better. In the Prequels case, because the CGI is so bad and fake looking, it reveals just how bad the films really are; bad effects + bad story= a waste of the audiences time. In this case, yes, special effects do kill a film.
Another case of bad CGI in a film can be seen in the live action Transformers franchise, with effects that are not necessarily bad, but just disorienting. The action is not the worst thing about this franchise when compared to the blatant female eye-candy, offensive racial stereotypes, and over appraisal of the American military. Yet the action is often the most complained about thing in the films because they are so rapid and too hard to follow. One reason is that all the Transformers look mashed together with different robotic parts, therefore making it hard to get a clear picture what they look like. Another example is that all the Autobots have different colors, but the Decepticons hare grey, making them basically indistinguishable. The biggest reason the action does not work is because the camera is always moving. As a result, there is no time for the audience to breath and to take in what is going on around them because the action scenes just becomes relentless after a while. It is true that bad CGI like this is plaguing Hollywood films, but at the same time, they only make good examples of CGI look even better.
Out of the many augments made for CGI as a useful tool discussed in this article, a lot of film fans would agree that these examples are fair statements. However, there is still a bad taste that lingers in film fans mouths whenever CGI is discussed. That is the assumption that CGI has no heart to it, when compared to practical effects and stop motion. The fact that CGI is not built with the hands of the creator themselves automatically makes it a primitive art-form. Really? Granted it takes a person with a special touch to make stunning examples of practical effects, but that does not mean CGI is inferior in comparison. Do people think CGI fails in comparison because it is made on a computer? It is not like they yank any random person off the street and tell them to make computer effects. The best examples of CGI are made by professionals; men and women who do put their heart and souls in to their work because it is what they love to do. It can take weeks, even months to get a simple effect right. Film fans are possibly trying to dislike CGI because it embodies the constant involvement of technology, and how it taking over our society. They feel that CGI will take over the film industry completely, and practical effects will disappear along with it, but that will most likely never happen. It is true that practical effects are not as popular as the used to be, but that is because CGI came along to help with what practical effects could not do; not to replace practical effects, but to simply work along side it. There are plenty of examples of directors like Christopher Nolan, who are adamant about using practical effects, so there is no sign of the art-form going away any time soon.
What I hope readers take away from this article is that CGI should not be seen as a slack-jawed way of making effects. It is perfectly fine to judge a film with questionable CGI, but simply remember to judge it as an art-form should be judged. It should not be judged by the art-form itself, but instead by the artist themselves.
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