If you spend any significant amount of time on film- or tech-oriented websites, you’ve probably seen some coverage of the controversy surrounding the playing-off of Life of Pi‘s VFX supervisor, whose company is about to file for bankruptcy, after less than a minute as he began to make a plea for his industry’s future; the green screen-as-Facebook-avatar movement; the completely ridiculous comments made by Ang Lee hoping that CG would just “be cheaper” (non-Facebook link); or the general anger coming out of the VFX community. The response to Hollywood’s treatment of the people who make their movies what they are is shocking, and it seems like the bubble may be about to burst.
And these people truly do make Hollywood’s movies what they are. Take a look at the recently created Before VFX blog on Tumblr. That’s where the header and all of the rest of the images in this article comes from. For those who don’t recognize the boat, that is a shot from Life of Pi before movie magic made it into the film that many people know and love. Look at that image, and remember that this is the film that was awarded Best Cinematography at the 85th Oscars. That is absolutely ridiculous. Best Visual Effects? Maybe. In fact, probably. The fact that the film looks that good from what literally seems like it is nothing is shocking. It’s hardly perfect, but that’s damned impressive work.
So I owe the VFX community an apology. Or half of one anyway.
One of my earliest features for Flixist was about my hatred of CGI, inspired by the underwhelming creatures that Rise of the Planet of the Apes so heavily relied on. It was a broader point about the need for visual consistency, and I lamented the fact that technology simply isn’t in a place where things like CG apes can coexist with humans on camera and create a convincing effect. Neither The Avengers, despite having all of the money and talent in the world behind it, nor Life of Pi, which we have already mentioned, did much to change that. In fact, the closest CGI came to convincing me that an unreal object was actually present in 2012 was the eponymous bear in Ted. It’s still an imperfect effect, but whereas the presence of humans in an otherwise CG world in The Avengers and Life of Pi continually broke the illusion, Ted didn’t.
I don’t really know why.
But that’s not why I’m apologizing, because Richard Parker may have looked like an extremely detailed CG tiger, but he sure as hell looked like a CG tiger. What I want to apologize for is everything else. In my old article, I pointed to Alien as an example of near-perfect world-building. In my mind, nothing could recapture that feeling of reality, but that was because even if animators still can’t get carbon-based life forms right, I never understood just how well they were doing everything else.
As I looked through the Before VFX Tumblr, I was shocked by how many times I had just never considered the role of CG. With the knowledge that Christopher Nolan hates the use of CGI, I never even considered that parts of the final showdown with the Joker in The Dark Knight could have been fake. Well, don’t I look silly now.
This blog has convinced me that I was wrong, at least partially, and that sets and settings do not need to actually exist to be convincing. In certain (though still not all) cases, fakes can be every bit as convincing as the real thing. This makes me sad, even if it doesn’t bring me to tears in the same way it did Sir Ian McKellen. It’s a sad realization, because it cuts into my belief in the undefinable “movie magic” that is part of why I love cinema so much. I don’t often watch Behind the Scenes footage or clips, as interesting as they are, and this is part of why. Seeing this is disheartening. I yearn for the days when sets needed to be built and people needed to don ridiculous costumes that required skillful lighting to hide the silliness of.
And you know what? That may be coming back. If you read some of those links I put in the introduction, you will see some not-so-thinly veiled threats. The comparison that Drew McWeeny over at HitFix made to the writer’s strike is an interesting one. Hollywood didn’t give in, and the writers were forced to relent. The quality of writing may have gone down during that period, but how many people seriously noticed? Not many. That strike did little to hurt Hollywood. If the VFX community were to go on strike, it would not only hurt Hollywood; it would completely destroy them. They are so reliant on fancy computer tricks that putting them in a world without those tricks would, at least for a moment, wreck their system.
I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs for any reason, but I would love to see Hollywood brought to its knees (or cut off at the knees, whichever metaphor you prefer). Even if I don’t like CGI and would prefer that filmmakers use ingenuity over computer effects, I think that the people who do the work deserve to keep working, and they deserve to be paid for their work. Even as a total outsider, I was horrified by Ang Lee’s implication that VFX people (who are very clearly the reason he took home all of those Oscars) should work for lower wages, when the wages they are currently making are already putting them into bankruptcy.
So, to the VFX Community: I am sorry I doubted your ability to create worlds, even if I’m not convinced of your ability to create life. I hope that whatever path you end up taking, things work out for you. For better or worse, you are an integral part of this system, and you shouldn’t just be treated like cogs in a machine.
Best of luck.