Imagine you were born in the final decade of the 1800s. You are alive just at the birth of cinema. You see moving images of people getting on and off trains, riding bicycles, and doing a host of other inane things. Then you go see A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès, and you see the man in the moon… get shot in the eye. You see a bearded man hit costumed creatures and they vanish into smoke. You’ve never seen anything like it, and how could you? This is the beginning of cinematic special effects. It has been nearly 110 years since A Trip to the Moon was made, and it is amazing how far we have come. Thanks to computers, films now contain imagery and effects that Méliès could never have dreamed of.
Unfortunately, these technological advancements have come at a cost. As would be expected, the advent of CGI has changed the way films look and feel. This can be a very good thing, but it can also destroy a film’s potential impact. Go below to see what I mean.
I love Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and that love has little to do with its general quality. No, what really gets me is the film’s authenticity. It is incredibly cohesive, visually speaking. Every room and cavern and creature in Alien seems to be a real part of the world. Why? Well… because they are. There are only two instances in the entire film where green screens are used (both of them showing the blackness of space), and both of them are short (and painfully obvious). To create the film, Ridley Scott and his team needed to use creativity and ingenuity to create a realistic world and a proper feeling of suspense. They used props, puppets, sets, and whatever else was needed, and they made an amazing film with it, and, I would argue, because of it. Perhaps not everything worked (the prop Android head was less than convincing), but there were far more hits than misses.
One of my favorite cinema stories relates to the famous chest-bursting scene, and it encapsulates my argument: When the scene was being shot, there was only one take caught by multiple cameras. There were no rehearsals, and the actors had only a vague idea of what was going to happen. They had seen the puppet and they had been told what it would be doing. They were not told, however, that it would send geysers of blood everwhere. When the cameras rolled and the creature appeared, every single reaction in that room is completely genuine. One of the cast members fell to the ground in hysterics, and it was all real.
This kind of legitimacy could not be recreated with CGI. When there are green screens instead of space ships and air instead of aliens, an actor must act instead of react. An actor only has a vague idea of what his or her world is and what he or she is dealing with. What the final film looks like is probably completely different than what the actors envisioned at the time. Because these characters and worlds are created in post production, it could be months before an actor knows what exactly it was that happened in any given scene. Even the best actors have limitations, and simulating a world is the easiest way to show them. Every single moment becomes an act. Petting the air does not compare to petting a dog. Standing in front of a green screen does not compare to standing in a rundown ghetto.
Technology has improved greatly since the advent of the green screen, and it has become increasingly difficult to discern between location shooting and green screens. However, I will continue to argue that films using legitimate locations tend to feel much more realistic in the final product, as they allow for things that green screens can’t. Cutting corners is all well and good, but interaction with a real environment cannot be replicated by a piece of fabric. Although it hasn’t been released to the masses yet, Nicholas Winding Refn’s upcoming Drive use of location resulted in some truly incredible moments, visually and otherwise. The amazing Bellflower is another example. That film lives and dies by its ability to bring you into its world, and its complete lack of anything CGI is a major part of why it succeeds.
The uncanny valley concept is one frequently brought up in CGI discussions, and it continues to be a valid argument. For those who don’t know, it basically states that the closer something gets to being real (behavior, looks, etc.), the more obviously fake (and disturbing) it becomes. When a CGI human is 99.95% real, a single inhuman eyebrow twitch will instantly remove you from the experience. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, but technology has not progressed to the point where it is not clear what is real and what is fake. Because of this, I will take the apes in 2001: A Space Oddysey over the ones in Rise of the Planet of the Apes any day. When I first saw 2001, I never thought about the fact that the apes were men in suits, because their presence was clear within the world. No, Kubrick’s apes couldn’t emote to the same degree, but their reality trumped the simulated look of the chimps in Rise of the Planet of the Apes regardless. Everything in a film needs to be seen as a continuous part of the universe. You may want the things within a movie to look real, but you need them to be real. Otherwise, you may as well be watching Blues Clues.
Above all, consistency, not realism, is the issue. Ratatouille is an incredibly beautiful movie. Is it realistic? No, but its visuals are completely consistent (and beautiful). Everything fits into one constant universe. Imagine if live action Anne Hathaway randomly walked through that film. It would be incredibly distracting, and you would focus on that rather than the plot. Poor CGI in a live action film is exactly the same. It serves as a constant barrier between the viewer and the film world. If CGI is going to be used, it needs to be absolutely flawless. Bedevilled is one of the best films I have ever seen, and, in my review of the film, I mentioned that the only reason I knew there was CG in the film was some job titles that played in the credits. I was completely engrossed in that film, because, as disturbing as it was, it was consistent with the world itself.
Another great example is David Fincher’s Zodiac. Whether you like it or not, you must admit that it has a very different look and feel from most films. This is significant, because a great deal of the film is actually CGI. Watching some of the special features was an absolute shock to me, because moments that really stuck out to me in the film had simply been added in post production. I felt cheated in a way, because I know some of those things could absolutely have been done during shooting, but I realized it didn’t matter. Fincher (and his team) had fooled me. Even so, the CGI was used to enhance the film, and even when green screens were used, scenes were still often filmed on location. It absolutely takes CG further than Bedevilled did, but it was still used in a way (usually) that did not call attention to itself. It was simply there to allow Fincher to work the way he wanted to work and to more properly recreate a by-gone era.
Then there are films like Yakuza Weapon and Karate-Robo Zaborgar. Both are hugely enjoyable, but they suffer from the same major flaw: terrible CGI. Both of them are absolutely crazy films that could not exist as they do without computer trickery, but their reliance on it is ultimately the weakest part of the film. Yakuza Weapon is most notable for its five minute single-take fight scene that puts the one from Oldboy to shame. For the first four minutes or so, the fight is all punches and kicks and other things done by real people with real objects. For the end of the fight, much of the bloodshed is due to the hand-turned-minigun and knee-turned-rocket-launcher, and it ruins the immersion of that scene. As the camera moves in and out, there is an actual sense of the fight as a real thing that you are witnessing. When the bad/inconsistent CGI enters the fray, you realize that this is not a thing that is happening, but is something that has been created and worked and reworked for the benefit of an audience.
Karate-Robo Zaborgar is even worse. There are scenes where the robots and the crazy objects are actually real things that were created for the film as well as ones where everything is computer generated. The contrast between these two is too great, and it makes the entire experience even stranger. Whenever I saw an actual giant car with arms coming out of it, I thought, “Wow! People actually went through the trouble of making that awesome thing!” and sat back and watched. When that same car turned CGI, however, that initial appreciation dissipated and made the whole scene far less enjoyable. I became even less impressed with the film when the credits rolled, because instead of bloopers of some kind, it showed footage from the 1970s TV show on which the film was based. In that show, there was no CGI. Everything was actually built for it, making it look far more cohesive than the film.
Not all filmmakers accept the advent of CGI however, and this is most obvious in the sub-genre of hyper-violent independent films. I will talk about two more films: August Underground’s Mordum and Hobo with a Shotgun. Both of these films fall into a new wave of the exploitation phenomena. Although I will be doing an in-depth explanation of exploitation films in the future, this is what you need to know for now: exploitation films are low-budget films that capitalize on some kind of topical trend and feature lurid material which is exploited in their marketing campaigns. Both of these films fit that category fairly well, and both of them make great use of non-CG effects.
August Underground’s Mordum is a fascinating film. I would argue that it isn’t very good, but it is definitely something unique. It is the second in a trilogy of faux-snuff films created by the independent team over at Toe Tag Pictures. It is incredibly graphic and profane, doesn’t have much of a story, and is really just a whole lot of violence filmed with a low-quality handheld camera. Like any other found-footage film, it gives off an illusion of reality, and though there are plenty of disturbing things that go on in the film, this is neither the time nor the place to talk about them. Instead, I will simply say that the illusion is generally effective.
The reason that it is effective is because none of Toe Tag’s films use any hint of CGI. Given some of the things that happen in the film, what they manage to accomplish is pretty impressive (though I’m not sure if that’s in a good or a bad way). There are flaws here and there, but the filmmaker’s commitment to visual consistency is the film’s crowning achievement. Without it, the film would have absolutely no redeeming value (not that it has much anyway).
Hobo with a Shotgun is a much easier film to recommend, assuming you enjoy the resurgence of grindhouse-style cinema. Being completely unrealistic, this film is able to take much more license with its special effects than Mordum, but director Jason Eisener still went with props instead of computers. The film has a very interesting hyper-realistic visual style, one that lends itself to over-the-top gore. If the film had decided, however, to use CGI for everything, the violence would not have had nearly the same impact. Even though what is happening is completely unrealistic, there is no question that the consistency afforded by actual (fake) gore is a major part of why the film works so well.
There are numerous other films I’d like to talk about (Apocalypse Now, Christopher Nolan’s various films, Avatar, etc.), but at this point it would just be redundant. Yes, there are certainly excellent examples of CGI being used, but there are so many more which show its imperfections. The same could be said about using props and make-up, but even the worst of those will always have something that CGI won’t. A film needs visual consistency. For some films, well-done CGI can fit into that world without causing a distraction, but there are many times where that just isn’t true. Movies always take advantage of whatever new technology is available, but that can definitely be to their detriment (needless 3D up-conversion, for example). They say that less is more, and that is definitely the case here. People intuitively know whether or not something is real, especially when it is juxtaposed with something that is. Filmmakers should use CGI as a last resort, not the basis of their movie. It’s not good enough. Consistency is key, so they say. I leave you with an image that’s been floating around the net for a few years. I think it speaks for itself: