16.4.10

Why CGI Sucks and Old School Effects Rock

EXT. EMPTY LOT NEXT TO SUPERMARKET - NIGHT

A good beginning for a good blog is often a good rant, don't ya think? So as I was preparing to write a blog about old school visual effects, I figured I should start by explaining why modern digital effects irritate me so much.

DEFINITIONS

Digital Effects = Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) = Visual effects produced with computers, often without a single real physical contribution.

Old School Effects = Photo-chemical effects = Models, matte paintings, in-camera tricks. Different components of a shot are combined optically or chemically on actual film.


FLASH CUT:

I'm sick of computer generated effects. I'm sick of the way every big film coming out of Hollywood these days rely so much on CGI. Take away the effects and large chunks of the film literally ceases to exist. At cinemas everywhere big event films are constantly trying to one-up each other, and several thousand effect shots are not uncommon in a new movie.


Now, my problem is not with any kind of computer effects, what I'm talking about are scenes where the camera flies around, defying all sense of physics, or scenes where gazillions of tiny CGI extras race into battle on a CGI battlefield. I'm talking about films that spend $100 million creating CGI characters that only look marginally real, when good old makeup effects could have handled the same job far more effectively. It's lazy. It's stupid. And I'm freakin' bored with it.

Don't get me wrong: Computer effects are a great tool, when they're used right. Same goes for any other tool, but if you've ever tried to paint with a hammer you will know that using the wrong tool can prove to be downright disastrous.


The problem with CGI is that anything can be done. ANYTHING. However, doing ANYTHING just because one can, is not necessarily a good idea. Think about this: An actor can also do ANYTHING, but we don't really want them to jump around and do the chicken dance in every scene do we? We want them to act appropriately. CGI effects should do the same.

It wasn't always like this, he said, getting all misty-eyed.

Back in the old days if you wanted to put something in a film, you had to make it and shoot it. And if you didn't want something in the shot, you had to get rid of it before the cameras rolled. Back then every single effect shot was a monumental struggle, so the filmmakers would try to figure out the absolute minimum number of shots they would need to tell the story (the keyword here being STORY). That produced some very elegant, tight, well-constructed scenes, with some beautiful, effective shots.


The discipline that naturally grew out of this approach is exactly what a good movie needs, but with the advance of CGI filmmakers are getting lazy. There's a plane in the shot? We'll get rid of it in post. Actor didn't hit his mark? We'll move him in post. Actor A was best in take 1, actor B was best in take 5! We'll cut the shots up and merge them in post. These are not actually fixes you'll notice when you watch a film, but they influence the way filmmakes think, and they enforce that attitude of "we can always get it right... later."

Heavy use of CGI is also problematic, because the filmmakers lose sight of reality. It's easy to make a CGI car race down the highway narrowly missing every other car, but when you have to shoot it, when an actual stuntman has to perform the daring feat, you'll run into some natural limitations. The first instinct of a modern filmmaker will be to get rid of those limitations, but that's exactly the wrong thing to do.


It's a bit of a cliché to describe CGI artists as pasty white geeks who never get out, and just sit in front of a computer screen all day long. In reality that's not the case, but there is a certain kind of truth in that statement, deep down. When you have to build something physically and capture it on film, you get a completely different appreciation for the things you deal with. You learn how the camera works. You learn how light bounces off an object using your own two eyes. You learn to embrace the limitations and use them, not fight to eliminate them.

Another advantage of dealing with real objects in the real world is that accidents can happen. Good accidents, I mean. Visual Effect maestro Richard Edlund said it best in an interview with American Cinematographer:

Analogue thinking [...] allows for serendipity. [...] The thing about computer animation is that everything that happens has to be intellectually inserted, so it's very difficult for serendipitous performance to occur, because you have to intellectualize that serendipitous blip.

That's why I prefer old school effects. To me they are far more organic than CGI effects. "It doesn't look real", is the argument I often hear against those wonderful corny old effects. That's probably true, but the same could also be said for most modern effects. When robots are fighting through the streets, when the whole world sinks into the ocean, all done with pixel perfect precision, I don't believe for a second that what I'm watching is real. Same thing when I'm watching King Kong trash the Empire State building, or when The Death Star blows up, but with Kong and The Death Star I at least get a sense of the artistry and the effort involved in the process.


Here's the thing: Mona Lisa is a work of art, not because the painting is a carbon copy of reality, but rather because it's magical. There's the allure of Mona Lisa's unreadable expression. The composition of the image. The brushstrokes of an artist at the height of his craft. This is what makes the painting unique. If a guy in a basement had painted Mona Lisa with a "hot-girl-in-front-of-landscape"-simulator I guarantee her smile would be a lot less alluring. Or maybe it wouldn't be there at all.

There's no doubt: Computers are here to stay. Despite my resentful attitude they ARE a great tool. CGI has given us some incredible images over the years. My heart still skips a beat when the T-Rex breaks out of its pen to wreck havoc in Jurassic Park, and I barely believe my eyes when I see the manchild Benjamin Button stumble towards the camera, as real and alive as my own reflection. These are two excellent examples of the perfect use for CGI.


CGI has brought great advances to the field of visual effects, without a doubt, but at the same time I feel like the entire industry has also lost its soul in the process. I miss the ingenuity and the sense of adventure from the "old" days. We need a cool monster! Why don't we build one and shoot it in a water tank, so it's looks all floaty and scary? We can't afford to build the top three floors of a building! Why don't we build those floors as a model, and hang it in front of the camera so it looks huge? That's what I miss, and that's why I'm in love with old school visual effects. They may not have pixel perfect precision, but they have a lot of heart.

Sometimes that's enough.

End of rant.

CUT TO BLACK.

Stay tuned for more posts about visual effects in the future.

ADDITIONAL LINKS AND RESOURCES

The VFX Show
Great bi-weekly podcast about visual effects, from a bunch of digital effect artists, who have a great love for old school effects.

Cinefex Magazine
Quarterly magazine about visual effects. Get the old issues for some great articles about old school effects.

ACS Podcast
You can find the entire interview with Richard Edlund here.

19 comments:

  1. Stay out of the theater. Problem solved.

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  2. @Kenton
    Ah, the ostrich approach. Actually ignoring the problem won't make it go away. Bad CGI is a problem. And we NEED to deal with it.

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  3. I was having this discussion with an budding director friend of mine. The example he used was with camera shots; if a car is spiraling through the air and the camera takes us impossibly through one window and out the other we may not think about it while we're watching it, but we realize somehow that what we just watched was impossible to film without CGI. No more suspension of disbelief.
    I like to think about American Werewolf in London, and how the wolfman models were actually destroyed to create the illusion of the transformation. All that hard work. But thirty years of cinematic advancement later and I'd never been as close to believing that what I was watching on screen was actually happening. And I didn't watch it 30 years ago, when there was little if any CGI to compare it to. I just watched it for the first time last week.
    There is a place for CGI. But it shouldn't be used at the risk of distancing the movie going public from the narrative.

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  4. @Antonio
    Great feedback, Sir!
    It's funny you should mention the car example.
    10 years ago I would hate when I couldn't see an actor's face in an action scene, because I'd know it was a stunt-person. These days I love when this happens, because it usually means that the scene was shot "for real"!

    I love that you mention the "An American Werewolf in London" example. Of course I know this is fake, when I watch it, same as when I watch a CGI scene. The difference is I get a completely different feel for the destruction, it feels real, like you pointed out, something was destroyed here, and that translates directly through the screen.
    There's clearly a place for CGI, but if this is your only tool, people will catch on pretty quickly, if you switch between different tools (like they did in the old days) it's much harder for the audience to see through the illusions.
    But like you said, story is king, not CGI. There's a T-shirt there...

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  5. Some of the films with the best special effects that i can think of are films like Jurassic Park, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Return of the Jedi, Dawn of the Dead, Terminator 2, Temple of Doom, Back to the Future 2, and Aliens. The reason?

    The effects were never all achieved through one medium, they always keep you guessing, Jurassic Park for example uses CG for long range shots of the dinosaurs, and models for the close ups, even the baby raptor was made with animatronics. When the movie keeps you guessing like that you never know what to expect.

    Also the effects in the movies i mentioned were never over the top. Compare the mine cart ride in Temple of Doom to the newer car chase through the jungle in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, both are ridiculous scenes, but in temple of doom, the cart is actually going down a real track, of a real set, the CGI and green screen is used very sparingly, also the camera follows the action at a realistic pace its thrilling and looks dangerous within reason.

    In KOTCS the whole thing is just a mess, first Indy uses a Bazooka for no reason, blows up a tank, a wheel comes flying at them and wipes out the entire top half of their truck. Wow, good thing no one was injured in the slightest, and the actors hardly even react to it at all. then after a pretty cool realistic looking chase, Mutt and Splutko start sword fighting while standing on separate cars, this is where the chase really starts looking bad. Standing up in a car is hard enough by itself, but why is this part necessary when either driver could just ram the other car and send both fighters flying, also during the sword fight the camera is swooping all around the forest, why is this necessary? It isn't its just making the effect look worse. THEN both of Mutt's legs are on a different car as we get a camera shot that swoops between his legs and show him getting knocked in the balls by the local flora. WOW, but it gets worse, next thing i know Mutt gets swept up by some hanging vines and starts SWINGING with the monkeys (all CGI monkeys btw)! Not only that, he somehow finds the perfect vines and swings flawlessly, landing back in the car... wow, was this really supposed to be serious or thrilling, because its ridiculous?

    The thing about effects is that audiences are only willing to suspend their disbelief so far and it seems that directors don't know how much is too much.

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  6. @perun1nj
    I couldn't agree more. Your comments about Indy 4 are spot on. Indiana Jones was always about doing things as real as possible, but that sure went out the window with the 4th movie... My god. And that Mutt swinging sequence is beyond offensive.

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  7. I absolutely agree with the author of this article. I prefer Old school effects over CGI coz these effects are physically real unlike CGI which is completely virtual.

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  8. @Siddharth
    Thanx! I appreciate it!

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  9. the thing is that old school fx ARE real... what I mean is that even if you are shooting a latex mask, that latex mask exist in the real world, it is subject to the same light of the rest of the actors, scene, ambient.
    that's why it looks better.
    our brain is so accustomed to the tiniest details of organic bodies and the reality in general, that it will spot CGI fur, fake light, computer generated movements, and so on.

    one more thing... post production... nowadays almost all movies are retouched in post production with some sort of CG filter, and they tend to look the same. you could make two categories out of those: blueish movies and sepia movies.

    directors of photography are now CGI teams who don't know as much of that art to grasp good use of light in a dramatic way, they just want to make it realistic as possible, falling in the most fake of the results, or they will be using lights like in a videogame...

    and as you david, I'm pro CGI when needed and used right! I just wish they would use it when it fits, and not whenever.
    most of the times, old school effects are cheaper and still have the best result, provided you have a good crew of fx artists and a good director of photography.
    but I guess today that's too much to ask!

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  10. @ansiaaa
    You bring up a good point regarding post-production. It's something I'm noticing more and more. Is there ANY big action movie there days, where the actors aren't orange in the face? You gotta love a guy like Chris Nolan who went old school on Inception.

    I will say this: I know a lot of cinematographers who fight very hard to stay in control of the look during the post-production phase, but I'm afraid the issue is that these days the audience has gotten so used to that digitally color-graded style that they think that's how a film is supposed to look, and if it looks "normal" they complain.

    The big problem is that whole "we'll fix it in post" attitude, and the fact that producers think it's cheeper to go CGI than to get it right the first time, on the set.

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  11. I might be a little late to this party but I wanted to say I completely agree with the author. But I wanted to add something to this conversation. Traditional Animation. Yeah remember that? That's a medium that has been murdered by CGI and left in a ditch. Sad thing is most people today equate what should be a respected medium with films for children, as if the medium itself is designed for a certain age range. It gives me no end in satisfaction when I rangle people into watching movies like Plague Dogs, Felidae, and the Last Unicorn (the last is good even if it was intended for kids). The reaction that animation can be used for more than just kids movies always warms my heart.

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  12. @Damaskar
    Better late than never. You bring up an excellent point, which actually deserves its own discussion. Tradional animation is definitely an artform we need to preserve. There's something organic about it you just can't achieve with CGI animation.

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  13. I'm even later than Damaskar, but your article hits the nail on the head! I've been banging on in much the same vein for years sometimes at the risk of sounding anti-CGI, which I'm not (well, not completely) - like you, I appreciate it when CGI is used properly but all too often it's not used properly, it ends up becoming painfully self-indulgent. And I think your comments about the effect CGI and post-production tinkering has on the fundamental process of film-making are spot-on; it goes far beyond simply visual effects to pollute the craft of film-making itself at every level. I'm off before I rant...

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  14. @McTodd Sounds like we're on teh same page. Don't worry you can rant here any time you want!

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  15. Hello, I'm Alberto Muñoz, and I'm a hobbyist vfx artist. I like to compose video and do any kinds of 3D animation. And like so, I have a lot to say :P
    I must agree with most of what you said (if not everything). Some enterprises seems to be just so lazy, that doesn't even build the basics of the set! Have you ever seen how Alice in the Wonderland is done? There's almost no real set made, although most of them could be done without any problem.

    There are still some things that are preferrable to be done with CGI; For example, chucky would be a rather easier film if was done using CGI rather than an animatronic, but it gives the actors a great difficulty to work.

    It's not necessary to make the actors work harder because of lazyness.
    Also, I don't know why in most footages that are gonna be edited shows parts of the set or equipment everywhere, when it could be perfectly be hidden like all other scenes that doesn't. A great example is this: http://youtu.be/pzkvYXle0nk

    There are some CGI that are worth to, and indeed requires a lot of effort to be done and a lot of hard preparation. But others are indeed lazed up.

    I like both old school and some of today's CGI. Because it's a rather mixed topic to talk about

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  16. If I wanted to watch a video game, I'd go play a video game.

    Signed,
    Unapologetic art-house/world cinema fan

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  17. The thing I hate the most about cgi is the way it looks exactly the god-damn same from one flick to the next. And nobody wonders how it's done. Everyone knows. No artistic value at all.

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  18. You articulated my exact feelings on CG perfectly.

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