Do you think computer-generated imagery a.k.a CGI are ruining movies? Your eyes glaze at the glut of glossy CGI stuffed summer blockbusters? Your fingers wage from message boards to sub-reddits, debating whether the advent of technology destroyed your beloved movies? If only we could turn back time and relive those good ‘ol days, the cinema of years past, the cinema of 1992 or 1995 or whenever the first Jurassic Park was released. That movie really holds up, right? You get that a lot these days, how practical effects are so much better and film-makers should just use them more, because the fact is, CGI is bad and ruining movies, right? So, how much CGI is too much CGI? That remains an elusive question till date. We will try our best to explain and answer it in the course of this article.
Let us be crystal clear about this – CGIs don't ruin movies. The reason we think CGI looks bad is because all we see is bad CGI. Amazing, wonderfully-executed CGI is everywhere, you just don't know it. When timed with wonderfully choreographed shots and paired with compelling storytelling, you’d barely notice that the masterpiece you just witnessed was churned out by dirty soulless computer living in a basement. Great visual effects serve story and character and in doing so are by in their very definition – invisible.
The way you get great visual delights has nothing to do with ‘more practical effects’ (although that would certainly help) but it in fact it’s the understanding of your computer’s strengths and limitations and playing to those strengths and supplementing the weakness with other techniques. Computers are really great at rendering objects like cars, streets, chairs, solid objects, etc and that gives them leverage over practical effects. So, the next time you are in the air in a chopper or following a car on the street, note that everything you see is CGI! The pace at which it’s shown to you makes it nearly impossible to spot. Heck! Iron Man gliding through the city of Manhattan is all a big fat lie. The entire city of Manhattan was rendered using reference images and a computer. That’s the true power of CGI!
Take a look at this still from Gravity. How much of this do you think is practical and how much do you think is CG?
When it comes to blending practical and special effects, George Miller basically drops the mic on that with Mad Max : Fury Road. It’s regarded as the prime example for it’s appropriate usage of great practical effects but the fact is, Miller was fairly comfortable letting his animators do most of the work on the computer.
It’s just a perfect blend of CGI and practical effects that fooled you into thinking it’s not CG.
By now you must have realised that modern movies are full of visual effects and while it’s easy to sit back and blame the industry for churning out movies the way they are, you are really not thinking about the whole picture. Bad CGI basically boils down to main reasons – time and money. The whole visual effects industry is in a tight spot. You have got intricate, competitive landscapes, razor thin margins, studios are looking out for vendors who can do the most on a scanty budget. Look at it this way: visual artists combine incredible artistry and technical ability, toiling over shots for hours and IF they do their job well, nobody even notices it. And they still do it.
So here’s a little pondering we all gotta do, ever wondered why you never see a great movie with awful visual effects? Even the classics with practical effects that may look outdated to our modern sense of abilities, we don’t seem to mind those or certainly didn't at the time. We really don't have any qualms about great movies. The craft and storytelling so enchants us that at back of our head we are not looking for easy scapegoats.
Since the beginning of cinema, visual effects have always been an integral part of this art form. CG are just the tools for us the create a rich, dynamic and vibrant cinema and if the end result is bad, it’s really not the tool’s fault. The blame lies with the artisan.