CGI Unleashed

In two words I will sum up how too much CGI can destroy a movie: Michael Bay.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
I'd like to pose the age old question. How much is too much? How much CGI (computer generated imagery) is excessive and how much is just right? I'm in no way a purist, but I understand why some industry folks are bucking the trend and trying to halt the CGI onslaught in film and television, like No CGI Films. After seeing a monstrosity like Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, can you blame them?

Considering how far we've come with regard to technology, I was surprised to learn that there's a movement to return science fiction back to it's original, pre-CGI state. Take Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier for example. Van Gorder and Stockmeier are in the process of creating a science fiction film completely without the use of CGI.
According to Wired, "their movie C, which follows the story of an idealistic flight officer who hijacks a spaceship during an interplanetary cold war, aims to 'create a dynamic science-fiction film using classic, in-camera special effects.' That means their space ships are cobbled-together bits from plastic models and other junk, and cemented together. They are physically moved across a star field — in this case, a stretched-out piece of black cloth poked with holes. The production is about as low-tech as they get. Just like...ground-breaking SF movies, before the computer age, back when they made movies with things, not pixels."
It's not as crazy as it sounds. Ever hear of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jaws, Star Wars, or Blade Runner--just to name a few? (See my top 15 scifi movies without cgi below). Admittedly, it's hard to remember a time before CGI and it's easy to focus on it's heavy-handed use, like in the following films:  

The list goes on and on. That said, I disagree with the purists because it's oh-so rewarding when CGI is done right, like in:
  • Inception 
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes 
  • District 9 
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (one of the first true uses of CGI in film)
  • Jurassic Park (it would have been difficult to pull this off without CGI)
  • The Matrix (not the sequels!!)
  • And the original The Lord of the Rings.

Admittedly, the list of "just right" is less than the "CGI gone wild" category, but if there's one big budget director who has found the perfect mixture of real stunts and CGI, it's Christopher Nolan. Everything I've heard about Nolan indicates that he only uses CGI when absolutely necessary, which in my opinion is a good rule of thumb. One example of Nolan's brilliant filmmaking is the cafe scene in Inception, which was primarily done without the aid of CGI.

Cafe Scene in Inception (Ellen Page and Leonard DiCaprio)
Whether he's flipping a tractor trailer truck in The Dark Knight or using air cannons and slow motion cameras to launch debris in the air during Inception, Nolan is a pure as it gets nowadays. Of course, one couldn't make Paris fold in on itself without the aid CGI, but other than a spectacular sequence like that, why use CGI if you don't need to? 
"To generate those explosions, the film's special-effects supervisor, Chris Corbould, rigged up a series of air cannons that launched debris into the air. To achieve the right slow-motion effect, Pfister made use of a specialized camera.

Paris folding in on itself in Inception
'We shot it with super-high-speed Photo-Sonics cameras to get that material floating in the air,' Pfister said of equipment that can capture 1,500 frames a second, in contrast to regular film's 24 frames a second. The extra frames allowed the filmmakers to slow the frame rate to a virtual crawl.
Then in came Paul Franklin, the film's visual-effects supervisor, who employed computer graphics to extend the debris and create more of a floating effect." MTV.com 
Thus, CGI was used to compliment, rather than create the scene. Unfortunately, some filmmakers think that CGI is a suitable substitute for good dialogue. What do you think? How much is too much? Or do you care?

Movie Trivia: Total Recall (1990) is one of the last big budget films ever made using large scale miniatures, rather than CGI. The only CGI sequence in Total Recall was the 42-second sequence in which commuters walked through the giant X-ray machine. That was it. Total Recall was a good science fiction film largely absent of CGI, as were the other films I've listed below. The fact that some of the greatest science fiction films of all time were created without the aid of CGI should say something.

Top 15 Science Fiction without the use of CGI.
  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  2. Blade Runner
  3. Jaws
  4. Alien
  5. Superman: The Movie
  6. The Thing (1982)
  7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  8. Forbidden Planet
  9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  10. Planet of the Apes (1968)
  11. THX: 1138 (1971)
  12. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Clearly not the Keanu Reeves remake!
  13. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  15. Escape from New York (1981)
Honorable Mentions
Barbarella (1968)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Invaders from Mars (1953)
It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Logan's Run (1976)
Mad Max
Metropolis (1927)
Omega Man (1971)
Solaris (1972)
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

10 comments:

  1. I don't like a lot of CGI, either, but the kid in me adored the Transformers movies (1&3) especially when the destruction was raining down on my home town and I got to watch my old job burn. That aside, I prefer the models and cameras and all the old fashioned tricks. I love your list of faves because I include them on mine.

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  2. CGI can be used to excess. Clash of the Titans was the worst, as it completely replaced a good story.
    Nolan did it perfectly with Inception. I think Star Trek and all of its incarnations and TV shows does it right as well.

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  3. well said. the thing is- it's a tool... you wouldn't use a hammer to put a screw in the wall.
    and no one wants to watch a movie where it is only shots of a hammer- no matter how beautiful that hammer is...

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  4. My hatred of CGI was brought by Jar-Jar Binks. (So I'm glad you mentioned him!)

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  5. I feel CGI is best when you forget it's CGI when you're watching it or if it's scarcely noticeable. I hate overreliace on CGI too.

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  6. All I have to say is fuck Michael Bay.

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  7. Good post.

    I don't have a problem with cgi, other than when the cast has crappy actors in it that cannot react properly to whatever the threat is that will be rendered later in cgi. It's sometimes pretty obvious when people are running away from something that's not really there. Of course, the same could be said back when mattes or split frames were used before cgi, too.

    Most of the films on the cgi sucks list suck because of their scripts and/or acting, too.

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  8. Melissa-- I agree. When I was going through the list and I couldn't believe all the classics that were made before cgi.

    Alex-- I couldn't agree more. There's a balance somewhere in the middle. Inception was right on target.

    Bersecules-- Jar Jar is the bane of so many.

    Film Geek-- So true! If you notice the cgi it defeats the point.

    Tom BadGuy-- Yes, please!

    Chip-- Very true. It's usually a sum of many parts. Most of the films that rely too heavily on cgi are just bad movies.

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  9. I love the blog MsMariah.

    I did notice one of your classic CGI free movies does indeed have CGI. "The Andromeda Strain (1971)" - this very film was most likely the very first to have CGI (a rendered 3D sequence in a film). Like the original TRON the artists couldn't place CG elements on to film back then.
    CGI is a very vague term, and I cringe as a 3D artist whenever I see it, but I do agree with most peoples feelings about it, and the take home message is that it is any tool. After all, imagining Terminator 2 as stop motion harryhausen-esque effects would be difficult technically to pull off (tin foil on an armature?).
    CGI isn't the monster it's something much earlier in production than blaming what happens in post.
    Also I see no one complaining about the CGI they haven't noted such as the goat in The Men who Stare at Goats, digital doubles, set extensions and stunts along with fully CG films like Pixar who have terrific writers.

    Anyway unlike a few "CGI is bad rar rar" articles this had some balance which is nice to see. It would be even more interesting to bring up perhaps the science behind it with accompanying images.

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  10. Alex -- I didn't realize that about the Andromeda Strain. Thanks for this. It's true CGI is a vague term. It could mean a lot of things. It's good to hear from the perspective of a 3D artist. Thanks.

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