Is CGI taking the ‘special’ out of special effects?

Since the emergence of CGI in film in the early 70s (the first major motion film to ever use CGI was Westworld way back in 1973) we’ve become accustomed to CGI giving us explosions, talking apes, dinosaurs and, regrettably, Jar Jar Binks.

However CGI is now so commonplace that even the most mundane scenes will be digitally altered or created together. For example in Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s hands were elongated to make them look creepier. All of the sheep in Brokeback Mountain are CGI.  In Iron Man 3, Robert Downy Junior injured himself during filming and rather than wait 6 weeks for a recovery, the producers simply created a CGI alternative of him for the final scene. The majority of The Great Gatsby’s glitzy and shimmering sets were CGI, including Gatsby’s mansion. source

You get the picture. CGI in film is now no longer limited to creating the stuff we couldn’t create otherwise, but almost everything. Essentially, CGI is a shortcut to cinematic perfection. It’s easier to set the perfect scene, add in every detail or make the weather perfect. And this knowing that in most instances the beauty, majesty, drama and intensity is added to our film “using computers” can ruin the romance a little. Thinking that perfect locations are created, rather than painstakingly sourced or actors needn’t even act their scenes can leave us feeling as though the film is losing a its artistic integrity.

…Or is it?

Firstly, “using computers” does not make films any less authentic (hell, we’ve been using special effects since cinema began!) but more that we don’t understand it enough to appreciate it.

When we start to unearth the complexity of something we take for granted or might not even notice (The millionaire tennis courts in Wolf of Wall Street were also made entirely of CGI, for example) then we can begin to appreciate these films with the understanding they deserve.

CGI isn’t just technically difficult (we’re talking big time geek stuff here, with some intense workstations powering it, it’s also painstaking slow and time consuming. Think after all of the script writing and story boarding (you can’t go to animators without them knowing what to animate!) multiple layers of detail need to be added. Look at this example for Pirates of the Caribbean.

And not only the technical skills and pain-staking details that need to be added adds to the difficulty of creation, but the notion that CGI somehow conceptually takes away from the artistic integrity of a film is just incorrect. In the most recent Hobbit films conceptual artists worked closely with the animation teams to fill out any green space, add tiny details, change colours and to make every single shot as arresting, intense and aesthetically pleasing as possible. So the addition of CGI is, in the purest sense, adding additional artistic integrity to the film.

So why not rewatch Black Swan and take a minute to notice how animators went to the effort of legnehting Natalie Portmans hands, and take a moment to recognise that actually, it is really creepy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *