by D.W. Lundberg

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Confession: I don't care much for CGI. At least not in the way most filmmakers tend to use it these days, which is too much and too often. Like any cinema tool – music, art direction, cinematography, editing, costume design, even A-list actors – special effects should always be used as a means to support a story, not as the focus of it. And it's a shame how so many people have apparently lost sight of that.

Granted, it's a tricky mix to get just right. While some directors seem to get it (Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, even pre-Avatar James Cameron spring to mind), others have simply lost the ability to rely on anything else (cough-George Lucas-cough). We've come a long way since the days of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, when CGI still had the power to shock and surprise us - to make the fantastical seem fathomable. Now that anything and everything can be accomplished via CGI, from exploding planets to spaceships to kitchen utensils to tabletops, my question is: Should it?

The latest trend in digital CGI overkill: computer-generated humans. It's a fad you've no doubt witnessed in countless movies over the last decade or so, and to me it just doesn't look right. Never has. And I'm not talking about human characters as they appear in CG-animated titles such as Toy Story or The Polar Express - the animation in those films is stylized from the start, so that's not really an issue. I'm talking about live-action films with live actors in live-action settings, where someone will be walking along, doing their thing, and then suddenly, that same someone will leap into the air or get yanked off their feet, and it's obvious they've crossed into the digital realm because... well, human beings just don't do that.

As a general rule, I have a hard time watching human beings move like rubber cartoon monkeys. Maybe this is a personal preference, I don't know. Yet that's exactly how CGI humans come across, every time - herky-jerky with unnaturally elongated limbs. It's the digital equivalent of those Ray Harryhausen stop-motion extravaganzas we used to love so much as kids, only now, the effect is actually sort of revolting. Have we now gotten to the point where good old-fashioned wire-work and green screens have been rendered obsolete? Why bother animating human characters if you can't make them look 100% realistic?

Some examples of this. The prologue to Stephen Sommers' The Mummy Returns (2001) centers around a character named the Scorpion King (played by Dwayne "Can You Smell What The Rock Is Cookin'?" Johnson), who sells his soul to the god Anubis for a title shot at world domination. Ol' Scorpy disappears from the action about five minutes in, but then, about an hour and a half later, he makes his triumphant return:

Oh, wait. Did I say "triumphant"? Because
I meant the complete opposite of that.

This, my friends, is an early Noughties example of CGI at its absolute worst. I'm more than willing to accept The Rock as a giant monster scorpion, sure. But this... not this. How could any self-respecting studio executive give final approval on this? Did people honestly think audiences would buy this? I mean, its eyes don't even line up right! Why not simply super-impose The Rock's face on top of the creature's neck? Wouldn't that have been easier? Did they run out of budget? Or did they deliberately mean it to look that fake?

You could argue that the effects in Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man are supposed to look cartoonish. (It is, after all, about a kid who dresses up in a red-and-blue leotard and swings around New York on genetically-engineered spider webs that shoot from his wrists.) The movie reaches its first dramatic crescendo early on, when Peter Parker's Uncle Ben (SPOILER) is shot and killed by a mugger. Peter gets understandably pissed and chases after the guy, but it's hard to stay emotionally invested when the character's web-crawling antics look like this:

Yes, I get that it'd be tough to have an actual person perform these types of stunts on the screen. The problem here is that CG Peter's movements don't resemble anything close to a human being's (even under cover of darkness), and the sequence is laughable when it should be bringing audiences to their feet. (He's also got that weird dead-eyed Polar Express thing going on.)

The following summer, The Matrix Reloaded exploded onto theater screens worldwide. At the time, it was much-heralded for its "realistic" CGI and "virtual cinematography" - environments simulated via computer graphics. Check out the following clip, in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) battles 100 clones of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), and watch how the action switches to full-on computer-generated motion at 1:25-1:29, 1:58-2:28, 2:51-3:32 and 3:45-3:57, approximately:

I'm not exactly sure what the Wachowskis were thinking here, unless they figured, "Hey, Keanu looks like he's made out of plastic anyway - who's going to notice?" It's impressive technically, I guess, but there's an obvious gap in continuity between the live-action and virtual camera shots, and the CG "actors," so to speak, lack the weight and dexterity of their human counterparts. (I'm a bigger fan of Yuen Wo Ping's in-camera kung fu choreography myself, but again, that's just me.)

Here's another shot from Reloaded, which comes roughly 88 minutes into the movie proper:

See those arms? Holy monkey! Keep in mind, too, that there's a world of difference between crowd scenes of CGI extras and CGI creatures (see The Lord Of The Rings trilogy for innovative use of both) versus close-ups of "people" we're supposed to stare dead in the face. And the results ain't always pretty. Some quick shots of this, in no particular order:

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (2011)

Superman Returns (2006)

I Am Legend (2007)

Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones (2002).
A special mention here. The only thing in this shot
that isn't CGI? The back of Ewan McGregor's head.
Why his hands required a digital makeover is
anyone's guess, though it's hard to picture
footage of his actual hands looking any worse.

Tron Legacy (2010)

Is it me, or do all those faces (and appendages) look like they've been molded out of clay? It's not all bad, though. Take this screen capture from Spider-Man 2 (2004) - about the only instance of CG-human replication that didn't automatically set off my b.s. detector. Sam Raimi, you've officially redeemed yourself:

Also consider this shot, from Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006):

Or this, from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), with a shrunk-down Chris Evans (seated right):

Or this series of shots from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991):

Notice anything peculiar about those last few? You're right: they took already existing human beings and enhanced them with computer-generated accoutrements. So at least they have some basis in reality. And it works beautifully.

What say you, oh Faithful Reader? Does this sort of thing bother you? Let me hear your thoughts/ praises/complaints about the sorry state of CGI in our modern Hollywood blockbusters!

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I so agree! I couldn't stand the Scorpion King and Clu bothered me so much in Tron Legacy. Some of the other examples were just from movies I hated anyway, so it didn't matter they flubbed the CGI. Seriously, the video games are getting better graphics than the movies anymore. The CGI good examples you shared were great. After watching Captain America, I read about how they shrunk him and just read in awe of the genius that went into it. Thanks for sharing! :)