Seen any good movies lately?
Seen any good movies with live actors?
Seen any good movies with live actors acting in real locations?
If not, you’ve been watching too many CGI films. But you’re not alone. So has everyone else. Opening weekends for digital-effects films produce standing-room-only theater seating.
As most movie buffs know by now, CGI films are movies using computer generated imagery to wow us and take us to some far-off place in our imagination. A movie can be shot entirely using CGI (like Up or Shrek) or with a blend of real actors, locations, and CGI like (Lord of the Rings or the more recent Avatar.)
Computer generated imagery relies heavily on digital effects for spectacular images and action sequences, impossible to achieve using traditional film techniques. And the effect actually costs much more – in most cases – than it would to film the scene using more traditional methods.
CGI is now the dominant form used by moviemakers for special effects. For you trivia bugs, the first film to use three-dimensional CGI was made in 1976 and it was not (contrary to popular belief) Star Wars. It was a film called, Futureworld, starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner as two reporters trying to track down why people are being killed in a fantasy resort. The film was a sequel to the 1973 Michael Crichton movie, Westworld, starring Yul Brynner as a gunslinger who was too good to be real.
The Abyss raises the stakes
Through years of experimentation and improvements, the techniques of CGI blossomed in 1989’s film by James Cameron, The Abyss, starring Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. The film focused on a deep-sea adventure of a diving team, enlisted to find a lost nuclear submarine, who find something far more interesting instead in a lost deep-sea city. The company that would come to be the standard of CGI craftsmanship, Georg’s Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) won an Oscar for its watery sea creature in that movie.
How popular are CGI films? Even a cursory glance at box-office charts provides a clear answer to that question. Six CGI films alone — Avatar, Titanic, Spider-Man, Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3, and Pearl Harbor (remember the attack scenes?) – have grossed $2.4 billion in U.S. ticket revenues alone. Multiply that a few times for worldwide box office revenues.
Even more telling, all ten of the top ten U.S. box-office films in history have utilized computer generated imagery. One of them, Shrek 2, was filmed entirely using GGI.
Good and bad
In 2005, NPR host Alex Chadwick talked with Slate magazine contributor Edward Jay Epstein, author of the classic book, News from Nowhere, about the pros and cons of CGI filmmaking. Chadwick was asking about the somewhat strange-looking face of actor Arnold Scharzenegger in the film, Terminator 3, a comment that began the following exchange:
EPSTEIN: Well, it’s even stranger because they actually even created an entire clone. They digitally scanned in Arnold Schwarzenegger and they created an entire clone of him. But that’s what’s happening. What’s happening now is you’re making two movies; one is a live-action movie and the other is a digital effects movie. They’re made separately at different times in different places.
CHADWICK: And as you write, it becomes a problem for the director because they can’t actually know how all the digital effects stuff is going to come out. So when they go to put the movie together, to marry the live-action stuff to the effects and here they have a deadline, and what happens if it doesn’t work?
EPSTEIN: Well, there are few directors who actually could get more budget and more time. But what’s really happening is that they are losing control over the movies. The bad news about digital effects is that it’s being done by a separate group separately; the good news is that it’s eye-popping for the audience.
CHADWICK: I haven’t seen “King Kong” yet, but I know a couple of people who have, who saw early versions of it, and they say that for all these digital effects, it still doesn’t look as good as the movie back in 1933. Now how could that be?
EPSTEIN: Well, it’s very easy. Digital effects creates an illusion, but so do other things like puppets. And the story is what counts in all movies. If you have a bad story–and sometimes digital effects ruin a story because the fact they can do something, they feel a compulsion to do it. And so sometimes you get a glitch in a story. It’s not all the effects; I would say it’s 90 percent story.
The debate over the artistic value of special effects vs. story is an ongoing one among moviegoers, moviemakers, and movie critics. Many feel that the reason Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby won the Best Picture Oscar in 2004 over the CGI-enhanced Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was because MDB used no CGI, but instead majored on story and character. Six years later, the same phenomenon occurred when The Hurt Locker won Best Picture over the CGI film, Avatar.
All of which conjures up a sleeper of a 2002 film called, Simone, wherein the name stands for SimulationOne. In it, Al Pacino plays a washed-up Hollywood director who is given a computer program to create a beautiful, lifelike movie star (played by Rachel Roberts) who he can insert seamlessly into any film he creates, playing off live actors and enthralling audiences in the process.
An interesting question
Although the story stretches the bounds of credibility, the question it asks is a simple and profound one: What if a director could use computer-generated actors, who reeked flesh-and-blood personae, without telling anyone they weren’t real? Would the moviegoer really care?
The answer is probably yes and no, depending on what you are looking for in a film. But then take a look again at those top ten box-office films of all time and ask yourself just how virtual has the reality of movies really become?