I decided to step away from reviews (if you’d even call them that) for a moment, because I wanted to talk about something that bothers me with movies today. If you read the line above this, you probably know it has something to do with special effects.
These days, filmmakers use CGI in place of everything. Fantastical creatures or horrifying monsters, rendered in computers. CGI backgrounds in place of actual locations. People flying all over the screen in a way that makes The Matrix look realistic by comparison.
One of the problems I have with this is that it starts to look like a video game after a while. I’ve played enough games that I want to see something that looks real when watching movies (even if the subject matter is clearly impossible), not something that looks like a cutscene from a game.
Look at the behind the scenes footage of the Star Wars prequels. It almost entirely consists of a blue background with a couple actors running around in circles or yelling at something that’s not there, like some crazy guy you’d cross the street to avoid. I can imagine the actors are no fan of it either, and it probably isn’t all that different from doing a video game, where you’re wearing some motion capture suit (which, for those who don’t know, is basically just black tights covered in what looks like a bunch of light bulbs).
Then again, I guess most actors would rather do that then perform some risky stunts. But the ones who would rather do dangerous stunts than look silly for a bit, those are the kinds of people whose movies I would want to watch.
Speaking of stunts, I previously talked about The Sword and the Sorceror. There’s one scene where a character is seen falling off a cliff. The guy in that shot died. Yeah, they used the actual footage where a stuntman died. I can understand being hesitant to do that stunt again when it already killed someone, but showing footage of a man moments before he died is in pretty poor taste.
What stunt people do obviously makes for some memorable moments. But does that justify putting their lives on the line for our own entertainment? It makes one feel like a cheering spectator at some gladiator game if they think so, but what’s the alternative? Ban stunt work? I don’t think that’s what the stunt people would want. There’s a reason they went into that work, after all. But it’s definitely good to have CGI to reduce the number of dangerous stunts that have to be performed, since they can often make it look largely the same without risking someone’s life.
CGI heavy action scenes are also ultimately meaningless to me. The Avengers movies are incredibly choreographed, but I’m way more interested in stuff like the highway scene in Darkman, where the protagonist is hanging from a cable attached to a helicopter, being flown through traffic, before the bad guys begin blowing up several cars. It’s not as fancy as something carefully planned out in a computer program, yet I find it way more engaging. But then maybe I’m a neanderthal.
As far as environments, this is a huge issue I have with CGI. I prefer natural landscapes to computer generated backdrops, no matter how great the worlds are. Regardless of how much money they spend, the lighting will never match the actors on screen perfectly. It always looks off, at least to me. Lord of the Rings looked best when it was just promoting tourism for New Zealand. Again, CGI backdrops just look like a video game to me.
The creatures are another thing that annoys me. There are occasionally still interesting things created with makeup in movies like Pan’s Labyrinth. But for the most part, it’s all CGI. And that stuff can’t compare on any level to the sort of things seen in films like The Thing, which features some of the most incredible looking monstrosities in movie history, 30 years later.
I get that it often comes down to money. But CGI isn’t even necessarily cheaper, and the cheap CGI is usually so awful that you’d be better off just filming a guy in a Halloween costume. But CGI’s easier. There are way less variables to worry about. That trained dog won’t act perfectly 100% of the time. But the incredibly fake looking computer dog will.
And I feel like that’s why big budget studios use it so much, there’s too much laziness, and an unwillingness to put in the extra effort. I’m not saying filmmakers had more work ethic before CGI, they just didn’t have the option to take the easy way out. Today, you can hire makeup artists and puppeteers, build a large set…or just have a few interns whip something up on their Mac.
I’m not against CGI in itself, just how it’s become the standard for the past 20 years. It’s obviously better for a lot of things, but it doesn’t have to replace everything. I might be in the minority here. In fact, I might be completely alone. I’m used to being told my opinion is stupid on the internet. But I think things will eventually reach a saturation point where people tire of everything looking like its for PlayStation. Maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road are a sign of this.
I miss makeup. I miss animatronics. I miss puppetry. I know they’re sometimes still used, but they seem to be fairly rare these days. It’s not a tragedy, because there’s still decades worth of this stuff to enjoy. But it would be nice if they still made this sort of stuff once in a while.
Another problem is that there used to be tons of great stories behind the making of a movie. Part of the magic has always been wondering how they did a particular trick. Now, the answer is obvious: computers.