CGI - A Movie Knight Rant
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
By Movie Knight
It's no secret that CGI is a Hollywood standard these days, the go-to choice for your visual effects. When used properly and sparingly it can really enhance a movie and when done well can be completely seamless. The thing is that CGI isn't cheap, and budgets are limited.
This can lead to all the CG budget being spent on the opening and middle acts, leaving the third to suffer from cheaper and ultimately fake looking images. Studios can also have a tendency to rush for the release of a film causing those doing the visuals to cut corners.
This isn't a new problem either. CGI has been in use for a lot longer than some people may think. Like the blue screen backgrounds of old, CGI can and probably will age badly meaning a film that looks amazing today will suffer a few years down the line. Movies like Jurassic Park (1993) made use of CGI sparingly, choosing a mixture of both practical and digital effects. The result of this is that it's hard to tell where one stops and the other begins, the setting and lighting also play a part in how well the CGI blends, this, however, is where a lot of films can go wrong. When the lighting of the CGI doesn't match the scene it causes it to stand out looking cartoon-like and extremely fake. This is a pitfall that Jurassic Park managed to avoid. Spawn (1997) released 4 years after Jurassic Park, on the other hand, spent a large part of their budget on Spawn's cape alone, which for the time looked amazing.
Looking back on it now however, it has that cartoon appearance, which is a shame as it was the better use of CGI in the movie. It's painful to watch how cheap the CGI is for the rest of the film, most notable is The Devil Malebolgia who not only looks very cartoonish, he doesn't even move his mouth when he talks...it stuck out like a sore thumb then, it would probably be a turn off to anyone trying to watch it now. I would recommend checking it out though, if you can look past the terrible CGI and the not soo good acting you'll find an outstanding performance from John Leguizamo as Clown/Violator, undeniably the best thing about this adaptation.
Those are two completely different movies though when you look at The Thing (1982) compared to The Thing (2011) with almost 30 years between them one would think the latter would be the more visual of the two? However, in this case, the modern tale chose to go the CGI route, whereas the original was entirely practical and today stands as a testament to practical effects over CGI. 2011's The Thing was a prequel to John Carpenters original and the effort was put in to have the two films match up seamlessly story-wise its a shame the same effort wasn't put in to have them match up visually. The director did claim they tried but it just didn't work..but if it worked 30 years ago why wouldn't it work now? technically it should work better, sounds more like they went the easier route and just put the visuals in after the fact.
There are some films that use the CGI to add to the look of the movie. One of Movie Knights favourites would be TRON (1982), although one of the first films to adopt a CGI/live-action combination, it had a setting where it didn't look out of place. Set inside a computer and most of the action scenes set inside what are essentially “video games” the look and colour of it was part of the appeal and the main selling point. There are plenty of more modern films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, 300, Sin City and Iron Sky that have a visual look and tone that suit the use of CGI..and in some cases the cheaper the better. Just look at any Asylum movie, they have built an entire genre out of cheap CGI.
Would a film like Sharknado (2013) still have been such a phenomenon if it had a realistic tone and look to it?
Then look at the Star Wars prequels, although they are in a sci-fi/fantasy setting, the story they were trying to tell was politically charged and as serious as you can get for a Star Wars film. George Lucas decided to use green screen and CGI for the large majority of the prequel trilogy was in hindsight probably a bad idea. Bad acting aside how seriously can you take Anikin Skywalker when it looks like the planet/room/ship/creatures around him don't actually exist. The further we get with better CGI the worse the prequels look. I don't think this is due to lack of expense, instead I think it comes down to two factors 1) the limits of CGI at the time and 2) an oversaturation of it, remember sometimes less is more. Although CGI was already cemented in the film making industry at the time of the prequels using it on such a large scale was a mistake and one that other filmmakers should have learned from. When watching a film if the only real thing on the screen is the actor it ends up painfully obvious that what your watching isn't real.
Look at the DCEU every one of their films ends with a CGI fest gigantic battle that just fills the screen. In small doses CGI can be unnoticeable but when the final act of your film is pure computer-generated pixels it just fails to be believable even worse when your villain ends up looking like a video game character.
There are many films in which you'd be surprised where CGI was used, The wolf of wall street, Zodiac, Brokeback mountain, and if it weren't for the wonders of the internet you probably would never have known. A mixture of practical sets and CGI backgrounds make it hard to tell.
If you watch any Marvel Movie you can see what can be achieved when time, effort and money is put into your CGI, not to say that they haven't had a few missteps. The point is that CGI isn't getting worse for all accounts it's getting better the problem is that it's being overused, rather than filming a scene on a proper set on a proper location with actors and costumes directors are choosing green screens and computer-generated characters then studios are pushing for a release date causing corners to be cut because entire acts of the movie are being made entirely in CG. What was once only used to add a simple effect here or there is now being used to add a background, foreground and a character. Now add lighting and texture. All these things take time and the more a studio wants to be done on a computer the more time has to be spent doing it properly.
All that being said maybe it doesn't matter how good or bad the CGI is, some movies embrace whatever they can get while others will spend that extra penny and time. Love it or hate it. It's a part of modern cinema. Maybe one day we'll have a return to practical effects, a surge of 'retro cinema'. Until then we should enjoy what we get after all if it weren't for CGI good and bad we wouldn't have half the epic looking films that we have.
Sanctum Bonus: If you're interested in hearing more about good and bad CGI I recommend checking out The Corridor Crew over on YouTube - Video Below