CGI: The Way of the Future or the Death of an Era?

CGI in Hollywood

CGI: The Way of the Future or the Death of an Era?

You may have heard of CGI, or computer generated imagery, if you’ve seen any films in the last 30 or so years. CGI became popular in films as a response to a growing audience’s demand for more impressive entertainment. While we may recognize CGI immediately in films like “Toy Story” and “Avatar”, these days, CGI is also used to add detail in movies shot in more realistic settings.

Yoda from Star WarsThe “Star Wars” Franchise and CGI

Are you a huge “Star Wars” fan? Are you somebody that adamantly and vehemently decries the newer films because the classic films are “so much better?” Perhaps you are turned off to the new films in the franchise because of characters like Jar Jar Binks?

The newer “Star Wars” movies relied heavily on CGI, in part, because the technology was available to the creators, could save the studios money, and would appeal to newer, savvier audiences who are used to seeing CGI in all their films.

In newer films, Yoda was also digitally created using CGI, but in earlier films, Yoda was actually created as a costume and puppet. Perhaps it would surprise the younger “Star Wars” fans to learn that the original three films had very few digital effects (the blaster guns which shoot flashes of light, and, of course, the lightsabers).

CGI Changed the Way Movies Were Made

Not only has CGI changed the way we create our characters onscreen, but it has changed the way we do landscapes and live action and stunts.

In films before the 1970s, CGI was not something that filmmakers had access to. As technology and computers advanced, the use of CGI in films became more present. In 1982, Steven Lisberger’s science fiction movie “Tron” unleashed a new wave of fascination with 3D and CGI amongst audiences. Lisbergers and his team created huge CGI sequences that were very much unlike what had been seen in films before.

The Jurassic Park Franchise and Its Avoidance of CGI

T-Rex on Jurassic ParkSkipping forward to 1993, “Jurassic Park” pushed the boundaries of cinematic experience further by presenting audiences with realistic-looking dinosaurs on the big screen. While this may surprise younger viewers, “Jurassic Park” actually only had five scenes that depended on CGI creatures and throughout the rest of the movie the dinosaurs were animatronics.

This is in part because it took two to six hours to render a single frame of the special effects, which meant that CGI options were very expensive. Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, had to get creative and he hired legendary special effects people to full off his films vision. The creative team included Stan Winston (creator of the exoskeleton from “The Terminator”) who was the driving force behind the build of live-action dinosaur robots for the film. Some of the dinosaurs were full dinosaur robots (including the T-rex) while most were just the upper or lower half (head and torso or legs and claws).

Compare the creation of dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” to the recently released “Jurassic World,” which only has one scene with an animatronic animal. As Andrew Whalen of wrote in his opening sentence on the film “The most hilarious thing about Jurassic World is how ashamed it is of its own CGI.”

Nearly 100 percent of the dinosaurs in Jurassic World are CGI, however director Colin Trevorrow wanted audiences to know that the dinosaurs replicate the limitations of robots, which as Andrew Whalen points out  “means that Jurassic World CGI dinosaur artists are just as likely to be tasked with emulating animatronics as they are to be tasked with emulating animals.” This CGI technique of replicating the jerky movements of the animatronics speaks to the current movie going audience’s feelings about CGI.

Are Audiences Sick of CGI?

The movie industry is now seeing a trend where audiences are less impressed by CGI. Computer generated images are taking away from movie magic. The film industry is learning (as with films like “Mad Max: Fury Road”) that it needs to blend the real and the computer generated. The latest “Mad Max” movie was shot on location in Namibia and many of the explosions in the film, as well as the sets, were real. They used as many true sets and stuntmen as were possible, and it is intriguing to see what CGI was able to enhance.Pie-Chart

In some cases it is too late to suggest blending CGI and other film techniques. With the increase of CGI in movies, there is less demand for effects artists to do makeup and sets. Legendary special-effects artist Rick Baker is one who has been affected by CGI. Baker’s career included incredible work on films like “An American Werewolf in London”, “Men in Black”, “Star Wars”, and film clips like Michael Jacksons ground breaking video “Thriller”. Baker auctioned off many of his iconic props, ironically on the same day as the opening for “San Andreas”, which is a film that relied heavily on CGI.

In his article “Cinema Is About Humanity Not Fireballs”, New York Times editor and chief film critic Armond White wrote that “in this post ‘Avatar’ culture, Hollywood relies on digital effects to emphasize lavish other-worldly environments to give audiences what they want: escapism… Special effects used to bring us closer to realism; now they douse us in artifice.”

And there-in lies the problem faced by the film industry today; CGI has been so over-used in cinema that its use is actually having the opposite reaction from audiences than intended. People like movies because they are entertaining and an escape from everyday life. Film can take audiences to the end of what is possible and CGI is meant to be a tool that enhances that experience. Instead, what we find a disconnect between what is real and what is so obviously fake.

With the latest installment of “Star Wars” set to be released at the end of 2015, it is amusing to note that one of the film’s selling points is that there will be less focus on CGI and more focus on practical effects. This might suggest that some filmmakers are catching on and trying to recapture the essence of practical filmmaking. Perhaps this means there is still hope for the future Stan Winstons and Rick Bakers of the industry. Let’s hope so.