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I Have Seen The Future, And The Future Is Jar-Jar
June 19, 2011 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Many would agree that the advent of CGI has made movies worse, not better. Blogger Gin and Tacos makes the argument eloquently: "The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness."
posted by bardic (189 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I agree completely, as should anybody who's ever tried to code a website in pure Perl.
posted by koeselitz at 8:58 PM on June 19, 2011 [40 favorites]


Oh, you meant...
posted by koeselitz at 8:58 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I sort of disagree that it's laziness, because I see a lot of hard work and attention to details in all these special-effected and computer-animated movies.

It's just that they focus on the wrong details. The designers and technicians go after things that no one would miss if they weren't there -- hopelessly overanalyzing fur patterns and smoke textures, perfecting surface details to the point where they forget the overall point of making the damn movies in the first place. "Does it look like a real thing happening in the real world" isn't a question people even ask anymore -- they just want it to be the coolest, most detailed thing you've ever seen in a movie. Which, sadly, often blows up in their faces because they never asked themselves that crucial question.
posted by hermitosis at 9:03 PM on June 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


CGI is a tool. I prefer practical effects because even the worst practical effect is 'real' - it's a physical thing. Outlaw Vern talked about seeing the Alien Queen and still being a bit scared of it, because it's an 8 foot tall mechanical monster. Practical stuff is fun. It's a magic trick. It's the man behind the curtain or Jello pinned in your hair to make brains. But it's still a tool, and there's as much good CGI as there is good practical stuff.

I haven't seen the Green Lantern film, but I can't see how you can portray a character who has the ability to LITERALLY MAKE ANYTHING HE IMAGINES without CG. You can even see the GL ring's power as like CG - it can make anything, but it's all from the same green energy. CGI can be anything, but it's all bits and bytes.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:04 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I strongly suspect that "CGI" is a generalized, formless boogieman that lazy armchair critics like to aim their their darts at, like "socialism" and "the ivory tower."
posted by Nomyte at 9:05 PM on June 19, 2011 [33 favorites]


Oh, yeah, let's get rid of CGI, so that 90% of most of our movies is just a picture of a green screen. That's an awesome idea.
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:08 PM on June 19, 2011 [19 favorites]


"CGI can be, and often is, misused" is not the same thing as "CGI has made movies worse, not better." Okay, so 2001 had really great special effects without needing CGI. Well, CGI often allows special effects to be done with a much smaller budget than would otherwise be possible.

Look, okay, so Green Lantern sucks big fat sucky donkey balls. Fine. But CGI is what made District 9 work; without it, we'd probably never have gotten aliens so lifelike and yet alien, and I'm glad we have it.

From the article: The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy.

Oh, right, easy is bad. Got it. We must suffer for our art, or it's not art. It's bad that we can create art on a much smaller budget and with much less time than we used to need; it's bad that we can now make a lot more with less money and less time; special effects should be a limited resource, available only to limited few who deserve access to them.

The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness.

I have seen not a single argument, statement, or implication in the linked article that for one second makes me think that CGI just enables laziness. Yes, it enables laziness. I guess so does digital videography, and non-linear editing tools, and god knows what other advancements I'm ignorant of. What the fuck is wrong with progress? What's wrong with getting new tools? Yes, they'll be abused, and not all the results will be great. But the existence of the Green Lantern shitfest doesn't negate the emotional impact of Up or Wall-E or District 9.

It's a poor critic who blames the workman's tools.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:08 PM on June 19, 2011 [47 favorites]


It's funny, because one of the movies I hold up as an example of great use of CGI, Jurassic Park, was released eighteen years ago. It was a combination of things to bring the dinos to life, but the scenes where they are heavily CGI still stand up magnificently. Lord of the Rings, another example, was filmed a decade ago. It really can enable filmmakers to be lazy, or be very telling of where a film's budget went. There are few cases that stand out as being relatively seamless to me. Sometimes disbelief can be suspended in other films where it isn't a seamless combination, but it is a tool, and not the only tool.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:08 PM on June 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


I watched John Carpenter's The Thing the other night. And it struck me how much scarier Rob Bottin's practical effects were than the CGI that would almost certainly be used today.

But let's also acknowledge that CGI may well have saved at least one life by now. For example: when James Cameron shot the big tilting deck scenes for Titanic, despite his having taken all possible safety precautions, stunt people were still geting hurt - just because the odds are against you when using 200 performers in the shot. So he decided that any future shots of bodies colliding with objects woukd be CGI.

They say the quality of Persian rugs went down when weavers stopped being put into the trade as young boys. But it's a trade-off we should be glad to accept.
posted by Trurl at 9:14 PM on June 19, 2011 [12 favorites]


from article: “I understand that a movie like Green Lantern is not intended to be a great work of art. It's a product churned out for the purpose of being merchandised to death. But the annual summer blockbusters are symptoms of the continuous dumbing down of the visual aspects of filmmaking.”

Yeah, this is true. However, it's certainly not due to CGI. It's due to a billion other things that are happening in the film industry right now; for instance, Hollywood's ancient spurning of recorded media (ie VHS and now DVD releases, which have always been seen as unimportant or second-class) is coming back to haunt it, and markets that emphasize recorded media (like the Asian market) are seeing a renaissance of filmmaking while Hollywood's ballooning marketing costs and ridiculous profit model (which recently includes stuff like 3D) are driving it into the ground.

This just seems like an incredibly short-sighted and narrow view of the filmmaking art. Comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey with The Green Lantern is not a revealing way to discuss the impact CGI has had on film. I mean, for one thing, it's not even possible (apparently) to make a truly great epic any more; the money involved is just more than most really good artists are able to scrounge out of Hollywood's tight-fisted coffers. Most money goes to mediocre lowest-common-denominator stuff that has a guaranteed paycheck; stuff based on old movies or TV shows or comic books with recognition or cachet – like The Green Lantern.

I mean, you could see the same thing comparing 300 with Lawrence of Arabia. Epic films just aren't any good now. And it has absolutely nothing to do with CGI. So if your problem is that they don't make epic space movies like they used to – well, don't blame CGI. CGI is just a medium like anything else. It's what you do with CGI that makes it.

Furthermore, I'm certain that there are a host of great movies that feature CGI. I'd like to see a list here. I'm annoyed at myself that I can't think of any at the moment, but I'm sure they'll come to me.
posted by koeselitz at 9:15 PM on June 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


I strongly suspect that "CGI" is a generalized, formless boogieman that lazy armchair critics like to aim their their darts at, like "socialism" and "the ivory tower."

QFT. Most people would be completely and totally unaware of 95%-99% of the CGI they have seen in movies. Black Swan is a great example - it was chock-full of CGI.
posted by smoke at 9:16 PM on June 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


(1) Okay, Green Lantern is a piece of shit, but the problem is in the script ("we need a character arc for Hal Jordan, let's see here, uh... he, uh... oh, I got it, he's irresponsible! and he quits things before he finishes them!") not the effects. The Parallax actually looks damn cool.

(2) There are always gonna be your Michael Bays and your Peter Jacksons. The hacks and the filmmakers who actually care. (Martin Campbell, the director of Green Lantern, is somewhere in between, I think; Casino Royale was quite good.) Technology enables both, but that's always been true.
posted by eugenen at 9:18 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone needs to go count up the shitty movies made in the 1970s and the shitty movies made in the last decade. My guess is that the ratio of good films to crap has not changed.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:19 PM on June 19, 2011 [26 favorites]


I was annoyed when sound came in, and actors were speaking into table flower arrangements.
posted by ovvl at 9:22 PM on June 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


The best effects are the ones you can't tell are effects.

CGI broadcasts that it's an effect far more often than practical effects do. For example, dripping blood, most things organic (Jar Jar, quick-growing plants), and any animal an actor 'rides'. Which is also organic, but you know what I mean.

I'll take Gizmo and Kermit over Jar Jar or Optimus Prime any day.
posted by CarlRossi at 9:24 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh, yeah, let's get rid of CGI, so that 90% of most of our movies is just a picture of a green screen. That's an awesome idea.

Don't confuse Chroma Key with computer graphics. We've been doing chroma key long before computer-generated animation. Compositing is as much of an art as it is a science. When it's done well, you don't notice it.
posted by schmod at 9:31 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


The best effects are the ones you can't tell are effects.


Very true, even for CGI effects.

The problem with CGI is that it allows the creator to show the impossible, and when faced with that, the viewer starts to pick out flaws. When CGI is used to create the expensive, but possible, it becomes much hard to pick out.
posted by zabuni at 9:31 PM on June 19, 2011 [33 favorites]


Tomorrowful: "But CGI is what made District 9 work; without it, we'd probably never have gotten aliens so lifelike and yet alien, and I'm glad we have it."

You mean prawns, don't you?


Just kidding.
posted by bwg at 9:32 PM on June 19, 2011


While I acknowledge that there have been abuses with CGI, it is something that can transform an ordinary movie into the magical.

Take Star Wars, for example. I saw the movie as a child and -- like many others -- thought that it was a perfectly serviceable movie. The story was pretty good and the characters were fairly interesting. But it absolutely looked terrible. But time and CGI caught up to the movie, and it was as if it was transformed from the profane to the sacred. Star Wars was suddenly realized, and it was a great movie.

When I originally considered the Tatooine planet, it seemed like a desert environment where there was very little plant life and very little animal life. It seemed like anything useful to humans was either built or brought to the planet. Even the farm boys hopped around on hovering cars. When the CGI was added, I was finally able to see all of the gigantic creatures that waltzed around the city of Mos Eisley. How could animals like that eat and drink on a planet with almost no water or plant life? Clearly, there was a thriving underground jungle like in Journey to Center of the Earth. It was a revelation to me. Count me as a convert.

I am greatly looking forward to the soon to be released updated version of Jaws with all of the CGI sharks. I thought that Jaws was okay, but the CGI sharks should really lift the movie to a whole new level.
posted by flarbuse at 9:34 PM on June 19, 2011 [27 favorites]


I just don't find anything interesting in 90% of the movies released lately. I can't really blame CG or 3D or shakey cam or ADD editing or any specific modern film gimmick, I just find most Hollywood movies boring and sterile. I don't care that much that they're made on computers, I just wish that they didn't seem like they were written by computers.
posted by octothorpe at 9:35 PM on June 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


He totally missed the problem with Jar Jar. At that time, Cloth Simulation was the new hot technology, ILM worked out a lot of the math at very high levels, and IIRC Maya Cloth was in development and in testing at major sites (like ILM). So they had this "cool idea" to make Jar Jar have floppy ears using cloth simulation. Now when you animate something like that, first you record the audio (with that horrible pidjin English) and then you animate over it. You iterate it over and over and over and fucking over again. You watch the same 2 seconds of animation over and over until you have got the dynamics perfect, and you have completely lost sight of what is staring at you on the screen: a loathsome, obnoxious character that people hate. Oh but the animators loved their effects. The directors and producers saw so many early tests, in small pieces, iterated over and over, they fell in love with their own work, and when they saw it in the final cut, they didn't see what was happening at all: he sucked.

I call it "The Rodney King Effect." In the first trial, the prosecutors showed the video so many times, they jury became immune to its horrors and ended up thinking it wasn't so bad after all. They voted to acquit the LAPD officers that beat the shit out of King. During the second Federal trial, the prosecutors only showed the video once. The jury could barely wait until deliberations to get their hands on it again.

There's an old Hollywood saying, "Always leave them wanting more."
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:37 PM on June 19, 2011 [19 favorites]


eugenen: “There are always gonna be your Michael Bays and your Peter Jacksons. The hacks and the filmmakers who actually care. (Martin Campbell, the director of Green Lantern, is somewhere in between, I think; Casino Royale was quite good.) Technology enables both, but that's always been true.”

b1tr0t: “Someone needs to go count up the shitty movies made in the 1970s and the shitty movies made in the last decade. My guess is that the ratio of good films to crap has not changed.”

I disagree; but, as I said above, this has absolutely nothing to do with CGI, and blaming on that doesn't make sense.

The changes Hollywood has gone through are actually very interesting. Yes, there have always been crap movies, and this is why it's utterly silly to compare The Green Lantern with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Better to compare The Green Lantern with schlock of the day that was on its level; and believe me, there were a lot of awful movies back in the 1970s.

The thing is, in the 1970s and into the 1980s, movies were about 90% crowd-pleasing crap – as is probably to be expected – but there was enough money in it that that left a good chunk on the margins for people like Kubrick and Coppola and Scorcese and the rest of the interesting filmmakers. It sometimes wasn't easy for them – particularly if their names weren't Scorcese or Coppola – but there were at least scraps from the Hollywood table, as it were, stuff thrown in to please the "intellectual" crowd. Also, it should be pointed out that funding movies then was a very different matter, and had more to do with benefactors and studio sources of funding and pleasing this producer and that producer.

Now, things are very, very different. Hollywood is bleeding money right now; things have been consolidated as much as the big studios can do it in order to streamline production, but marketing costs have gone through the roof. And Hollywood has always relied heavily on box office draws, to the point of explicitly spurning DVD releases (to the point where Americans tend to sneer at movies that are "straight-to-DVD.") In an era when the costs of keeping a movie theater open, of marketing a film and getting people to leave the house to go to a theater when they could just watch almost anything they want instantly at home, are extremely high, this means that Hollywood is making an increasingly dangerous gamble that they'll manage to get a huge first weekend on every movie they produce. Every single one.

Which is why you can't make margin films anymore. Everything must appeal to the broadest possible market. (This is happening in music, too, by the way.) So you only get stuff that has sure-fire broad appeal, stuff based on popular things in other media (comic books, novels, TV shows) and franchises. Essentially, this is the era of Michael Bay.

Like I said, all of this doesn't have anything to do with CGI. Look, for instance, at Asian cinema – the stuff coming from Hong Kong, from Japan – it's burgeoning; and a lot of it has great CGI that adds to the story. (And a lot of their best movies are straight-to-DVD; they've figured out how to make good money that way.)

flarbuse: “Take Star Wars, for example. I saw the movie as a child and -- like many others -- thought that it was a perfectly serviceable movie. The story was pretty good and the characters were fairly interesting. But it absolutely looked terrible. But time and CGI caught up to the movie, and it was as if it was transformed from the profane to the sacred. Star Wars was suddenly realized, and it was a great movie.”

This is trolling, right? Please tell me you're trolling. Please tell me you watched that scene where Han Solo steps on Jabba the Hutt's tail and laughed your ass off like you should have. It was ridiculous, ugly, garish CGI, the worst in the business.

If you want CGI that's actually improved an old classic, check out the CGI in the remastered editions of the original series of Star Trek.
posted by koeselitz at 9:39 PM on June 19, 2011 [15 favorites]


Also, the problem with Jar Jar wasn't CGI. The problem with Jar Jar was racism.
posted by koeselitz at 9:40 PM on June 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


"I thought that Jaws was okay, but the CGI sharks should really lift the movie to a whole new level."

You're joking, right?
posted by bardic at 9:40 PM on June 19, 2011


markets that emphasize recorded media (like the Asian market) are seeing a renaissance of filmmaking while Hollywood's ballooning marketing costs and ridiculous profit model (which recently includes stuff like 3D) are driving it into the ground.

How does the Asian market work?
posted by shoyu at 9:40 PM on June 19, 2011



Look, okay, so Green Lantern sucks big fat sucky donkey balls. Fine. But CGI is what made District 9 work; without it, we'd probably never have gotten aliens so lifelike and yet alien, and I'm glad we have it.


I assumed the aliens in that movie were practical effects. My mind was blown when I found out they were CGI.

There are a few stations here that run very old movies late at night, and there's no better way to cure yourself of nostalgia for a lost golden age than seeing endless Mexican Spitfire movies and formulaic tales of the Best Twist Dancer in the World.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:42 PM on June 19, 2011


I personally would be all over a Jaws movie where someone composites in just absolute goddamn truckloads of CGI sharks, jumping out of the water and swimming all over the place. Someone's talking with water in the background? At least one great white shark is leaping out of it and splashing back in.

But nothing else should be changed. So people are swimming and having fun and they're completely ignoring the swarms of sharks all over the place. Just sharks everywhere.

Kind of the opposite of that guy who has the continuing project of digitally removing all the birds from Hitchcock's The Birds which, by the way, conceptually slays me with its brilliance.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:43 PM on June 19, 2011 [32 favorites]


shoyu: “How does the Asian market work?”

Well, I'm not an expert, and I've never even been to Asia, but I can name at least half a dozen directors I would count as great directors there who've made literally dozens of films each in the past few years, almost all of which went straight to DVD. And that isn't seen as a terrible failure; Takashi Miike, for example, sort of counts on a lot of his movies ending up in theaters after they've been released, and that happens all the time. It's a much, much better profit model, because the price of a single DVD is stable; it doesn't involve trying to cram millions of people into theaters across the country in a single weekend before interest wanes. It's somewhat less profit, but since it's much more assured, people can get away with making more movies and actually making money while doing it.

Other people have done this here, actually. I guess Kevin Smith makes pretty much all of his money in after-release DVD sales. The American model makes this tougher, but since he's consistent about it he's been able to keep making movies that don't do great in the box office but that make it all back in DVD sales.
posted by koeselitz at 9:47 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, the problem with Jar Jar wasn't CGI. The problem with Jar Jar was racism.

The problem, as I noted, was that they watched the Jar Jar sequences thousands of times during CGI tests until the dialog became background noise. This is a horribly pernicious thing, it warps your mind. Maybe someday I'll write about how I watched one section of the Rodney King Video about 50,000 times while working on the forensic enhancement.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:47 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Weesa need a bigger boat!
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:48 PM on June 19, 2011 [19 favorites]


One of the more infamous bits of Hollywood lore is that the mechanical shark in Jaws was constantly malfunctioning, so Spielberg (nervously) shot the film with as few shots of the beast as possible.

And the results are brilliant.
posted by bardic at 9:48 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with Jar Jar was racism.
Yeah, I'll give you that, but he is also barely a part of the environment. He's flat and the light is almost never right.

Contrast that with the clone troopers. I heard (hearsay) that no clone trooper costume was made, they were all CGI. Which goes back to my mantra, CGI organics never work.

that guy who has the ... project of ... removing all the birds from ...The Birds
You can't say that and not post a link. I need to see this.
posted by CarlRossi at 9:49 PM on June 19, 2011


It's funny, because one of the movies I hold up as an example of great use of CGI, Jurassic Park, was released eighteen years ago.

That's funny, because one of the movies I always hold up as an example of really bad CGI is Jurassic Park. They had terrible trouble with color matching, especially in compositing the shadows, and it does not look very realistic at times. It is subtle, but these subtleties all create the illusion of reality. The best scenes in that movie are, like Jaws, the scenes where you don't see the monsters, but are threatened by the unseen menace.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:52 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is trolling, right? Please tell me you're trolling. Please tell me you watched that scene where Han Solo steps on Jabba the Hutt's tail and laughed your ass off like you should have. It was ridiculous, ugly, garish CGI, the worst in the business.

I think it's called sarcasm.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:53 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyway, even though, yes, the alien from district 9 was pretty good, there are plenty of aliens that were made in the era of modeling and puppetry that were great. Like Yoda. And I don't mean that crap CGI Yoda, either.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:56 PM on June 19, 2011


Can anyone give an informed insight into CGI costs for a major Hollywood movie? Assume there are two types of projects viz. Transformers as an example of overt 3D CG + VFX, and as someone mentioned above, Black Swan as as example of CGI not intended to make itself noticed.
posted by Gyan at 9:56 PM on June 19, 2011


You can't say that and not post a link. I need to see this.

Wellll...here's the problem.

The artist is Martijn Hendriks, but as I just discovered, he's removed all mention of it from his website, and he's taken the video samples off youtube, which is incredibly depressing because it is unspeakably brilliant. But here are some shots.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:00 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


CGI is a cancer, yes.

CGI E.T. is just soulless and terrible.

CGI Yoda makes me yearn for Muppet Yoda, and, honestly, that is really saying something, because Muppet Yoda is just about the lamest thing ever.

If they ever release the original, non-CGI versions of those movies, I'll bet they'll sell more copies than the tarted-up compu-crap ever did. Part of me hopes that was the goal all along.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:02 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Budgeting VFX: "For a ‘visual effects’ feature film the vfx budget can be 1/5 to ½ of the total film budget... Why are visual effects so expensive? VFX are very time and labor intensive. A large project may take 200 people to work on over the course of several months or a year."

(LAT article on vfx shops closing: Visual effects eat up as much as 30% to 40% of a movie's budget, and more than $50 million on major studio films.)
posted by milkrate at 10:03 PM on June 19, 2011


For me, I think one of the biggest problems with CGI is that it used to be that well done effects films were both fun and looked cool, but now films just look cool and that's not nearly as good.

The thing about practical effects is that even when they are done really really well they still look kind of ridiculous and there's a certain irony in watching actors look really serious while fighting something that looks kind of goofy. Ray Harryhausen's films are great examples of this: his creatures look dynamic and move realistically, but the most important thing about them is that they look fun and I think the fun ultimately comes kind of from laughing at them. Not in a mean spirited way; they are, again, done well. But they don't exactly inspire terror, either.

CGI, on the other hand... if it's done well looks pretty believable. But half the time it's like: who cares? There's nothing funny about someone being serious about something that looks serious, and if there's nothing funny in a big fantasy movie, there's often not a lot of fun. All that's left then is novelty - but they've started recycling monsters. Almost every creature in the Clash of the Titans remake I'd seen rendered before in other CGI films; the fact that it was done well again didn't interest me. But if they had made me laugh, like the original did, it would have.

Everyone always loves to bring up Carpenter's the Thing in these debates, and for good reason. But for me the classic example of how practical effects are cooler than CGI is Jaws. That film is scary and funny and all around enjoyable even though the shark looks plasticy and fake. And in fact, the fact that the shark looks so fake is just another level of icing on the cake. By the time you're seeing the shark, you've already had some good scares because of it's attacks from below - and then you get a nice laugh at the end, too. It adds another texture that the film wouldn't have had if the shark had been done in CGI and looked realistic.

I think what it comes down to is this: the majority of directors don't have any particular knack for combining comedy and fantasy, and what was nice about special effects pre-CGI was that they automatically added a certain element of humor to the films that I liked. Now humor is optional. Green Lantern looked great, but I'd say the film was only ok, and thats because it was a film about humans flying through outer space propelled by magic rings that didn't seem to realize that that is a ridiculous proposition. It's hard to suspend that much disbelief, and it's hard to care about something that takes itself so seriously when it's by it's very nature not very serious.
posted by Kiablokirk at 10:04 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Someone needs to go count up the shitty movies made in the 1970s and the shitty movies made in the last decade. My guess is that the ratio of good films to crap has not changed.

Averaging the IMDB weighted ranks of all films from each year 1970-1979, I find:

1970 (1557 films): 6.0267744395814
1971 (1620 films): 6.03310801103322
1972 (1619 films): 6.02881468360913
1973 (1585 films): 6.03697639636772
1974 (1573 films): 6.02832492615494
1975 (1522 films): 6.02817143582385
1976 (1610 films): 6.02546487426447
1977 (1556 films): 6.02094098188393
1978 (1584 films): 6.02105111681377
1979 (1682 films): 6.02513980808301

Averaging the IMDB weighted ranks of films from each year 2000-2009, I find:

2000 (4075 films): 6.01352437777167
2001 (4289 films): 6.01830761958928
2002 (4767 films): 6.01758479913139
2003 (5178 films): 6.02007685451377
2004 (6172 films): 6.02028444823467
2005 (6787 films): 6.0154796150697
2006 (6921 films): 6.01445943256067
2007 (6584 films): 6.02026551545454
2008 (7057 films): 6.01420604258676
2009 (6830 films): 6.01281118659783
2010 (5618 films): 6.01625342433639

So I think you're probably right.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:05 PM on June 19, 2011 [26 favorites]


I do had bad CGI in Doctor Who. The show's always been cheap, but there's something charming about a cobbled together prop that's missing in bad CG. Except that reveal in Silence in the Library that made a virtue of crap effects. That was genius.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:07 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can anyone give an informed insight into CGI costs for a major Hollywood movie?

No. milkrate's link to the LATimes article notwithstanding, this is all "Hollywood Accounting." It is nearly impossible to get accurate numbers on any production costs in a serious movie. A lot of big numbers get thrown around but that is mostly to either intended to hype the movie, or to scare other studios into overspending on CGI.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:07 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


blahblah, back in my day, movies were movies, blahblahblah

So. Tedious.

There's good CGI and there's bad CGI, just like there's good minis and bad minis and good puppetry and bad puppetry and good lighting and bad lighting. It's just another tool, that's all - I get that it's fashionable to hate on CGI nowadays and lament the end of the age of minis. It's the film equivalent of inSISTing that you've not really heard an album until you've heard it on vinyl. (HINT: this is never true) I'm sure the same was once said of color and talkies. NEW TECHNOLOGY BAD. ME AM LOVE CLASSICS ONLY AND ONLY ME DECLARE CLASSICS.

This claim that CGI is "easy" tells me that whoever wrote this piece has never done any graphics work ever or even made the barest exploration of the process. Never built a model, never applied textures, never animated nuthin, never even watched the damn special features. Peter Jackson's King Kong is beautiful - I would rather watch it over any other version. Thor was beautiful. The composite cityscapes made from composite CGI in dozens of movies that aren't billed as special effects blockbusters are beautiful. Self-satisfied huffing about how things done changed is decidedly unbeautiful.

Sometimes I feel like CGI is killing movies. And sometimes it's so obvious that it ceases to be subjective.

No it doesn't. Art never ceases to be subjective.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:13 PM on June 19, 2011 [11 favorites]


The problem with CGI is that it allows you to create anything that you can imagine. This is an amazing thing but it is also a terrible burden. If you look at Jurassic Park a big part of why the CGI worked is dinosaurs were real. They existed. They were born and died in the world. If you look at the Transformers movies the CGI looks stupid because transformers are stupid. It is a dumb thing to exist. It was a good idea for a toy and in cell based animation it had to just sort of vague look like the machine. Optimus Prime was a robot in a truck themed costume like batman is a man in a bat themed costume.

That's the big problem with CGI. You can do stupid things. Things dumber than would be possible using earth props. The other thing that's sort of interesting with CGI is that CGI exists changes how we watch movies. I remember watching Darby O'Gill and the Little People when I was little. And Darby is sitting on a throne and the throne is giant. And I remember wondering how they did that. They just made a huge throne? For one scene? I marveled at how they accomplished simple things in movies. Now I can see anything and while I know that good CGI takes effort it isn't the same. It doesn't take the same cleverness that illusion takes. There's no magic.
posted by I Foody at 10:14 PM on June 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


CGI costs what you want to spend on it. Seriously. A 5 million dollar movie can certainly have a few effects shots in it, and probably in the DI (digital intermediary -- dropping the film negative into digital to finish the coloring and making small corrections before printing it in 35 for delivery) they clean up all sorts of things -- reflections of crew members in windows, lighting issues, errant smoke or our of place hair or a blemish, things you'd never think of as being FX. I haven't priced DI in a few years, but around 2004 at a decent house it cost in the $300k range for an indie production. As with everything in the movie industry, depending on what you need and how you negotiate, this number could fluctuate hugely.

That's how little you could spend (and still have it count as VFX). BLACK SWAN's production budget was around 12, and I'll bet (educated guess here) they spent half a million on VFX (not counting DI). Again, though, numbers for these things are hard to figure. A VFX house can trade equity in the movie for work on the film, but that's not going to be a 1:1 trade. Also, the VFX house could bill BLACK SWAN 10 grand for a shot but charge GREEN LANTERN 35 grand for exactly the same shot.

If you walk in to a car dealership wearing a Rolex, you're gonna pay more for that BMW.
posted by incessant at 10:18 PM on June 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


The problem with CGI is that it allows you to create anything that you can imagine.

This is, literally, the Green Lantern ring's main power. Maybe the whole movie is a metaphor?

The problem is that movies using this sort of conceit are never are imaginative as they should be. Inception had all of the subconscious to play with and it ended up being more boring than 90% of my dreams.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:19 PM on June 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Y'know what had awesome CGI?

Jumanji.

(I'm joking, of course.)
posted by The Confessor at 10:21 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you look at the Transformers movies the CGI looks stupid because transformers are stupid. It is a dumb thing to exist.

YOUR FACE IS A STUPID LOOKING DUMB THING TO EXIST!
posted by The Hamms Bear at 10:24 PM on June 19, 2011 [17 favorites]


Sorry.

There is no good reason the movie Transformers couldn't look like the toys or cartoons from the 80s. This old clip was far better than any of that Michael Bay nonsense.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 10:31 PM on June 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


CGI is a tool, and like any other tool there are a set of decisions made around its use. My own sense is that there is a certain laziness concerning the thinking around CGI which has now become 'throw enough CGI against the wall and people won't notice the incoherent script, the gaping plot holes, etc' which is sad because it can be wonderful when used properly.

Someone needs to go count up the shitty movies made in the 1970s and the shitty movies made in the last decade. My guess is that the ratio of good films to crap has not changed.

Averaging the IMDB weighted ranks of all films from each year 1970-1979, I find:


IMBD as the arbiter of quality? Seriously? Where The Shawshank Redemption is rated the number one film of all time and Inception is currently rated ninth?

The ratio of good films to crap has maybe not changed but the good films from '70s Hollywood are much better than the best of Hollywood in the last decade.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:41 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


The use of CGI where perfectly serviceable physical effects is often a mistake. I see blood splatters done with CGI and just wince. Oh, and the fire. I'm not sure if it is because fire is very hard to simulate, with all of the fluid dynamics involved, or if millennia of humans staring into flames has brought us an incredibly discriminating sense of what fire looks like, but CGI fire makes me want to burn something just to show them what fire is.

I'm hoping the new The Thing keeps the CGI to a minimum.
posted by adipocere at 10:45 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I had a downstairs neighbor years ago who was crazy. Really crazy. "Standing on the back porch at 7am on a Sunday wearing a tiara while banging on a bent fryingpan with a steel ladle and screaming for her lost cat Tommy" crazy. She fancied herself a painter. She threw out most of her work. I'd see it in the gutter next to the garbage cans and recycling. She stretched her canvases carefully and used expensive materials. Some of her brush work was fine and subtle. On the street, if you stood far back, you could tell that most of them had begun their lives as representations of the inside of her apartment (one floor up, mine had a nearly identical floorplan). But she never stopped painting. Color on color. Layer on layer. Over and over. Each painting a tangle of overlapping incoherent waves. There were canvases with paint laid on a half-inch thick.

Now.

Nothing of her time and efforts made great art. But nothing about her work takes away from what the same tools can do in other hands.
posted by rmxwl at 10:54 PM on June 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


adipocere, they do so much digital fire because fire is dangerous and insurance is expensive.
posted by Netzapper at 10:58 PM on June 19, 2011


I strongly suspect that "CGI" is a generalized, formless boogieman that lazy armchair critics like to aim their their darts at, like "socialism" and "the ivory tower."


While this certainly makes a lot of sense, it strikes me as a red herring that distracts from the discussion at hand. Surely it is clear the type of overproduction the blogger is referring to with this, granted, inadequate term? The cheap, ungraceful, and occasionally nauseating flashiness of so much visual effect? Reels designed merely to masturbate your senses?

I hear a lot of rebuttals here to the effect of: fancy visual effects are very successful when augmenting a film and when done with great care. But the point is that a worrying portion of the industry today is not taking great care. Perhaps a boogieman term "CGI" is our only weapon against such a trend.
posted by stroke_count at 10:59 PM on June 19, 2011


I see blood splatters done with CGI and just wince. Oh, and the fire.

This is sometimes because A) they did it on set but it didn't end up coming out right and no one bothered to check the monitors and make sure it looked good or maybe they had the wrong blood, they had blood for super 16 but they're shooting on the Genesis and yes, different cameras and films require different kinds of blood, so once they got in the edit room they realized they'll have to fix it or B) the line item for on-set VFX got slashed by an overzealous UPM while the producer wasn't looking or didn't care. While you're shooting, every last penny is scrupulously accounted for in sniggling, precise ways. Once you're in post, it's all up to the post supervisor (and every single producer always says to themselves "Oh, well, we can always scare up more finishing funds when the time comes") and that's why you end up with VFX blood that costs ten times as much as on-set blood. Why pay a little now when you could pay a lot later?

Also, I've seen VFX budgets balloon because the VFX is being done by the producer's CGI company and he's billing the production for every last pixel. If they do CGI blood, that's another 5 grand in the producer's pocket.
posted by incessant at 11:00 PM on June 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


I have mixed feelings on this; on the one hand I've seen few CGI monsters that approach the horrifying physicality of Carpenters' Thing, on the other hand, I remember the aliens from Laserblast used the same technology. On the one hand CGI was used to attempt to cover for bad writing, on the other hand it's been used to good effect elsewhere.

Ultimately I don't think it changes anything; Avatar and the new Battlestar Galactica could have been done with 80s effects and would have been the same. And I also remember that the original script for 2001 had huge sections that were blank exp out for "reserved for never-before seen special effects". Hollywood production has always had a huge flim-flam element, and a lot of stupidity to go with it.
It just happens that the stupidity it's a little more evident these days.
posted by happyroach at 11:03 PM on June 19, 2011


Reels designed merely to masturbate your senses?

Is that what they think they're doing? Huh.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:03 PM on June 19, 2011


@koeslitz
Which is why you can't make margin films anymore. Everything must appeal to the broadest possible market. (This is happening in music, too, by the way.) So you only get stuff that has sure-fire broad appeal, stuff based on popular things in other media (comic books, novels, TV shows) and franchises. Essentially, this is the era of Michael Bay.
You forgot video games, koeslitz.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:16 PM on June 19, 2011


Restrictions are good. Computer animation is wonderful. But here's what I think is one of the major problems it introduced (presented in quick and dirty MSPaint-o-vision). Basically, for 15 years or so we've had the ability to make anything with computers, budget permitting. The sudden ability to paint with imagination's full palette is disruptive and disorienting and - I mean, what kind of movie do you make when you realize you can make ANYTHING? (hint: it's the Star Wars prequels) CGI, as a storytelling device, has so much maturing yet to do. It needs focus, experience, and it needs mistakes.

Restrictions breed creativity and provide direction when the choices would otherwise be too many, but they are still restrictions. Maybe somewhere out there is a great film waiting to be made soon which can only be realized with CGI?
posted by MrFTBN at 11:23 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Which is why you can't make margin films anymore. Everything must appeal to the broadest possible market. (This is happening in music, too, by the way.) So you only get stuff that has sure-fire broad appeal, stuff based on popular things in other media (comic books, novels, TV shows) and franchises. Essentially, this is the era of Michael Bay.

I'm not sure this is true. If anything, it's the opposite. Broad appeal films were made in the days before things like film ratings, when every film couldn't be offensive to anyone. Today, films are made to niche audiences, even if those niche audiences are willing to spend lots on their entertainment. I mean, really, comic books are not mass appeal, unless the masses are mostly young, and mostly male. It seems to me the market supports way more small audience tastes than before, and not only in the movies.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:34 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe somewhere out there is a great film waiting to be made soon which can only be realized with CGI?

You mean Avatar?

/ducks, runs
posted by Ghidorah at 11:36 PM on June 19, 2011


IMBD as the arbiter of quality? ... The ratio of good films to crap has maybe not changed but the good films from '70s Hollywood are much better than the best of Hollywood in the last decade.

This is a different question--one I have no personal opinion on, though it may help to know I'm in my 40s. But it's still an interesting question to ask of IMDB and relevant to the thread.

If I take the top 10 films from each year in the 70s, their average weighted rank at IMDB is 7.71, while the average weighted rank for the top 10 films from each year in the 2000s is 8.11.

Since this represents a much smaller slice of the data, any number of cognitive and/or selection biases may apply. And perhaps it's no surprise that contemporary movies tend to address contemporary sensibilities and aesthetics.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:40 PM on June 19, 2011


Maybe somewhere out there is a great film waiting to be made soon which can only be realized with CGI?

I don't go a day without hearing someone in the 18-34 demographic lamenting the lack of a Just Imagine remake...

Honestly, it's a gimme.
posted by CarlRossi at 11:41 PM on June 19, 2011


Maybe somewhere out there is a great film waiting to be made soon which can only be realized with CGI?

I want the kind of movies that can only be realized with CGI. I want hyper-real or completely unreal dreamscapes. Speed Racer. Scott Pilgrim. Little connection to reality at all. Lucid dreams. Proper ones, not Inception ones. But I suppose they can all be done with traditional animation.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:45 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Team Fortress 2?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:53 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eloquent argument my ass. It's the same old "I remember movies being better than this!" rant mixed with some "CGI just isn't hard enough!".

I find it kinda funny they say King Kong (1933) was better because of the lovingly handcrafted model effects that took dozens of hours of work to make, when King Kong (1976) used much the same techniques. I have deep guy-love for Jeff Bridges, but King Kong (2005) was miles better than (1976).
posted by WhackyparseThis at 12:00 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think the CGI in both Tron movies is pretty well justified, given their "filmed on location, inside a computer" premise.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:00 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Illustrative Rendering in Team Fortress 2: clip, slides (pdf), paper (pdf). If I were to do a Transformers movie, I'd do them like that.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:01 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wacky, the 1976 version of Kong mostly used a guy in a suit, actually. And yeah, the CGI in Peter Jackson's version managed to do something neither previous version managed: to make Kong into a *real* character.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:09 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm personally thrilled that this whole CGI thing has given us Michael Bay type Transformers, which made tons of money and will make tons more. Yes the movies are all terrible, but they made so much money. That means that Hollywood will reboot in 10-20 years with some artsy director at the helm.

Imagine Transformers as done by Future-Darren-Affronsky or Future-David-Lynch. It would be amazing!
posted by Chekhovian at 12:25 AM on June 20, 2011


When people gripe about CGI in movies I don't think they realize how deep the rabbit hole goes, and how long it's been going on. Almost ever single major movie (and many indies) now use "CGI". Not all of CGI is fire or laser beams or strange creatures with unrealistic looking hair.

I'm not even sure where to begin, but if you picked any one of your favorite movies over the last ten to twenty years I could point out a lot of surprising computer graphics shots that aren't matte paintings or plain old analog composite shots or other optical effects. Everything from backgrounds to skies to innocuous props and set pieces in the background are CG now. Intrusive backgrounds are removed, or a better scene outside of a window is added to an interior shot.

But here's a major one that many people miss because it's so natural and right in your face - the digitally composited long tracking shot. Cameras now move fluidly from a flyover shot of a car pulling into a drive, sliding right into a "crane shot" of someone entering a house and the camera will pan right through a plate glass window with reflections and everything in the background off the glass (but no camera reflection!) right on into a dolly or steadicam shot inside the house and most people won't even notice that it happened sequentially like that without a single cut, fade or wipe. Because the "cuts" are now synthesized together. The window and reflection were CG and never existed. Maybe the crane shot and the lawn and the front of the house were synthesized, too, or the first few frames of the "inside" of the house were synthetic before they cut to the actual filmed segment of a tracking shot.

There are a lot of CG effects like this that area actually extensions of camera movements and actions. Set and location shooting has totally been transformed as well. Not only can they readily synthesize reality but they can import it and edit it in very subtle, convincing ways.

And Avatar was a shitty, fucked up if not outright racist piece of shit of a story suffering from a complication of known cliche'd tropes, but that's a damn shame, really. Because it sure was pretty to look at.
posted by loquacious at 12:35 AM on June 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


If you have to build an enormous Imperial Cruiser model, you're probably going to shoot the scene with ONE Imperial Cruiser…because you don't want to build a second one unless it's absolutely necessary. So the original trilogy had a sense of economy. It was sparse. In the prequels, why have one ship when you could have…(*click click click*)…a hundred ships???

Even before CGI, it wouldn't have been necessary to make more than one model because even in the pre-digital era it was possible to composite several copies of the same model into a single frame. I'm pretty sure this was done in the original Star Wars in some of the larger battle scenes.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 12:41 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wacky, the 1976 version of Kong mostly used a guy in a suit, actually. And yeah, the CGI in Peter Jackson's version managed to do something neither previous version managed: to make Kong into a *real* character.

Twas beauty that killed the beast.
I empathized with the original King Kong. I didn't need an extra hour and a half of padding.

Imagine Transformers as done by Future-Darren-Affronsky or Future-David-Lynch. It would be amazing!

Tetsuo: The Iron Man?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 12:51 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Huh, I was sure they used a figurine for long shots in Kong '76. I must be misremembering.

Imagine Transformers as done by Future-Darren-Affronsky or Future-David-Lynch. It would be amazing!
I wonder if it would have made a difference if Lynch had CGI to work with on Dune rather than models.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 12:51 AM on June 20, 2011


I want the kind of movies that can only be realized with CGI. I want hyper-real or completely unreal dreamscapes.

Yes. Yes.

Speed Racer. Scott Pilgrim.

No. No.

Little connection to reality at all. Lucid dreams.

Yes. Yes. (quite literally if someone made a film that was all Yes album covers)

You mean Avatar?

I liked Avatar and I think it was mostly good use of computer animation. But did it really break a lot of new ground? It was a sci-fi pastiche of familiar themes, and the technical feats were only an extension of what others had already been doing, but executed well and on a large scale. It's great that they put together a solid, competent blockbuster, but it wasn't the film to showcase the future of CGI for me. We're nowhere near exploring the full range of the medium. I'm thinking more like The Fall (which I've heard didn't use a bit of CGI.) Or a trip through Dali and Beksinski paintings. Or things like Mandelboxes which I couldn't have even imagined before I saw them.
posted by MrFTBN at 12:56 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I make my living as a CG artist and work on big-budget, big-studio special effects movies. I was going to work on Green Lantern, but ended up working on Thor instead. I agree with this guys assessment that CGI makes films worse, but I don't agree with his reasoning. CGI is a burden to the director not because it "enables laziness" or is "easy" - both absolutely false. It is a burden to the director in that it offers too many possibilities.

CGI is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. The guy writing this piece has some rosy retrospection going on for the days of old where people "painstakingly worked with delicate sets blah blah blah" He is no position to speculate on these matters. I work with guys who animated walkers in Empire Strikes Back. They now animate on computers. It is in no way "easier." There is constant problem solving going on, constant fighting both the software and the pipeline. It is painstaking, nerve racking, difficult and very very time consuming. Old problems have simply been substituted by new problems and I can't tell you how many times people simply wish they still could work with models.

The difference between then and now, however, is that with physical models, physical lights and practical assets...you are limited by reality and generally what you see is what you get. Sure, we can add some more smoke, and make the lights a bit brighter, and add a little more slime on the creature or whatever...but that's pretty much it. You're bound by reality.

With a computer, things still need to be modeled, "painted", rigged, assembled, lit and rendered..but...with enough overtime and burnt-out artists...there are no bounds. You can do anything. You can art direct the fucking smoke, instead of blow it with a fan and that's what you get. You can art direct things that, outside the computer, you have no control over. You're not constrained by reality and as a result, directors let their imaginations run wild. They can't seem to limit themselves because now they have so much control over every pixel in the image that they feel the urge to control every pixel in the image. But just because they CAN do it, doesn't mean they SHOULD do it.

And the vfx houses NEVER push back. Profit margins for visual effects houses are so razor thin that they WILL NOT say no to a client, just to get the work. In this sense, the work is actually often underbid and its true cost is eaten by the vfx house. There is a famous producer who once said "I'm not doing my job if I don't shutter a vfx house on my film."

What you end up with is a scenario where the vfx house says "YES!" to ANYTHING the director can dream up...and due to the way in which most vfx houses charge - flat rate as opposed to a-la-carte - they end up creating and recreating scenes at the directors whim at great expense to the company and to the artists working there.

Its a miserable and complex situation and one that armchair experts shouldn't really try to write off as "a few clicks of a mouse," but nonetheless the result is the same - many films are worse for it.
posted by jnnla at 12:59 AM on June 20, 2011 [239 favorites]


Which is why you can't make margin films anymore. Everything must appeal to the broadest possible market.

Sure you can. Jesus, directors throughout history would have killed for the cost of doing editing alone in the modern day. It's all so cheap and easy to get a good camera and desktop editing suite.

You won't make any money out of it, but that's got nothing to do with CGI, which is expensive, skilled, time-consuming work (and the characterisation of it as "easy" alone flags the essay as writting by an ignorant moron). New forms of entertainment, torrenting, and a profusion of movies themselves prevent you from making a living out of "margin movies".
posted by rodgerd at 1:06 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Peter Jackson's King Kong was pretty much just too long. Having a running time of 187 minutes enabled all sorts of bloat.
posted by Authorized User at 1:23 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I want the kind of movies that can only be realized with CGI. I want hyper-real or completely unreal dreamscapes.

Paging Heavenly Creatures, paging Heavenly Creatures.
posted by rodgerd at 1:43 AM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Or Starship Troopers, the film with CGI so awesome they used it in both of the sequels.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:10 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think we're having two separate conversations here.

If the FPP had started with the proposition, "Many would agree that the advent of CGI has made movies special effects worse, not better," then many would agree (and have agreed).

On the other hand, the proposition that CGI is responsible for movies themselves becoming lazy is, well, lazy. That proposition would, however, explain why all my MeFi comments have become crappy since I stopped having to typeset them on a Linotype machine and mail them to mathowie.
posted by bicyclefish at 2:14 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


This article is wrong. I think Star Trek (2009) would beg to differ. So would Black Swan.
posted by polymodus at 3:03 AM on June 20, 2011


The problem with criticism today is that blogs have made it far too easy. In the past to be a good critic you had to work hard, get some credibility and write cleverly and consistently for ages.

Now any two bit goon with a blog is a critic.
posted by sien at 3:09 AM on June 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


I think the bad CGI in starwars argument was made more eloquently by the redlettermedia review. It has more to do with Lucas than the CGI itself.
posted by ts;dr at 3:14 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


So, let's sum this up. It is now cool to say that "movies are bad." (sort of like saying "I don't have a TV set")
posted by tomswift at 3:27 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy.

The author of that blog post need to join up with an effects studio and work his way up. Easy? Not a chance. It's hard, challenging work.
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:39 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thank you, jnnla, for an insider's perspective on this problem. I also think Koeselitz makes good points.

Speaking as a movie fan who doesn't like a lot of these modern CGI movies, I think that maybe some of the people in this thread are misinterpreting what the original article means by "easy". CGI isn't easy in the sense of being devoid of technical problems or light work - I've done some compositing in my time and that kind of frame-by-frame pissing about with Shake was a horrible experience.

However, I do think that CGI is "easier" than model making in two ways:

1) It's easier to extrapolate or multiply an effect. With programs like Massive (and probably more recent versions) you can have thousands of guys fighting. With the ability of a computer program to duplicate and iterate, you can make a scene extremely complex. Sometimes this looks amazing. I really enjoyed the first minutes of the first Lord of the Rings movie for example. But I think if you look at recent "summer blockbuster" movies, massive scenes of battle and action have become more common and this is at least partly because computers allow you to do that: they make it practicable to animate thousands of things at once.

2) I think it can encourage design laziness.

Now, I'm not saying that all the fault here lies with CGI. But compare the design of - the "look" of - Star Wars (and a lot of 80s sci-fi) with what we have now. Those late 70s/early 80s films really felt like they were showing us something new. The design behind a lot of recent sci-fi and fantasy, by contrast, is horribly bland.

Why is that the fault of computers? Well, it isn't entirely. A lot of it - more perhaps - has to do with the rather derivative and dull nature of a lot of concept art (very samey spaceships and monsters and babes, all painted in photoshop, inspired by a combination of anime and fantasy book covers).

But because computers make anything possible, they instantly reveal the poverty - or strength - of the person using them.

When you are dealing with reality, with the solid and the physical, sometimes reality lends a hand. Sometimes you get some lucky extra element that lifts whatever you are doing above what it would otherwise have been. Also, you are shooting something that is really there, so there can be all sorts of things that are still quite difficult to fake that you don't have to worry about. Plus, if you have to solve a design problem in reality, it can force you to be inventive. All those things can lead to more innovative design.

So, I think the article does have a point about "easiness", although maybe the language it uses is a bit more sweeping than is really helpful.
posted by lucien_reeve at 4:17 AM on June 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Okay, koeselitz , I hear what you're saying, but I still think there's something to this. You're basically adopting the position that technology is neutral:

So if your problem is that they don't make epic space movies like they used to – well, don't blame CGI. CGI is just a medium like anything else. It's what you do with CGI that makes it.

I'm not totally convinced that's true, and I think it has something to do with this:

Yes, there have always been crap movies, and this is why it's utterly silly to compare The Green Lantern with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Better to compare The Green Lantern with schlock of the day that was on its level; and believe me, there were a lot of awful movies back in the 1970s.

Here's the thing: CGI does make filmmaking "easier," letting people do things that they previously either couldn't afford or simply couldn't do at all. But it also fundamentally changed the way that films are made. Others have pointed out that the people who make and use these tools can get so geeked out with the technical side of what they're doing that they can forget to ask whether they're making a movie anyone's going to want to watch. I think that's valid, but I think it only scratches the surface of the problem.

CGI tools, like audio editing software and word processors, do indeed make certain things easier. Which can hide the fact that those things are actually hard. Work with me here. You're a musician. You know quite well that composing and performing a good track takes a lot of work. You also know that software can take a lot of the tedium out of that process, even to the point of making it so that a given track doesn't have to be perfect, because you can just fix it in post-processing. It also means that any two-bit hack in their living room can make an audio file with the same quality as someone in a really expensive studio. Now even shitty tracks can have great production values.

Similarly, writing is hard. Always has been. Sure, a lot of the difficulty used to be the mechanical process of putting words to paper, and word processors take a lot of the drudgery out of that (and editing!). But the actual core of the task remains as hard as it ever did: writing a good book takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Only now any teenage girl in her living room can crap out a 90k fanfic and throw it up on an electronic distribution site right next to Shakespeare.

Bringing it back, making movies is hard. Every scene needs to be composed and every effect deliberated over. Used to be that technical limitations were so narrow that directors had to either have access to the really big money and be pretty creative not only with what effects they were going to use, but about using those effects for maximum payoff rather than cramming as many as possible into every shot. But now The Asylum can cook up a knockoff version of any major blockbuster in six weeks and have the effects look almost as good as the real thing. Used to be that if a movie was stupid, it probably looked stupid too. Now even the dumbest plots can be tricked up with such amazing CGI that a lot of people can be fooled into thinking they're watching a good movie unless they're paying attention.

In some sense, these developments are a good thing. I actually think that more democratic access to media distribution channels is, on balance, a positive. Barriers to entry serve not only as quality filters but also as subtle ways of enforcing cultural and ideological hegemony. But it's not an unmitigated positive. When producing media was hard, not only artistically but technically, it was easier to tell what was crap and what wasn't. Sure, 90% of everything has always been crap, but barriers to entry can serve to signal what's what. Any technology that reduces the level of dedication and attention to detail required to produce a finished product will thus have, in my estimation, unintended consequences. Like, for example, permitting two-bit hacks with insufficient imaginations and writing skills to churn out sub-par superhero movies that look awesome but are actually really dumb. It was really hard to make a movie that spent more time on its visual effects than on its writing and acting when there weren't any visual effects to speak of.
posted by valkyryn at 4:40 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


The opposite of using too many gratuitous CGI effects is not having movies with nothing but a green screen behind them. The opposite of too much CGI is TELLING A FUCKING STORY.
posted by Mcable at 5:18 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


So, let's sum this up. It is now cool to say that "movies are bad."

No, it's more like "I hold up the top 2% of all movies made in the past 40 years, and lament that the biggest earning movie released last weekend failed to be just as good, blaming various changes in the film industry as the cause."
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:28 AM on June 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


I actually think that more democratic access to media distribution channels is, on balance, a positive.

Agreed. I once read a review of the Fisher-Price PixelVision camera which stated that "film could never truly be considered an art form until it was as affordable as a pencil & paper."

The downside of this democratization is, unfortunately, the revelation that there's just an awful lot of bad taste in the world, and that undiscovered talent remains just about as elusive as ever. (look no further than YouTube, which is video democracy in action)
posted by ShutterBun at 5:33 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Before the printing press, every book was a true work of art, now just look at them..."
posted by hat_eater at 5:37 AM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


There is a lot of disinformation in this thread. Hollywood is not bleeding money. It is making lots of it, just not as much as it did a couple of years ago. Recession and all that.

As someone who is pitching movies day in and day out I will tell you this: with the honorable exception of the BBC, there is simply nowhere to pitch dramas to. Therefore many of the films you remember fondly from previous decades simply cannot be made today. David Lean would not find funding for his epics today.

The reason is not very complicated: after Jaws, the Hollywood model became a massive same-day release which did not depend on word-of-mouth, reviews, or working a film from coast to coast building an audience. It relied on high concept, stars, and advertising to get audiences in on the opening weekend and anything it did after that was gravy.

However, now all the studios are in this game, it's a massive gladiatorial combat to see who can outspend and out-concept each other. The roll of the dice on an individual movie is now up to about $200-250m when you factor in negative cost and marketing. In many cases it's higher than that. For studios working on a perhaps $5bn line of credit it's a white knuckle ride so they are massively risk averse. There simply isn't the infrastructure in terms of movie theaters to exploit $5-$40m dramas, and the studios have completely forgotten how to make them (ie nobody who works there has ever made one).

Everyone in the industry knows this is a problem and that the solution is downloads/streaming, but this will require a massive realignment of the business which they would like to postpone as long as possible.
posted by unSane at 5:38 AM on June 20, 2011 [12 favorites]


Just click some buttons, hire some graphic designers, and make the entire movie inside a computer.

This guy doesn't know jack shit about computer graphics, or the colossal amount of talent and man hours involved in making these movies. What about HBO's John Adams? Or Inception? The problem isn't CG, it's the shitty art direction mandated by the synergistic cross-marketing douchebags who make the decisions in Hollywood. The music is not in the piano.
posted by Scoo at 5:38 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is a weakly worded post about a poorly thought out blog post.

Comparing Green Lantern and 2001 is silly, they're two different kinds of movies. The blog post reads like the author saw the trailer for Green Lantern and quite rightly threw up a little in his brain. Rather than stopping there, he went on to blame everything wrong with movies on something he doesn't like and doesn't understand.

No, 2001 was doesn't look better than Green Lantern. Both look ridiculously fake at times but at least GL strives for something more than slavishly intimidating reality.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:43 AM on June 20, 2011


"Just click some buttons, hire some graphic designers, and make the entire movie inside a computer."

That line is so cartoon crotchety old timer that it almost made me think the post was a joke. Them magic computermajigs just do everything for you these days, there's no craftsmanship any more. Pissant.
posted by lucidium at 5:44 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


The problem, as I noted, was that they watched the Jar Jar sequences thousands of times during CGI tests until the dialog became background noise. This is a horribly pernicious thing, it warps your mind. Maybe someday I'll write about how I watched one section of the Rodney King Video about 50,000 times while working on the forensic enhancement.

Nope. Stuff a Jamaican in a rubber mask and have him do a Steppin Fetchit routine and Jar Jar would have still been terrible. Now, you are saying maybe they would have noticed how bad Jar Jar was, but that doesn't explain the hook-nosed Jew slaver or the greedy Chinese merchant robots. That movie is so over the top with racist caricatures that I refuse to believe George Lucas is actually aware of any of them...

The myopia that drove that movie had nothing to do with CGI.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:47 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


(My personal point of view on CGI is that once you can do anything, the spectacle becomes kind of worthless. The one thing CGI can't do well is human drama, and that's the gap in the market. Having written a bunch of CGI-driven studio blockbusters [which of course don't get made] I can tell you that it's almost impossible to combine massive high concept CGI spectacle and intense human drama because the CGI/concept/plot takes up so much screen time that there is almost no space left for the humans to do except shout things like 'RUN!' and 'HOLY SHIT!'

Despite this, the studios do have some very good dramatic CGI scripts including ones written by me but they are universally regarded as 'too dark'. There is only one film-maker allowed to make dark movies in contemporary Hollywood and that is Chris Nolan although they would probably let Sam Raimi have a stab at it too - but only if he directs as opposed to produces. Without one of those guys attached, the script hasn't got a chance.

For example, to bitch a bit, I wrote an adaptation of the comic book SLEEPER which was among the best things I've ever done and got fantastic coverage at the studio. I had a big big name producing and one of those stars who still opens movies worldwide attached. It was noir but it was fun and it had some AWESOME sequences and a villain who gave everyone the chills. But it had a noir tone (as the comic book did) and in the end the studio didn't feel confident, especially in the wake of WATCHMEN. So instead you get GREEN LANTERN.
posted by unSane at 5:48 AM on June 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Everything from backgrounds to skies to innocuous props and set pieces in the background are CG now. Intrusive backgrounds are removed, or a better scene outside of a window is added to an interior shot.

But here's a major one that many people miss because it's so natural and right in your face - the digitally composited long tracking shot.


It's funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. I hate with a burning passion the crappy and intrusive CGI stuff -- the car bouncing down the street after an explosion, somehow never crumpling or breaking, say. But then I started wondering how much CGI was going into regular, non-action scenes, and my guess was "a lot," and it sounds like I was right.

So in that sense, it's just a tool for film makers to use, in the same way they can choose between a steadicam and a handheld camera or whatever, and that's great. But the fakey crap that never gets the gravity right is worse than terrible, and should never be used.
posted by Forktine at 5:57 AM on June 20, 2011


Averaging the IMDB weighted ranks of all films from each year 1970-1979, I find:
Averaging the IMDB weighted ranks of films from each year 2000-2009, I find:

the most interesting thing about those figures to me is that there are many, many more movies made now than there were in the 70s - which makes me wonder why people are saying that margin films aren't possible anymoe
posted by pyramid termite at 6:05 AM on June 20, 2011


I enjoyed the article and am glad it was written, and even more than it was posted here.

CGI efforts are here to stay, but movies that over-rely on them are generally ones I have no interest in seeing.

The movies that turn me on the most are ones that employ interesting human stories, beautiful cinematography, and superb direction.

I think I would agree with this statement in the article:

The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness.
posted by rmmcclay at 6:22 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness.

As to this, it probably means something similar to whatI've seen on photo shoots: If there's a problem on the set, the refrain has become to "fix it in post" or "we'll Photoshop it out (or in) later". Rather than working to fix the problem then and there and reduce post production time, CGI and Photoshop do make it seductively easier to do unplanned corrections later on. Why bother getting the light right, we can adjust later and so on and so forth.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:36 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the article: The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy.

Oh, right, easy is bad. Got it. We must suffer for our art, or it's not


I didn't take it that way. One of my favorite ideas is that the resistance a tool provides is what gives you control over it. I think this is illustrated by jnnla's comment.

When you get a new tool you need to learn how to wield that new tool. Until you do, you skitter all over the place. That's what's happening with Hollywood and CGI.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:40 AM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Any technology that reduces the level of dedication and attention to detail required to produce a finished product will thus have, in my estimation, unintended consequences.

And the exception that proves the rule is Monsters, which was written and directed by a newbie, who filmed the whole thing on something akin to a Flip camera and did all the CGI in his bedroom for a total cost of $500K. And it was brilliant (IMO).
posted by Summer at 6:43 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


There simply isn't the infrastructure in terms of movie theaters to exploit $5-$40m dramas, and the studios have completely forgotten how to make them (ie nobody who works there has ever made one).

Yeahbut, in the last couple of years

The Social Network
The Fighter
Shutter Island
The Ghost Writer
Harry Brown
Kids are All Right
Salt
Never Let Me Go
True Grit
Killshot
State of Play
The Soloist
Away We Go
Moon
The Hurt Locker
Precious
The Blind Side
The Road
Up in the Air
Invictus
Crazy Heart
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:00 AM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


> *click click click*

Yup, pretty much everything done with a computer is easy.

> [Ed's] goal in life (and this blog, in case they're not one and the same) is to channel Bill Hicks, Mark Twain, Carl Jung, and Mencken.

How precocious. I predict great things from this young man.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:00 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like some CGI intense movies but I do feel like to a certain degree CGI has become a crutch used in place of good storytelling in many movies.

The massive green screen summer movies really struggle at time to present a believable scene. I don't know if it's that the actors and directors struggle to visualize the movie when all they have is a green screen and some props and costumes and that translates into disbelief in the audience but even gorgeously rendered movies often really struggle to present a "real" scene. Your mind is always telling you that they are interacting with something CGI and that can really impact your sense of immersion.

The 3D money grab isn't really helping out either. The post production process seems to muddy colors, make the movie dark and render objects indistinct. This can make it where what might otherwise be a decent popcorn movie pretty much a exercise in tedium.

I think there are directors and actors that are experienced and can handle a massive amount of CGI in their movies and plenty that seem to use CGI to paper over their mistakes.

I'm afraid that Hollywood will try to recapture the Avatar phenomenon and forget that sometimes you go see a movie because it suddenly "advanced" the tech of movies more than it really made for a compelling a gorgeous story. Avatar like Titanic before it were kinda game changers in terms the movies that could be filmed, they weren't particularly stunning movies story wise but they were events in and of themselves.

Just trying to match the bar set by Cameron isn't going to bring in the audience Hollywood demands or these budgets require. I think future summer blockbusters are either going to have to have compelling stories in combination with stellar effects or simple have something that completely blows the audience away.

For example Green Lantern seems to be focused on spectacle and seems to be failing utterly while X-men First Class be focused on spectacle (but still CGI intense) but combines that with much more compelling characters. If the theatre I saw X-men in is any indicator it seems like the later movie has much more legs box-office wise.
posted by vuron at 7:01 AM on June 20, 2011


Just wanted to jump in to plant a link to the Black Swan EFX reel, and FPP on the same topic.
posted by schmod at 7:06 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just wanted to jump in to plant a link to the Black Swan EFX reel , and FPP on the same topic.

Black Swan is an interesting example because the feathers in the climiatic scene (seen at the end of the linked reel) aren't perfect and have a fake look and feel about them. But the emotional impact of thT final scene is so great it doesn't matter.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:14 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Transformers strikes me as a weird example of a bad idea made possible with CGI. It's another iteration of a genre that's been continuously produced since the 1950s, using just about every technology including men in robot suits, animation, puppets, stop-motion animation, and finally CGI. If anything, the griping over CGI Transformers highlights one of the problems with CGI, which is that people seem to have absurd issues with giving it the attention it deserves--a handful of sentences at most--and then exercising willing suspension of disbelief.

Granted the other problem with Transformers is that Bay can't sell his monsters, either with sentimental performance by actors ala Spielberg or sheer gonzo joy ala Harryhausen. But the original Godzilla, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Clash of the Titans and I'd argue 2001 work because everyone knew they involved trick photography and didn't care. Peter Pan works on stage for the same reasons, and slyly tells you as such at the climax.

But, the linked essay isn't convincing to me. 2001 for one is probably the best in breed of ponderous attempts to bring philosophical science fiction to the screen, and succeeds in that the movie is more weighty than the novel. Less well remembered are Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Lathe of Heaven, and Logan's Run which have cult status. Green Lantern probably would be better compared to Superman at the good end and Flash Gordon, The Bionic Man, and Captain America.

I don't think that the concept of giving moviegoers a big-budget spectacle is especially new either. De Mille's Greatest Show on Earth, the 1963 Cleopatra, the early disaster movies, all-star comedies like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (and sister mysteries like Murder on the Orient Express, and of course the ridiculous John Wayne Conqueror were partly premised on packing as much as possible into a single film. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. Complaints about it are probably as old as Hollywood.

Part of what changed my mind about CGI was the realization that it had become ubiquitous in medium- to high-budget period dramas due to the inability to do outdoor shots in much of Europe or North America without some 20th-century structure in the background. I'm willing to bet that there's a ton of CGI-work that we just don't notice anymore.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:29 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the things I like to do when I'm arguing with friends about why I'm so tired of CGI is to show them La Jetée. Twenty-six minutes long, with a mere flicker of actual moving footage tucked away in the middle, it's almost nothing more than a cleverly edited slide show with narration, but it tells a rich complicated story by requiring the viewer to contribute something of themselves to the action.

It's not that there's something wrong with what CGI is, but rather that limitations make art better, not worse. I don't mean suffering, difficulty, or other hardships, per se, but just a bit of containment, requiring an intimate connection between the artist and his/her tools.

Speaking on electronic musical instruments, Brian Eno is particularly articulate, and I think this translates to the medium of film, as well:

The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates "more options" with "greater freedom." Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: "How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?" In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.

Software options proliferate extremely easily, too easily in fact, because too many options create tools that can't ever be used intuitively. Intuitive actions confine the detail work to a dedicated part of the brain, leaving the rest of one's mind free to respond with attention and sensitivity to the changing texture of the moment. With tools, we crave intimacy. This appetite for emotional resonance explains why users - when given a choice - prefer deep rapport over endless options. You can't have a relationship with a device whose limits are unknown to you, because without limits it keeps becoming something else.

Indeed, familiarity breeds content. When you use familiar tools, you draw upon a long cultural conversation - a whole shared history of usage - as your backdrop, as the canvas to juxtapose your work. The deeper and more widely shared the conversation, the more subtle its inflections can be.


There's a great book about the making of Blade Runner, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner that describes in absolutely intricate detail how so many of the visual things that happened in that film happened, and there's a real lesson in some of it. Planned visuals went awry, the mistakes ended up being more real than the intended effects, and so the look of the film grew and changed because of little organic mutations amid the process. With CGI, everything looks intentional, and is intentional, and can be perfect in the way that the air in a completely closed office building can be the right temperature, at the right humidity, and with no unnatural scents or pollutants, and end up feeling like you're breathing liquid plastic.

De gustibus est non disputandum and all, but personally, I hope that the era of omnipresent CGI lasts only as long as the ridiculous "morphing" fad lasted, where every single director with a budget felt compelled to put a morphing scene into their film or TV program. It can be a lovely thing, used well, but right now, we're making film after film that looks about as tawdry and predictable as, say, Earth: Final Conflict.

Of course, I thought we'd be over fucking autotune by now, too, thirteen years after Cher stunk up the world with "Believe," but I'm a bit of a crank, so what do I know?
posted by sonascope at 7:30 AM on June 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


The reason is not very complicated: after Jaws, the Hollywood model became a massive same-day release which did not depend on word-of-mouth, reviews, or working a film from coast to coast building an audience. It relied on high concept, stars, and advertising to get audiences in on the opening weekend and anything it did after that was gravy.

This is true to some extent, but you make it sound like it was all instantly set after the summer of 1975. I think the changeover point was Batman, in 1989. This was, so far as I recall, the first time the marketing took up more space than the movie itself -- the wave crested with Snakes on A Plane, at which point the marketing became so central that actually releasing the movie only hurt the brand.

Even a cursory look at boxofficemojo.com will reveal surprising (and, to 21st-century audiences, counter-intuitive) things about how movies were being marketed, released, and viewed in the decade-and-a-half between the Shark and the Bat. Star Wars, your quintessential summer blockbuster, opened on 43 screens in 1977. Beverly Hills Cop, another movie that would now fall under the general rubric of summer blockbuster, opened in early December and stayed #1 until well into the following March (indeed, it didn't drop out of the top 10 until the following June; by contrast, the four movies that were #1 at the box office last December were all out of theatres and on DVD by March or April this year).

And even in 1994 The Shawshank Redemption opened at #11 and climbed all the way to #8 by word of mouth. It is not my favourite movie ever, but I think I am with many others in admiring it more than the box-office hits of its first few weeks in theatres: Timecop, The River Wild, and Terminal Velocity.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:35 AM on June 20, 2011


No one's mentioned Zodiac here yet, so I feel like I'm obligated to do so. Computer image work was mostly used in that film to recreate a period San Francisco, and I thought it did so to great effect.
posted by mikeh at 7:37 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


CGI is a cancer, yes.

*Fires up Cinema 4D Studio, creates egg, drops egg into Mograph cloner object, flings thousands of CG eggs at Old Man Sys Rq's house"*
posted by Scoo at 7:45 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I still think people are missing a lot of what's happening with CGI. I remember the history of one of the first big budget CGI films, "The Last Starfighter." IIRC it had a stunningly expensive CGI budget for the time, like $12 million, and it was a flop at the box office. The studios decided CGI was too expensive and all CGI production basically stopped. But during its release in the brand new VHS rental market, it eventually recouped its costs, then it "had legs" in the market and became quite profitable. Suddenly the studios thought CGI wasn't so bad.

Since then, it's been an "arms race," each film's FX had to outdo the last. But at a certain point, it became almost impossible to outdo the last film, CGI became so well developed that you could make it indistinguishable from reality, and more detailed than any physical effects could be. Now consider what you've got today, with 4k digital rendering and compositing, plus 4k digital cinema projectors or high rez 4k digital-to-film. You can basically control every pixel reflecting off the screen into the viewer's eyes and retina, down to a level of detail where more resolution won't even be detectable. At this point you cannot improve the quality of the image (with a few exceptions, like Cameron wanting to go to 60 fps). You might as well be hooking up the computer output directly to your retina and skip the projector and screen.

So now there are basically no limits to what can be done in cinema, other than the limits of the imagination of the producers and directors, and limits of budget. And that is where the problem lies. There is an old quote I remember verbatim from Stanely Kubrick's "The Making of 2001," he said, "If it can be written, or thought, or felt, it can be filmed." Well, NO, no it can't. There are some experiences that can't be put in films, like the extended experience of grappling with a complex story in a long book, going back and re-reading passages, reading footnotes and finding citations from other books, contemplating it over time, etc. Truffaut had it right, "Film is the art of leading the thoughts and connotations of the viewer." Film is better at dragging a viewer along through a limited visual experience, feeding them cues that incite their subconscious to respond emotionally, etc.

And there, let me make a comparison of CGI. Nobody's ever going to say that the LOTR films are anything close to the book. And Jackson made a mess of it, I think they're some of the worst films ever made. He built massive computer "render farms" and built new software that could achieve his goal of rendering massive armies in battle. And those scenes were a flop. It was impressive for about 1 second, then it looked like a bunch of ants fighting. The only interesting scenes in these battles were when the camera focused on a single character, with maybe 2 or 3 foes fighting. The audience can't deal with an army in battle, their emotions are invested in single characters.

Now compare that to the all-digital movie "300." The exact same animation techniques are used to show an army in motion as it moves to the battlefield. The massively rendered army is only the setup shot, we never see it again in that scene. Classic filmmaking, start with an establishing shot to set the scene, medium shot, action. We never see whole armies in battle, the action focuses exclusively on a single character in battle at a time, or maybe 2 men fighting back to back at most.

Now what did Frank Miller know that Jackson didn't? He knew that a film comes together not on the screen, but in the mind of the viewer. Miller is a film freak, and well experienced in creating images on a blank page that would convey the story to the viewer in an intelligent, artful way. But largely he did this by following conventional methods. Once you know "the language of film," you become fluent enough to speak it and audiences understand it.

This was all a lot easier when films had greater limitations of budget, and cheap physical effects had to suffice. Filmmakers focused more on how the story was delivered, rather than what was on the screen. Perhaps it is better to have limitations to push against, to try to surpass, rather than have the unlimited freedom we have today, where we can put anything we can imagine on screen.

I remember a long time ago in the early 80s, a new studio head wrote an editorial for the LATimes denouncing what he called "Spectacle." He said that each new film tried to outdo the last, with more explosions, more spectacular car crashes and chase scenes, more gore, etc. He said the ultimate conclusion of this trend would be live gladiators fighting to the death on screen. He denounced this trend as it would cause moral decay in the same way that the Romans became decadent and their culture rotted from within. So of course, what did we get? Movies like "Gladiator." But those were done with CGI, rather than actual actors being stabbed and shredded by lions. The trend is the same. Hollywood cannot keep up an endless search for something more spectacular. What are you going to end up with, films that show someone blowing up the universe, with highly rendered clouds of galactic dust? So we're getting a backlash now. There are two types of CGI films, the spectacular, and the subtle. We've got spectacles of Transformers fighting, with little pretext of a plot. Then we've got stories with subtle CGI that is almost invisible, but in service of a plot. Now dammit, I can't actually think of any examples of that type of film. And that probably means the CGI was so good, I didn't even notice it. That's how to do it.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:46 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


KirkJobSluder: "2001" was based on a short story, not a novel.
posted by raysmj at 7:47 AM on June 20, 2011


Now what did Frank Miller know that Jackson didn't?

"Find out what he's been smoking and have a few ounces sent to my chamber."
-Lord Julius
posted by Scoo at 7:53 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeahbut, in the last couple of years

The Social Network
The Fighter
Shutter Island

etc.

People involved with most of those movies have talked in interviews about the hassles they had in trying to get the green light from the studios. And of those on your list, how many were the MegaHits® that the studios want? "The Social Network," "The Blind Side," "True Grit," maybe "Shutter Island." A good number of the movies on that list were made independently and distributed by the studios after long struggles, not made by the studios themselves. If you're talking about a movie like "The Fighter," that movie almost didn't happen. Three people were in the role of Dick Ecklund before Christian Bale took it. The movie had two directors. Paramount refused to finance the movie, several times over. Then Paramount forced the company that did finance the movie to also foot the cost of marketing the movie. In the end, "The Fighter" won 2 Oscars, but was it the hit that Paramount would have wanted? Probably not.

Another movie not on your list, "Slumdog Millionaire," was tossed in the garbage by Warner Brothers before Fox Searchlight picked it up.

So your list doesn't speak well of the studios. If anything, it speaks well of the people who fought tooth and nail against the studios to get their visions off the ground.
posted by blucevalo at 7:53 AM on June 20, 2011


Here's an example of CGI done well, and in the service of plot, from "The Secret in their Eyes," an Argentine film that won the 2010 Oscar for best foreign film. (Its director, Juan José Campanella, has worked, and continues to work, on many American television shows, including "House MD," "Law and Order" and "30 Rock.")
posted by raysmj at 7:55 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Scariest special effect ever? The baby in Eraserhead.

I'll trade you the biggest, most awesome CGI effects for a great script ANY DAY. I'm sick to death of sitting, bored, through films thinking oh yeah, wow, another amazing effect. Snore.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:58 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


While I acknowledge that there have been abuses with CGI, it is something that can transform an ordinary movie into the magical.

Take Star Wars, for example. I saw the movie as a child and -- like many others -- thought that it was a perfectly serviceable movie. The story was pretty good and the characters were fairly interesting. But it absolutely looked terrible. But time and CGI caught up to the movie, and it was as if it was transformed from the profane to the sacred. Star Wars was suddenly realized, and it was a great movie.

When I originally considered the Tatooine planet, it seemed like a desert environment where there was very little plant life and very little animal life. It seemed like anything useful to humans was either built or brought to the planet. Even the farm boys hopped around on hovering cars. When the CGI was added, I was finally able to see all of the gigantic creatures that waltzed around the city of Mos Eisley. How could animals like that eat and drink on a planet with almost no water or plant life? Clearly, there was a thriving underground jungle like in Journey to Center of the Earth. It was a revelation to me. Count me as a convert.

I am greatly looking forward to the soon to be released updated version of Jaws with all of the CGI sharks. I thought that Jaws was okay, but the CGI sharks should really lift the movie to a whole new level.


This comment is indistinguishable from satire.
posted by odinsdream at 8:00 AM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


I usually like Gin and Tacos, but in this case they're indulging in bog-standard apples-and-oranges comparisons. Sure, Green Lantern doesn't compare well with 2001, but neither do Star Wars or Star Trek: The Motion Picture, science fiction films that similarly take place in space and feature spaceships as important visual elements, if you're judging them using 2001 as a benchmark. That's because 2001 is doing something very different from the other three films, which, variously, are about turning a Kurosawa film into a space opera, rebooting a TV SF franchise, and doing a film of a decades-old comics character that would bring it to a much wider audience than the ever-shrinking comics readership. In order, they succeeded well beyond anyone's expectations, sort-of-succeeded*, and probably failed, or at least seems not to have succeeded to the extent that would justify the huge marketing push**. Comparing one of the best films of a notoriously obsessive auteur to any of these is no more justifiable than comparing it to Damnation Alley.


*To the degree that ST:TMP failed, it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted something like 2001, and ended up with seemingly-endless scenes of the Enterprise slowly crawling through space clouds. It was still successful enough to warrant making the much-better STII (and did succeed in rebooting the franchise, which became vastly more successful than the original series in any objective sense), and eventually Robert Wise got to release a much-improved revised cut of the first movie (and one that took advantage of CGI to include visuals and effects that they either couldn't afford for the first film or didn't have time to produce--as it was, some of the effects work for the original version of the film was produced so late in the production cycle that they were cut directly into prints of the film that were sitting in cans, waiting to be sent to theaters).

**Probably the most absurd tie-in that I've seen--not just for this film but, maybe, for any film ever, with the exception of the Krull-themed weddings--is Subway's offer to add avocado paste (I don't think it's really guacamole) to any sandwich for $1, because it's green, you see.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:07 AM on June 20, 2011


When the effects become more important than the story, you have a problem, no matter how the effects are generated. Surprised no one has linked to this article by David Foster Wallace:

1990s moviegoers who have sat clutching their heads in both awe and disappointment at movies like "Twister" and "Volcano" and "The Lost World" can thank James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for inaugurating what's become this decade's special new genre of big-budget film: Special Effects Porn. "Porn" because, if you substitute F/X for intercourse, the parallels between the two genres become so obvious they're eerie. Just like hard-core cheapies, movies like "Terminator 2" and "Jurassic Park" aren't really "movies" in the standard sense at all. What they really are is half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes -- scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff -- strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 8:13 AM on June 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


And Darby is sitting on a throne and the throne is giant. And I remember wondering how they did that. They just made a huge throne? For one scene? I marveled at how they accomplished simple things in movies. Now I can see anything and while I know that good CGI takes effort it isn't the same. It doesn't take the same cleverness that illusion takes. There's no magic.

They used forced-perspective frequently for Lord of the Rings, despite it being possible to do it with CGI. The effect is so much sweeter this way.
posted by odinsdream at 8:14 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Ultimate Olympian, even as someone who's currently re-reading Infinite Jest and has a couple of other DFW books on the short to-read list, I think he's wrong about T2; he skates over tons of subtext in it to declare it "flat" and "dead" and even mocks some of the same things (e.g. female protagonist recast as an action heroine in the sequel) that he praises in Aliens. Maybe he was just in a bad mood. (I agree with him on Jurassic Park, which, like the Star Wars prequels, seemed mostly to serve as a set-up for a video game or theme park ride.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:30 AM on June 20, 2011


Sys Rq: “CGI E.T. is just soulless and terrible.”

I agree, the CGI version of ET was about as good as the original.
posted by koeselitz at 8:35 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


They used forced-perspective frequently for Lord of the Rings, despite it being possible to do it with CGI.

Likewise, favoring huge-scale miniatures over matte paintings.
posted by Trurl at 8:38 AM on June 20, 2011


What they really are is half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes -- scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff -- strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative.

I believe this describes every Fred Astaire musical ever made.
posted by Trurl at 8:39 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Now what did Frank Miller know that Jackson didn't?

That he could get Zach Snyder to direct the film version of his book?

(i disagree. The LotR battle scenes were excellent at showing a wide variety of action over a large area, informing the audience of the wider situation while giving a classic epic feel. )
posted by WhackyparseThis at 8:44 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I reacted positively to this article, but it's because I'm already sick of the Green Lantern movie. Someone decided to promote the hell out of this flick, so they're shoving it in my face everywhere. If it looked like a great movie I wouldn't mind so much, but I'm sure it's just yet another Marvel summertime adaptation.

Hell, putting CGI over script isn't the biggest problem with this thing — it's betting more on promotion than the movie itself.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:10 AM on June 20, 2011


(i disagree. The LotR battle scenes were excellent at showing a wide variety of action over a large area, informing the audience of the wider situation while giving a classic epic feel. )

Yes, as I mentioned, that's an "establishing shot." Once you establish the scene, you move on to the medium and close shots. You don't linger on the establishing shots and go back to them over and over. If the characters can't carry the plot, the scene isn't going to help. And when you're animating a million soldiers, even if you dress them in white and black to make them distinctively different, it all blurs into one grey mess.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:36 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think there is some confusion about CGI as it is, versus CGI technology in theory. I think it's necessary to separate CGI as method that some directors don't know how to use effectively, versus the increase in computational power and improvement in algorithms over time.

As a comparison, in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, the Dominion battle scenes are nice, however the ships still have that hint of fake CGI sheen to them. Go forward a couple of years; by the season finale of Star Trek Voyager, the renders of the ship are quite stunning—gorgeous glows and shadows, and details in clear relief.

If the LoTR army scenes were re-done today, they would be both more visually convincing (more detailed and textured, less homogeneous) as well as aesthetically compelling (more natural and precisely controlled camera).
posted by polymodus at 9:59 AM on June 20, 2011


The point of Green Lantern x 2001 is density. Cgi rarely gets it right. In the real world, your object can be BIG — FAST — MASSIVE (pick two). If you pick big + fast, like Hollywood always does, your subconscious feels it must be made of styrofoam. That's why both recent Hulk movies feel fake. Also Transformers, and cgi Yoda. He's small, but he moves too fast for even his tiny mass.

This applies to the camera too — in the effort to make things exciting, it's always flying unnecessarily around, you don't feel its mass, its reality. You feel that the camera is less dense than you, so it's harder to put yourself there.

That's the beauty of 2001: stuff moves slowly and thus feels massive, real.
posted by Tom-B at 10:20 AM on June 20, 2011 [17 favorites]


I haven't watched LOTR in awhile but my memory of the battle scenes is that they look great generally, and succeed because there's lots of great little bits or details (Legolas climbing up mastodon thingy, Uruk Hai with torch running towards bomb, and so on).

When I think bad CGI armies, I'm thinking Attack of the Clones or even this summer's Thor - armies where soldiers are identical, move in sync or clusters, etc.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:38 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


People keep bringing up Black Swan, and am I the only one who thought the CGI in that was really shitty throughout?
posted by EmGeeJay at 11:08 AM on June 20, 2011


Yes.
posted by hermitosis at 11:10 AM on June 20, 2011


In the real world, your object can be BIG — FAST — MASSIVE

Christopher Nolan disagrees with you.

Remember the part in The Dark Knight, where Batman flips the Joker's semi lengthwise? Yeah, they actually did that. In Downtown Chicago. No CG. Nolan didn't even bother removing the steam from the piston that was used to launch the truck into the air, and ended up using a far-away shot of the entire scene that was added as an afterthought.

I fail to see how this stunt does not meet all 3 criteria of "Big," "Fast," and "Massive." I have a physics degree, and although I recognize that the scene is preposterous, nothing about it looked particularly "off."

All 2001 did was demonstrate that space is huge, quiet, and boring.

Also, ironically, in space, things can move very quickly with no regard to their mass. (Acceleration and change of direction are different stories, though).
posted by schmod at 12:02 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Effects, CGI or otherwise, are not the problem with bad movies today, or ever. The problem with bad movies is storylines and characters that just don't work. If you then put in effects to try to make up for the lack, you end up with horrible movies like Transformers 2 and the recent remakes of perfectly good movies that someone, somewhere decided would just be better for the improved technology. And they suck.

But I'd argue that King King was one of the few that did it right. Imjust re-watched this the other day, so it is fresh in my mind, and what Peter Jackson did with the story was brilliant.

Consider the original King Kong compared to the christawful 2005 remake

Okay, I will. Because I categorically disagree that the remake is 'christawful.'

In the original classic, the last line of the film, "'Twas beauty killed the beast," is often quoted, and rightly so because it is a great line. But the context is often forgotten or overlooked. Only at the end of the film is that line tagged on, and it is the line of the man who is all about showmanship and creating a narrative for the masses, the Barnum of the film, giving the people what they want. He says those famous words because it's the romantic notion the people want to embrace--a monstrous beast was brought to ruin by love for a beautiful woman.

People quote it as if it were the theme of the movie, but he created this fake story when he brought Kong back and the idea fits his narrative, that's all. In the original classic film, we never really get a sense of why Kong does go grabbing Fay Wray specifically and taking her up to the top of the Empire State Building. Yes, she's the girl from the island. so what? There were native girls sacrificed too, and Kong doesn't go around New York grabbing black women; he goes for Wray's character, Anne (there are some scenes that were cut from the original that might have helped show us, but they are so close to soft porn they were cut from the film).

But in Jackson's version of King Kong, we see what makes Anne special--the 'padding' disparaged above--and also the life of Kong himself. Anne is a starving chorus girl among all the wannabe starlets in Depression-era New York, but she's smart and resourceful and funny, too. Throughout the first half of the film, her character and others are firmly established.

And then, in the second half of the movie, we get to the Island. That Island is a different world entirely. The natives are not innocents or noble savages but bloodthirsty, maybe even cannibalistic fiends who sacrifice their women to Kong to protect their own skins (there's none of the religious fervor in this version to their actions), and they take Anne and offer her to Kong because, basically, better her than any of them.

Life is brutal and short on the Island. Almost every species is deadly, including the insects, and those that aren't are large and powerful enough to kill you anyway, by mistake, and not even notice. The ugliest, harshest environment in the world, that's where Kong grew up.

And Kong is no gentle giant. He has no qualms about killing, either. It's almost all he knows, killing to survive.

Almost.

On this Island, the one safe haven Kong has is high on the edge of a cliff. This is where he takes Anne, to sit and stare out longingly over the water as the sun sets. And the audience is clear that he appreciates the beauty of that moment. In that sequencein the film, Kong holds Anne as a mother holds a child, cradling her (it's the only time in the movie he does this), and in the next scene we see a large, primate skull among the bones paving the way up to the top of the cliff. Kong's mother or father, perhaps the one who taught him to appreciate this one beautiful thing in this ugly world, is gone, and he's alone.

There is no scene in the first film to compare to this moment, just as there is no moment when we see the ape responding to Anne--not just any woman, but to her specifically--as he does here, when Anne, frightened for her life, stumbles on a way to make him laugh.

Anyone who has been around primates, as I have, will tell you that the time and craft spent on making Kong as close to a real gorilla as possible were well worth it, and that there is nothing 'lazy' about the efrects in this movie. The expressiveness of the ape is marvelous in the remake and all the better because it doesn't attempt to make him human, just real. Kong's still an animal, still quick to anger, aggressive, territorial. But Anne understands Kong now, she gets why he is the way he is, and that's why she chooses not to participate in his exploitation once he's brought to New York.

When Kong escapes in Peter Jqckson's film, he searches for Anne because she's special and he wants to go home to that moment when she was his. When he climbs the Empire Sate Building with her, the audience knows it's because he is trying to recreate his safe haven at home on the Island on the edge of that tall cliff, and that peaceful moment at the end of the day when, all his battles fought, he can appreciate the beauty of the setting sun.

And when Kong is killed, and our blatant self-promoter says, "'Twas Beauty killed the Beast," he stil doesn't get it; he doesn't believe the words, he's just trying to create that narrative for the masses, like he always does, and profit from it.

But the audience knows it's also actually the truth, and THAT'S why the remake is a great movie.

Sorry this is so long. I'm just pasionate about this.
posted by misha at 12:40 PM on June 20, 2011 [27 favorites]


This comment is indistinguishable from satire.
posted by odinsdream


The comment was satire. The tipoff is when flarbuse says "I saw the movie as a child and -- like many others -- thought that it was a perfectly serviceable movie."
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:53 PM on June 20, 2011


It's not that there's something wrong with what CGI is, but rather that limitations make art better, not worse. I don't mean suffering, difficulty, or other hardships, per se, but just a bit of containment, requiring an intimate connection between the artist and his/her tools.

This is mostly my perspective on the matter too, sonascope, though unlike Brian Eno I think that a wide breadth of options isn't the problem. Rather than saying that limitations make art better, I prefer to say that limitations make artists better. They lead you to understand the difference between materials and meaning, so that when you decide to move on to a more populated technique space you don't get taken by novelty and create something that is all skin and no skeleton.

Really, I think that limitless options make for bad art when the person at the helm doesn't have any perspective on them.
posted by invitapriore at 1:08 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Christopher Nolan disagrees with you.

Remember the part in The Dark Knight, where Batman flips the Joker's semi lengthwise? Yeah, they actually did that. (...) I fail to see how this stunt does not meet all 3 criteria of "Big," "Fast," and "Massive." I have a physics degree


schmod: I don't have a physics degree, so I probably used the wrong terminology, my bad. The point is that cgi often looks fake because the density of stuff feels wrong. So your object can be "Big", fast "nimble", jumping all over the place, acceleration rather than velocity; and massive "dense".

Nolan's truck illustrates this, it is big but not very dense, the back is mostly a hollow aluminum box. It pivots around its center of mass, where the engine is. Feels real because that's what it is.

Compare to the Hulk spinning the tank around to throw it. You need an awfully dense Hulk for that, or a toy tank.

(...) All 2001 did was demonstrate that space is huge, quiet, and boring.


That's exactly how I imagine real space to be!
posted by Tom-B at 1:52 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the reason CGI is so problematic is that it always calls attention to itself as a technical performance, and as such, it dehumanizes everything it touches. We're always forced to go "wow, I can't believe they did that... with CGI". The most sinister testament to this fact is the new concept of "immersiveness", which is a truly Orwellian notion that winds up meaning something along the lines of "Despite the obtrusive techno-performativity of this film, I willfully and officially proclaim myself fooled. I declare my belief in this computer-generated real."

And this winds up taking on political dimensions. There's actually social pressure to ritualistically declare yourself "immersed". And it's tantamount to saying you believe in the whole damn post-capitalist, rational actor, game theoretical, military industrial nightmare.

I believe it all! This aggression will not stand, man! Both Iraq Wars were real wars. Coke is it. And any updates to the Matrix are a figure of your g**d**** imagination. There's nothing to freakin' see here. The singularity is near, Gollum deserve the best actor Oscar, and the "Tree of Life" dinosaurs were fairy princess magical, and only served to humanize an already epically super-sizedly human film. It's Terence Malick, okay, man? If you think Terence "Days of Heaven" Malick is capable of inauthenticity, then clearly you're an idiot. He's an auteur, understand? If an auteur says bring in the digi-dinos, then it's poetry. And if Dick Cheney says there's yellowcake, then it's yellowcake. Autobots, let's roll!
posted by macross city flaneur at 1:58 PM on June 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


also, my fave Hulk is obviously Lou Ferrigno... a big guy painted green, what else do you need.
posted by Tom-B at 2:05 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's actually social pressure to ritualistically declare yourself "immersed". And it's tantamount to saying you believe in the whole damn post-capitalist, rational actor, game theoretical, military industrial nightmare.

I... dude... what? It's a fuckin' movie, man, about one of the charter members of the Justice League. Did Big Brother make you go see Avatar? I mean, maybe it sucks to be you if you can't suspend disbelief for ninety minutes, or maybe you're too busy having epic adventures of your own and getting crazy laid. Either way, a little perspective might be in order.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:18 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


maybe it sucks to be you if you can't suspend disbelief for ninety minutes

Ah, but there's the rub. Suspension of disbelief is an entirely different concept, one which "immersiveness" is replacing. We suspend disbelief because the emotional, social, and political context of a situation, no matter how it's represented - written words, puppets, song - it resonates.

Immersiveness replaces this with a spectacular reality whose chief virtue is that it is easily manipulated by a financial and political elite.
posted by macross city flaneur at 2:36 PM on June 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


mcf: That's an interesting point. One of the things I've always loved about Henson-family productions (even including Mirrormask) is that instead of trying to fool the audience, they cut a deal with the audience on suspension of disbelief. I don't think you can really sell any artist-realized creature, whether it's Frankenstein, The Helping Hands, or a giant robot by virtue of FX rendering. You sell it by creating performances that encourage the audience to say, "yeah, it's fake but I don't care."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:21 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


When I originally considered the Tatooine planet, it seemed like a desert environment where there was very little plant life and very little animal life. It seemed like anything useful to humans was either built or brought to the planet. Even the farm boys hopped around on hovering cars. When the CGI was added, I was finally able to see all of the gigantic creatures that waltzed around the city of Mos Eisley. How could animals like that eat and drink on a planet with almost no water or plant life? Clearly, there was a thriving underground jungle like in Journey to Center of the Earth. It was a revelation to me.

Sabrina, remove your dress...
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 4:01 PM on June 20, 2011


Nobody's ever going to say that the LOTR films are anything close to the book.

Because the LOTR films were actually exciting?

The problem isn't too much CGI. It's too much reality and not enough imagination. Why do superhero movies need love stories? Why do we always start in the real world? We've all seen people falling in love before. Give me something massive! Give me something surreal and strange! Down with reality-based films!
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:07 PM on June 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Give me something massive! Give me something surreal and strange! Down with reality-based films!

If Marvel ever decides to film adapt Dr. Strange or take another crack at the Fantastic Four, I hope this is advice they will heed. Part of the reason I dig CGI and modern VFX is that at last, at long last, we have filmmaking technology that is capable of making comics movies that are as huge and strange as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko drew them fifty years ago. Likewise LotR - there's no way any studio could afford to do that with minis and models.
posted by EatTheWeak at 4:15 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nobody's ever going to say that the LOTR films are anything close to the book.

They shouldn't be. Kurt Vonnegut once said that he didn't mind screenwriters taking liberties with his work, because otherwise, the results "Wouldn't be worth shit."

Part of the reason I dig CGI and modern VFX is that at last, at long last, we have filmmaking technology that is capable of making comics movies that are as huge and strange as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko drew them fifty years ago.

That was one of the reasons I actually liked Thor. If you're going to do Thor, Loki better have pair of ridiculous horns on his head and Asgard should be tricked out with gold and floating things.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:39 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Give me something massive! Give me something surreal and strange! Down with reality-based films!

Just as long as you don't give me The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. That movie was basically two hours of ammunition for CGI haters.
posted by invitapriore at 5:09 PM on June 20, 2011


a big guy painted green, what else do you need.

Lots and lots of balsa wood.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:09 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem is that films that do what I think CGI films should do end up flopping, critically and commercially. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Speed Racer both got DESTROYED for daring to go all-out with imagination.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:55 PM on June 20, 2011


They got destroyed for being crap. Important difference.
posted by unSane at 6:42 PM on June 20, 2011


They were labeled as crap because they didn't refer to standard movie structure, or at least not standard modern movie structure. They said 'hey, you're here to see an action adventure film'. Here's two hours of ACTION and ADVENTURE. Not 'here's some love story, here's some Robert McKee 101 plotting, and here's 15 minutes of the CGI you actually paid to see'.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:50 PM on June 20, 2011


No they were labelled as crap because, in the case of Speed Racer, it cost $120m and grossed $93m, and in the case of Sky Captain, cost $70m and grossed $53m. After distributor cuts and marketing a movie general needs to make back around 4x its negative cost to go into profit, which means that these movies lost around $300m and $200m respectively.

It's not exactly surprising that investors would be gun-shy about heading down the same path.

The movies are a business.
posted by unSane at 6:58 PM on June 20, 2011


Sorry, my math is off there

Speed Racer
neg cost + est. marketing cost = $250m
applicable gross = $100m/4 approx = $25m
loss = $225m

Sky Captain
neg cost + est. marketing cost = $150m approx
applicable gross = $60m/4 approx = $15m
loss = $135m
posted by unSane at 7:09 PM on June 20, 2011


I'm never sure how to respond to this sort of conversation...Speed Racer is one of my personal favorite fans. Not because I'm some huge fan of the franchise, I've only seen a few episodes of the original. But I really enjoy that movie. Not sure why it's so universally disliked.
posted by Phyltre at 8:03 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


unSane, where are you getting a marketing cost of 130 million for Speed Racer? And where are you getting your applicable gross divided by 4 formula?
posted by incessant at 10:16 PM on June 20, 2011


I'm talking about critical reaction, unSane, not box office.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:18 PM on June 20, 2011


Sky Captain was fabulous, in much the same way that Rocketeer was, but it's definitely a minority opinion in both cases.
posted by rodgerd at 12:15 AM on June 21, 2011


Very rough rule of thumb is that you spend the same on marketing as you do on the negative.

The quarter figure is again very very rough but is based on exhibitors taking 50% of the gross, and distributors taking 25% of the remaining 50%, leaving 25% for the studio.
posted by unSane at 3:34 AM on June 21, 2011


So they were slaughtered critically and were financially disastrous - clearly not finding an audience. Maybe you liked them, but you're pushing water uphill trying to convince anyone else.
posted by unSane at 3:39 AM on June 21, 2011


I said that in my comment. I still think we need more movies with that pure sense of fantasy and fun.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:44 AM on June 21, 2011


See Speed Racer on a big screen (preferably stoned). LIB is right, it's amazing. Visually, this is one of the best arguments I've seen for CGI.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:07 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Very rough rule of thumb is that you spend the same on marketing as you do on the negative.

The quarter figure is again very very rough but is based on exhibitors taking 50% of the gross, and distributors taking 25% of the remaining 50%, leaving 25% for the studio.


Yeah, uh, those numbers are wrong. And bring new meaning to the phrase "back of the envelope."

Marketing budgets vary wildly, far too much to use a 'rule of thumb' for a scratch-paper balance sheet. Studios don't need to pay distributors because they are distributors. And with front-loaded gross these days, that 50% exhibitor formula is 15 years out of date. Most formulas peg it between 60 and 70, depending on the studio.

(I still agree with your primary assertion, that both those movies were huge bombs and objectively awful. They just didn't lose the kind of money you asserted they lost.)
posted by incessant at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Objectively awful?
posted by stinkycheese at 9:17 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wrote an adaptation of the comic book SLEEPER

Good greif! Which dark god do I need to propitiate to to make this happen? I can get my hands on a few kids for sacrifices, as necessary.
posted by bonehead at 9:23 AM on June 21, 2011


Objectively awful?

YES. (OK, not really. That might have been facetious.)
posted by incessant at 11:12 AM on June 21, 2011


I haven't seen Speed Racer, but Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was objectively awful, for reasons including Gwyneth Paltrow.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:06 PM on June 21, 2011


My biggest pain with CGI happened with seeing a making-of feature of that monstrous 4th Indiana Jones movie. Spielberg or an assosciate said they, "took some liberties with physics" to "enhance the action."

Uhhhh, when you "take liberties" with THE LAWS OF FREAKING NATURE, it ceases to look real. Why can't they understand that?
posted by agregoli at 5:08 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Studios don't need to pay distributors because they are distributors.

Ha ha ha.

Welcome to Holllywood accounting.
posted by unSane at 7:58 PM on June 21, 2011


Welcome to Holllywood accounting.

Oh, so your numbers were "Hollywood accounting" numbers? In that case, they can pretty much be as inaccurate and disingenuous as you like.
posted by incessant at 8:20 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, I just mean that distributor fees are subtracted from grosses whether or not the studio is the distributor. Chinese walls and all that. Hollywood accounting means the studio makes out like a bandit while the film never goes into profit, so the profit participation points ('monkey points', like I get paid) never actually have to accrue.
posted by unSane at 9:11 PM on June 21, 2011


I understand that, but I think it's disingenuous to use those same accounting rules to prove a point that a film wasn't a good business bet for a studio. Studios use those gamed numbers for profit participation but they don't use those numbers in business affairs discussions.

I just don't want people to take those numbers you mentioned as real or true or even a vague approximation of what those movies cost and lost.
posted by incessant at 9:25 PM on June 21, 2011


I disagree. The majority of CGI in films these days are things that the audience doesn't even realize is CGI, and that's because it's done so seamlessly that we mistake it for real life.

Case In Point - Half the time in LOST when we see the island in the background of a shot, it's not really there. It was added in later.

I was recently at a VFX panel and one of the VFX artists made this snyde, but telling remark: "The films with the best VFX don't win Oscars for best VFX. They win for Best Cinematography."
posted by KWile at 1:32 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Studios use those gamed numbers for profit participation but they don't use those numbers in business affairs discussions.

They certainly do for everything that isn't domestic. Paramount only had domestic for Sky Captain while Warner had pretty much all the international for Speed Racer.
posted by unSane at 5:57 AM on June 22, 2011


No one cares about CGI or 3D when the movie works. And when the movie doesn't work, it's blamed for the downfall of Hollywood.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:04 AM on June 22, 2011


KirkJobSluder wrote: No one cares about CGI or 3D when the movie works. And when the movie doesn't work, it's blamed for the downfall of Hollywood.

I care about CGI whether or not the movie otherwise "works," and here's why: It ruins my suspension of disbelief if I can see that it's CG. If I can't, clearly there's no problem.
posted by wierdo at 10:28 AM on June 22, 2011


wierdo: I care about CGI whether or not the movie otherwise "works," and here's why: It ruins my suspension of disbelief if I can see that it's CG. If I can't, clearly there's no problem.

Well again, the question is why does CG matter more than the use of special lenses, mattes, physical effects, POV shots, or the fact that the actors on the screen are obviously more articulate than the average person?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:04 AM on June 22, 2011


Because the CG is (in many cases) something I notice as being particularly unreal. A good matte shot or POV shot isn't visible without close examination.

In a film like Avatar, that's perfectly OK. It's supposed to be unreal. In other films, it can be very jarring. If a person can tell at a glance it's CG, it probably shouldn't be used in most films. If not, there's at least a chance it's adding something rather than taking away.
posted by wierdo at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2011


I just ran across something in this thread (forgot where) and it reminded me of one of the reasons why CG started to take on the burden of the worst, most dangerous stunts. Remember when Vic Morrow and two children got chopped in half by helicopter blades, while John Landis was filming a very dangerous stunt? The industry got sort of conservative around then, about stunts and risks. There's no reason on earth to risk someone's life when the stunts can be done (more expensively) on green screen, or CGI. Unfortunately, this only encourages more and more unrealistic but "spectacular" images and stuntwork.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:24 PM on June 23, 2011


An interesting conversation.

I've watched computer graphics work its way into the film industry for over thirty years. It has brought about a complete revolution, and made it possible to put absolutely anything on screen.

For the participants in the film business, and their fans, to complain that art is better "against the resistance of the medium," when they've been given the most powerful storytelling device in history, is shocking ingratitude. To be unable to think of how to apply it, or to muster subjects worthy of its steel, is a staggering failure of imagination.
posted by 0rison at 10:04 AM on July 2, 2011


I had no problem with Jar Jar's animation. It was the voice. If they had done Jar Jar as a puppet, while keeping that f&@*ing irritating voice, he'd have been just as annoying.
posted by Mokusatsu at 8:04 PM on July 7, 2011


That's actually a fair point. Imagine if they just recast the voice of Jar Jar Binks as, say, Tommy Chong, and repalced all the "meesa" bullshit with "like" and "man."

Instant classic!
posted by Sys Rq at 1:58 PM on July 8, 2011


*replaced
posted by Sys Rq at 1:58 PM on July 8, 2011


I realized today that the reason why CGI/live action Smurfs disgust me, is because they remind me of all the 80s little monster movies like Gremlins and Critters. I half expect them to team up and shove ball-point pens through the eyeballs of the humans they meet. But you know, I'd probably pay to see that.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:49 PM on July 8, 2011


For me it's an uncanny valley thing. They've given them all these little surface details and texture. By making them seem more concrete, the animators raise all these weird anatomical and philosophical questions that you might never consider based on the cartoon. Who in the world ever cared what a Smurf felt like, or whether their knuckles had gross little creases in them?
posted by hermitosis at 5:13 PM on July 8, 2011


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