Friday, June 11, 2010

Dear Hollywood, Stop The CGI Madness!

This one may seem like a no “duh” kind of post, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to get it. So I’ll say it. I’m a big science fiction fan and I love good special effects. Indeed, there is nothing quite like losing yourself in the grandeur of another world or seeing “the future” in ways we haven’t imagined before. But I’m really coming to hate CGI because Hollywood abuses it.

1. Now You’ve Gone Too Far:

The first problem with CGI is that directors routinely go too far with it. Indeed, while they think they are making their movies cooler, they really are only making them less realistic.

Consider the new penchant for massively overdoing the numbers of combatants in action films. The Mummy Returns, for example, was a reasonably good film, until the evil army meets the assembled army of the Magi. This is a secret order, right? Yet, suddenly, you are presented with the image of somewhere near half a million Arabs on horses -- more guys than the Ottoman Turks fielded in World War I. Ditto Pirates of the Caribbean III, where the two assembled navies number around 10,000 ships each -- as far as you can see to the horizons. Is that realistic or stupid? There were only 71 ships at Trafalgar (the biggest naval battle of the era). Ditto The Lord of the Rings where the Riders of Rohan, who brought 6,000 riders in the book, managed to bring around 2.3 million in the film.

None of this improved these movies and it didn’t improve the action. To the contrary, it just made these scenes into impossible, unrealistic messes. Not only was the quantity of the action simply unbelievable, but the massive quantity obscured the quality. . . if there was any. Also, this mass quantity of combatants cheapens the stories because it takes away the challenge of being outnumbered by the bad guys. It substitutes a stupid video game for drama. So stop trying to fill the screen!

And this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem every year. Seriously, what action movie these days doesn’t put far too many creatures onto the screen. . . enough to fill every little terrifying, empty space of film. It’s like modern director have been told horror stories about directors who were eaten alive by monsters that crawled out of the empty spaces on films they shot.

Also, while we’re at it, stop trying to turn fires into firestorms, and stop making all explosions into nuclear explosions, and stop turning car wrecks into supercollider collisions. When two cars meet, even at high speeds, they don’t obliterate each other. And semis don’t blast 100 feet up into the air. And you sure as heck can’t “duck” under it to avoid it when it comes rolling down the road.

Get some sense of proportion people.

2. Stop The Video Game, I Want To Get Off:

Another way CGI goes too far is in stunts. There is something about real stunts that just can’t be duplicated with CGI. Actually. . . let me rephrase that: I’m not sure if real stunts can be duplicated or not with CGI, because no one tries. Instead, they get digital actors doing things that aren’t physically possible. They move in ways that physics doesn’t allow. Sometimes, they even move in ways that cartoon characters wouldn’t dare try. Yet we’re supposed to “ooh” and “ah” as some actor bends themselves in half, backwards as they summersault their body underneath a flaming, rolling semi, only to escape untouched.

And I’m not even talking about movies like The Matrix or Wanted which used the ability to do impossible things as plot points. I’m talking about regular movies with supposedly regular characters. It’s no coincidence that people continue to rate the car chase in Bullit as the best ever, because it was real and it was gripping because we’ve all been there when a car gets pushed a little too far. Nothing similar can be said of modern films -- no one on earth has experienced the kinds of action we are shown now.

Further, much of this has hit the level of story-ruining ridiculousness. When I see Tom Cruise wire fighting on top of a speeding bullet train as a helicopter flies faster than it can so that the pilot can somehow keep its rotating blades inches from Cruise’s neck, I don’t cheer. . . I don’t marvel at the “genius” of the director or the computer guys. No, I laugh and I wonder what kind of idiot thought this wouldn’t ruin a movie that had otherwise been pretty well done.

Ditto again with Pirates of the Caribbean III, which had a pretty decent movie going, if you exclude the director’s obsessive compulsive need to add a moment of slapstick at the end of each scene. But just as I was about to drop a little praise on the film, the director apparently went home for the night, leaving the following instruction to the CGI nerds: “Go nuts for about 20 minutes, then roll the credits. But remember, ‘nuts.’ Nothing believable. Nothing possible. Nothing that makes sense.”

Stop ruining films by telling your CGI guys to “run wild” with the endings. If the stunt people say it can’t be done, then don’t try to fake it with CGI. And when you get that little voice in your head that says, “you know what would be really cool. . .” -- ignore that voice, you’ll make a much better film.

3. It’s The Story Stupid:

Special effects should enhance a story. They should assist an already exciting plot or interesting characters. They should not be used to make a story. But too often these days, you see movies like Transformers II or the third Matrix film, which rely almost entirely on special effects to carry the movie. In fact, sometimes it’s so bad that I imagine the screenplay was written on a cocktail napkin, with a few lines of dialog surrounded by the words “CGI guys to fill in.” CGI is not a substitute for good characters and interesting plots, and Hollywood needs to stop using it that way.

4. You Couldn’t Act Your Way Out Of A Virtual Bag

Finally, the last problem with CGI is that too many actors simply don’t have the skill to act in front of blue screens. For every Matrix that you get, with its seamless interweaving of actors and effects, you get a dozen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, with Gwyneth Paltrow staring blankly in the wrong directions. And you get a dozen movies like the most recent Star Wars films where nothing on the screen seems real because no one can touch anything.

Come on people, this isn’t hard. Just stop trying to do too much.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had my old back issues of Cinefex Magazine. A few years ago, they did a roundtable discussion with many of today's top FX supervisors and even they complained (to the extent that they could).

The sad thing is, it's not always the filmmakers. There are many directors today (like Chris Nolan and Guillermo del Toro) who grew up on movies like Star Wars and who enjoy doing things "for real" whether it's stunt work or using models and animatronics instead of CGI. The problem very often is the studio bureaucracy, who assume these guys can pull of miracles (and sometimes they do) and that audiences won't go see a movie if it isn't bigger than the other studio's movie.

And CGI has also made some filmmakers and execs quick to say, "Oh, we'll fix it in post!" if there's a mistake on the set. Certain things I can understand (continuity issues that no one catches until the last minute) but according to one FX supervisor, sometimes it's actually easier and cheaper to simply redo a shot on the set.

CGI is just a tool. If computer technology had never advanced to the point it's at now, would people be complaining about "too much stop motion animation"? Incidentally, one of the reasons I stopped subscribing to Cinefex was that, with most FX being CG now, the articles became boring. I'd rather read about how ILM created the Mutara Nebula in Trek II in a water tank than how they created the newest Trek FX on a computer.

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts on the subject later. :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

I am probably to historical films what you are to science fiction. So while I understand and do not necessarily disagree with your first point, I am still waiting to see Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg or Napoleon's final advance by the Old Guard at Waterloo in the scale in which it actually happened. Whatever else may have been wrong with "Troy," seeing the actual 1,000 ships Helen launched was pretty cool.

Stunts and video games: arghhh! you got that one right, pardner.

3.) Always has been, always will be.

4) It's amazing what a good script and good acting can do for a good story.

Tennessee Jed said...

I am probably to historical films what you are to science fiction. So while I understand and do not necessarily disagree with your first point, I am still waiting to see Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg or Napoleon's final advance by the Old Guard at Waterloo in the scale in which it actually happened. Whatever else may have been wrong with "Troy," seeing the actual 1,000 ships Helen launched was pretty cool.

Stunts and video games: arghhh! you got that one right, pardner.

3.) Always has been, always will be.

4) It's amazing what a good script and good acting can do for a good story.

USArtguy said...


this has a corollary in advertising. No matter how readable or how clever or nicely designed, no matter the medium (outdoor boards are often abused) it just seems most client can't stand "negative space". They seem to have the attitude "I'm paying for this and you didn't fill every square inch?". You wouldn't believe how much crap people want on a business card.

Budget is a big component that, combined with a lack of real life perspective (relative to what a film or other medium is about), just serves to hinder the intended result. Actors are expensive. Semis are expensive. Etc. Computers have become more powerful and vastly cheaper. Software more sophisticated. So, like in advertising, you've got someone (the client, the studio exec, etc) saying they want to wow the audience but do it as cheaply as possible.

Audiences are nearly always brought down to their lowest common denominator (that is they are underestimated). So producers of content often feel the "need" to overcompensate. It's too bad because a lot of otherwise good work gets turned into crap. After 25 years, I'm still amazed that a client will hire a group of communication experts to do something for them, then tell them how to do it.

JG said...

When my brother was about 9, my mom had "The Quiet Man" on TV, and he watched Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne are walking through the hills, and he said "Wow, that so pretty, and it's not even CG." It was sad.

Anonymous said...

I agree, CGI can be good in some ways, but they have gotten a bit crazy with it.

Andrew, you mentioned the newer Star Wars movies as an example. When the original Star Wars came out, it was way ahead of its time; I was literally blown away by it. No one had ever seen anything like it. The new ones, in addition to not having very good stories (JMHO), the effects are just not that great to me. My 14 year old son thinks they're great, but then he likes video games.

Another movie I just loved from the late 70's was Smokey and the Bandit. I guess because it was done by a stunt man (Hal Needham), the crashes and car chases were believable and enjoyable. By the way, there is a good series about Smokey and the Bandit and conservative values on Big Hollywood. It was a 4 or 5 part series and was a really good read. I think it was written by Leo Grin. TJ

StanH said...

Right you are Andrew, too much of a good thing, becomes bad. Sometimes however, like Jed pointed out there is no way to put on the screen the actual event, or the writers imagination. IMO good use of CGI was the new “Alice in Wonderland.” CGI was used to create an imaginary world of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, I enjoyed it, as did my grandniece. But as a whole Hollywood has lost all since of proportion.

Writer X said...

I felt the same way when I saw AVATAR. The CGI was cool, mostly, but the story was lacking. And don't get me started on the plot holes.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm not surprised it became dull. How many times can you read "so I added a subroutine"?

They key word, as you say, is that CGI is a "tool." It should be there to help the stories along, not replace the art of story telling. From what I'm seeing, too often, they simply decide to make up for a lack of effort in the plot and characters by flashing lots of CGI on the screen.

In terms of whose fault it is, I lump them all together. But you raise a point that bothers me. I hear this as an excuse all the time from Hollywood -- "we are only giving the audience what they want." But that's not true. They are giving the audience what they think the audience wants, based on a very nasty stereotype of the audience as a bunch of simpletons. Moreover, box office numbers simply don't support that claims. The great movies, i.e. the ones that make all the money, are rarely the CGI specials -- they are almost always the once that focus on story.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It is amazing what a good script can do to for a story isn't it?

In terms of Waterloo or other battles like that, I agree that it would be a lot easier to do that with CGI than with real people, because you're talking about two the three hundred thousand people, though I honestly don't think CGI is sophisticated enough yet to do it credibly. Also, those instances are rare in films. Ny beef is that they are turning everything into these vast battles, no matter what the circumstances. Frankly, it's gotten so bad that I would assume a battle between street gangs would be made to look like D-Day by modern directors.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I am amazed how many times I see an old movie and I just marvel at the beauty of it.

I look at something like a Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago or the jungle shots in Bridge On the River Kwai and I just think, wow, that's fantastic cinematography. Very little in the CGI world can match that, and it's too bad that they are getting away from great cinematography and replacing it with computer generated sets.

In fact, one of the strong suits of The Lord of the Rings, despite its other problems, was the scenery, which was just stunning and really brought the book to life. If they had been less ambitious with their effects, they could have created a truly beautiful film.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, I know exactly what you mean. I've seen business cards that are so cluttered that they look like puzzle games.

And there does seem to be a fear of open spaces and silence. An old lawyer trick during a deposition is to just stay silent and most people will fill the silence by continuing their story and telling you exactly what they shouldn't. It's like some sort of fear that "I haven't sold this yet." I can see the same effect in other fields.

I've seen that trend in advertising, where everything needs to be cluttered and filled. There literally isn't an empty space left on the screen or in the sound track of most ads -- including print ads. And this despite the fact that some of the most classic images of all time tend to be very clean and very minimalistic.

And what I really find amazing is how many slogans people are starting to use. They spent years getting down to stupid two word slogans "think fastish", and now they are so unsure about that that they are demanding 2-3 of these in a single ad.

I also agree about the lowest common denominator, and I see that as the primary problem with much of what is coming out of Hollywood and "Madison Avenue." They assume that by aiming for the lowest, they'll get everyone. But I think that's a faulty assumption. I think they're losing the higher end. You just can't please all of the people all of the time.

In terms of cost, what's ironic is that CGI has become so expense that it's probably cheaper to hire a ton of extras again. I think that the first big name director who does that will start a new trend back toward real extras.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I loved Smokey and the Bandit, and I read the series -- good series. I also did a review of the film (in case you missed it). I think it's a very interesting film on many levels. . . plus, it's just a lot of fun. And, there wasn't a single moment of CGI needed.

I agree completely about Star Wars. I was blown away by the effects. That world was so real that you left the theater absolutely convinced that it existed. The newest ones just don't give off that feeling because everything seems ephemeral, like you can't touch anything (because you can't, it's all on computers).

And don't get me started on the stories, they were horrible, as was the dialog and most of the acting. Ug. Lucas needs someone on staff who dates to tell him "no" once in a while.

Like you, I think that CGI can be an excellent tool, but it needs to be used to "add" to the film, not to "make" the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I agree completely. There are films that really can't be made except through CGI, but those are usually very strange films that take place in strange worlds -- like Alice in Wonderland or The Matrix. I don't really count those as a problem because it's understood that the film will be fake from stem to stern.

The problem really comes in regular movies where they just add incredible elements to an otherwise realistic film.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, What's ironic is that if you're going to spend that amount of time and money making a film, the easiest thing to fix is the script and the plot holes. Seriously, if all else fails hire a dozen writers, ask them to take a look at the script and then pick their best ideas. The cost of that would be miniscule compared to the other costs in the film.

Yet, plot seems to be almost an afterthought in movies like Avatar. And the result is a movie that makes money on the hype, but will be forgotten as soon as the advertising campaign stops. Compare that to Star Wars which had a tremendous legacy and is still shown today.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, P.S., I don't think people would be complaining about too much stop motion animation today because the difference is that SMA was not of a high enough quality that filmmakers were willing to let the SMA carry their films. But with CGI, they seem to be more than willing to let the CGI boys take over significant parts of the films.

Also, keep in mind, I'm not just talking about big fight scenes. I'm talking about its sudden use in place of stunts in normal films or to enhance any sort of special effects -- like fire and explosions. In the past, they had to use real people and models and that tended to limit them by the laws of physics. Today, those limitations are off and the worst instincts of the filmmakers -- "bigger is always better" -- can now take over.

CrispyRice said...

ITA! I have a real appreciation for clean, space, quiet. There's so much that can be told WITHOUT saying something or adding something.

It's one of the best things about the original Star Wars - moments of peace that really let you feel what was going on without having it pounded into you.

I hate the cartoons that pass for modern movies. And if Hollywood is wondering why no one is going to the movies, well...

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I know (re: stunts and explosions), and I realized the stop-motion thing as soon as I said it. I'm waiting for some enterprising Star Wars fan to "de-Special Edition" the prequels, substituting old-fashioned FX for all the CGI (basically, Lucas in reverse!). It would be an interesting experiment.

On the Q&A/commentary track on Back to the Future Part II, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis talk about the shot in 2015 where Michael J. Fox plays Old Marty, Marty Jr., and Marlene. Bob Gale says they were tempted to do it all in one shot to show off ILM's new equipment but they realized they should simply shoot it as you would any non-FX scene (with coverage, edits, etc.).

Robert Zemeckis is one filmmaker who used CGI all the time (in his live-action films) but you never notice it, and I'm not talking about the president stuff. Contact has countless FX shots: crowds, linking two shots together that were filmed separately, turning day into night and vice versa, etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I agree. The most classic movies of all time all have those moments where there is little or nothing going on, which lets you contemplate what you're seeing or what is going on. It's the same thing with other mediums. In fact, simplicity is almost always more memorable than clutter.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That (what Zemeckis does) is one of the great uses for CGI -- cleaning things up or enhancing them. In fact, there are lot of movies that use CGI to alter the appearance of landscapes by removing buildings or fences. Some alter crowds. Some alter buildings. And you never notice. And that's the point, it should be seamless. If the audience notices that it's an effect, then you've blown it.

And that's not to say that it can't be used for effects, that's not my point at all. CGI has a lot of promise for creating monsters and other worlds, which prior methods never did. But you can't rely on CGI to carry the film. Moreover, they need to stop going too far. Stay within the bounds of the laws of physics unless that's a plot point in your movie. Don't overdo everything. Stop turning 10 into 10 million. Stop losing any sense of perspective. I seriously think that most movies would be better off if they dropped every idea they came up with that starts with "you know what would really be cool..."

As for remaking the new Star Wars films, that would be a really neat experiment. Though I think that the editing tools needed to remove elements from film are not available to the public at this point.

What's more, if I was going to remake the first three, I'd totally change the stories. In fact, I think that Harry Potter's story, moved to a science fiction environment and with some other obvious tweaks, would have made a better Darth Vader The Early Years story than what Lucas produced.

FB Hink said...

Kubrick's 2001 has stood the test of time with its special effects and the use of uncluttered scenes to depict the loneliness and fragility of man in space.

AndrewPrice said...

Very true FB. As you say, his use of minimalism really got across the loneliness of space -- especially his brilliant decision to make space silent (which it would be).

Moreover, his images of the Odyssey have become definitive and remain some of the most realistic images of our future. I have to wonder what those images would have been like in the hands of a Jerry Bruckheimer?

Unknown said...

As the sales rep for Kerner, the action miniature fx company that spunoff after 30+ years with ILM, you can imagine how I am cheering this blog and his position that cgi is overused. DUH! I do want to correct the writer though, to point out that the iconic shot of Tom Cruise evading the helicopter blade was actually done using a miniature tunnel and miniature helicopter and I thought it worked great. Bring back more miniatures and email when you all come to your senses.

AndrewPrice said...

Rose, I stand corrected -- I thought it was CGI. My mistake. Thanks for the clarification!

In any event, I would absolutely cheer the return of miniatures. There is something very real/tactile about miniatures that CGI just can't match. I'm not sure if computers just can't render accurate 3-D images or if it's the way filmmakers need to respect the physical reality of the miniatures (which they don't need to with CGI), but whatever it is, miniatures feel like real things in a real world to me. They feel like they exist and like you could touch them, and like they really are there interacting with the actors. I rarely get that from CGI.

In fact, I've noticed that the effects that have felt the most real to me all used models -- like the Enterprise from the television Star Treks and everything in Star Wars.

Best of luck to you and your company, I really do hope there is a return to miniatures.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Very, very, very true! Nice find!

Ed said...

I couldn't agree more. It's hard to like movies that lose touch with reality.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, One of the keys to story telling is to keep your audience in the story. If the story becomes unrealistic, then people will fall out of the story -- they "disbelieve" the story. That's one of the dangers of over-doing the effects. When you see a car blow up like an atomic bomb, you don't think wow, you think "that doesn't seem real." And suddenly you're out of the film again.

MegaTroll said...

I agree with the crowd on this one. They always try to do too much. If they didn't try to stretch so much, it would be better. I also agree about the miniatures, they seem more real in movies.

Ed said...

Andrew, Totally agree. Movies lose me when they start doing things that don't make sense.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega and Ed, I think that's key. When you put together any kind of story, you need to stay with the realm of what people believe or (like in the Matrix), explain why they should accept unreality. I think that's true in terms of plot twists, character actions, and even effects.

Post a Comment