Is CGI Making Our Special Effects Worse?

This weekend, I was doing a bit of due diligence by trying to catch up on a few sci-fi classics I’ve missed over the years. I’ve got Forbidden Planet, Ghost in the Shell and Metropolis ready to go, but I decided to start with John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The film, which is itself a remake, and has now been prequelized in a new movie out a month ago with the same name, tells a surprisingly harrowing story of an isolated Antarctic research station that encounters…well, a thing.

It’s an alien lifeform with the ability to morph into any living organism’s body ,and Kurt Russell spends the film figuring out which of his teammates are really out to eat his brains. When the alien does reveal itself, it’s often a bizarre collection of pus spewing flesh, flailing limbs and grotesque faces, both human, animal and extraterrestrial.

The Thing itself is a wonder of special effects, and it really made me think about how physical creature effects really are still necessary in today’s day and age, and how CGI would have actually made a film like this far less unsettling. Obviously, if the movie was filmed today, all these slithering, oozing pieces would have been rendered in CG, but it absolutely would not have produced the same effect. I haven’t seen the new version, but I’m guessing this was indeed the case, which is why it tanked both critically and commercially.

It got me thinking about how if CGI really has helped move filmmaking along the way we normally assume it has. I realize I sound like a 70 year old film critic writing a column in like 1995, but bear with me.

It’s especially apparent when you go back and watch classic films, like I did with The Thing. Think about a movie like Alien. If that was made today, everything from the creature itself to the discovery of the android to the famous chestbursting scene would have been done in CGI. Instead, by using creature models and physical effects that were available at the time, we have these memorable moments that will stay with us forever.

Perhaps the greatest example of what I’m talking about would be Star Wars. It’s hard to argue that when watching the original (unaltered) trilogy, that the effects age perfectly well over time. As someone who wasn’t alive when the films were released, I can safely say that I don’t have nostalgia clouding my mind when it comes to making that judgment.

But now you look at where Star Wars is today. There is no better series that should have embraced CGI wholeheartedly, as it allows for the creation of worlds that were simply not possible to render using these old school techniques.

The problem is the addition of CGI made these films far, far worse. We got a sneak preview of that in the re-edits of the films, where CGI Jabba gets his tail stepped on, or we witness the CGI song and dance number of an alien band. But the prequel trilogy is where the real tragedy strikes.

  • Captain Qwert Jt

    CGI has the power to take Movie-makers to the limits of their imaginations.
    Sadly, that’s a short trip for most of them.

    Actually at it’s absolute best, CGI is only 90% ‘realistic’. Most of the time, it’s 60-70% real. But people think it’s 100%, so they dont try to ‘hide the strings’ like they used too.

  • Dzuksi

    I really don’t see why movies tend to go with CGI instead of practical effects. Ok, sure – CGI requires less experienced director and more money while with a practical effects you really need to know what you are doing with your camera and lightning in order to nail the feeling of believability. And when they nail it – boy do they nail it.

    Practical effects are much more believable. They add to weight of movie. It feels real, the unreal threats seem dangerous. It is for the purpose of atmosphere as opposed to CGI “cool” effect.

    Now i will say, that CGI is needed at some places – i don’t see how could they make new Apes movie without CGI. It’s a welcome thing to capture lifelike performance out of things that usual can’t do, but CGI directors usually go in favor style over substance.

    I think that CGI should be used for some things, and the best way to go is practical effects with CGI (while CGI used only for complex moves, and facial expressions).

    God forbid that Aliens and Predators movies were made fully CGI.

    Now we will see how brave Riddley Scott is with his “Prometheus” movie

  • ReboRam

    I had about 20 moments in my cinematic history (I’m 24^^) when I thought: ok, thats it, it can’t get any better – last one was Rise of the planet of the apes. But I totally agree with you, you have to find the right mix betwenne practical effects and CGI.

    I hope they don’t blew it for The Hobbit, because there are a LOT of Blue- and Greenscrenns visible in the production videos.

  • I agree, CGI has taken away some of the romance of films. I wouldn’t want to see Labyrinth remade with all the creatures as CGI. And another great example to back you up is CGI Yoda. I think it’s the same dilemma you face with live action mixed with animation. You can either do it really well like Roger Rabbit, or really shitty like Cool World. Same thing with CGI, you’re mixing in something animated with something real and since you know it’s fake you dismiss it. You can never get attached to that CGI jar jar, or cgi c3po. If jar jar were a puppet or a guy in a suit, I think he would have been a lovable endearing character despite being an annoying poorly scripted character.

    Basically, us geeks are just sad that what we’re seeing on the big screen isn’t real at all, even as a model/puppet.

  • Tim

    Well said, Paul. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • The article and comments are so spot on that I don’t have anything else to add really. CGI should be limited to environment and inanimate objects (ships, cars). Characters look horrible. Even Planet of the Apes, which looks pretty great most of the time, still looked pretty fake to me when it came to the main monkey’s face (his name escapes me right now). The exemption being using CGI to enhance makeup effects, a la Two Face in Dark Knight, which looked pretty awesome.

  • Mr Jim

    I would say CGI is making our special effects better, where directors possessing such creative and intellectual minds are able to seamlessly merge both traditional methods and new computer wizardry. Two names that instantly come to mind are Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan, with Lord of the Rings and Inception being the most apt examples of their talents of blending these separate arts.

    Where in particular I would like to mention Gollum, who at the time was very much like today’s Caesar (for several reasons not least for the impeccable talents of Andy Serkis) where I could not believe how amazing, believable and dare I say it personal he became. I am so moved by his portrayal I would even say his performance was better than Caesar’s.

    However, getting back to the subject of CGI, even though its allowing certain dreams to shine through its also making lots of film makers lazier *cough* George Lucas *cough* where they think they can just chuck in fantastical events and expect the audience to believe in them, or even worse populate their films with really distracting characters, almost as if jangling keys in front of a baby. As always its the effects that aids the story, not the story that aids the effects.

    And to be fair to the new Star Wars trilogy it may have a truck load’s worth of problems but that opening dog fight in Star Wars Episode 3 was truly astounding. Yes, it was just flashy make-believe lights on a screen but I still remembering being in that cinema riveted at how everything was so very detailed, so very hectic and so very vivid. The only other time I’ve had that feeling of colossal bombardment with CGI, and in which I would probably would say was used better, was the final episode of Battlestar Galactica where the ol’ girl suddenly jumps into the heat of battle.

  • Steve

    I’m surprised that no one, over the years, has pointed out the CGI problems with Superman Returns. Maybe it’s become the film suffers from a myriad of other problems, but IMO, the CGI flying shots really deterred the film for me. I was born in 1984, so I also have no nostalgic sentiments towards the original films when the were first released. I believe shooting the actual actors in front of a screen and using CGI to remove the wires is still the best bet. Sure the wires were a problem in the later sequels, but it still seems more believable to me because, unlike CGI, I know that the actors are actually THERE. Even if “there” is a soundstage with a screen projecting an image behind them.

  • Bernie

    Excellent article Paul, my son and I were discussing the very same subject a couple of days ago and the one film that came up was John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.
    I think you totally hit the nail on the head.
    The Star Wars prequels were also a shining example of how CGI is used almost to replace story line. All bling and no plot.

  • Lman

    I work in 3D, and I was always told in art school, “The best effects are the ones you don’t notice.”

    Bran climbing the tower in the first episode of Game of Thrones: he has a CGI torso. Did anyone notice? I didn’t, until I saw the shot breakdowns. Believe it or not, that was one of their more difficult shots, which had 222 reviewed iterations. Props to SSVFX for that and the rest of their awesome work on the series.

    Good FX houses like WETA know how to balance the mixing of practical FX and digital FX. But if CGI characters absolutely must be used, a believable performance and great rotoscoping is paramount. Yes, Avatar was all CGI, but I was able to immerse myself in that world more than I was able to in Lucas’ prequels (the bad rotoscoping in the episode II arena battle comes to mind, not to mention the dialogue). Look at those wide shots of the Star Wars clones and droids versus LOTR’s orcs and riders of Rohan; those were (mostly) CGI but which shots were more effective? Jar Jar vs Caesar: I didn’t like Jar Jar, but not because was CGI. I wouldn’t have liked Jar Jar if he was a guy in a costume. The character Jar Jar just sucked, plain and simple. The converse goes for CGI Caesar: I don’t think a person in an apesuit would’ve been able to clearly emote those faces Andy Serkis makes. And you can tell the performance is him too; the faces he makes when he gets left at the animal shelter look a lot like Gollum.

    Now because we are a more enlightened generation, especially about filmmaking, no one no longer asks “How did they do that?” It becomes more of a cocky and cynical “Oh, that’s CGI”, then brush it off as fake, which is what we already knew going into the movie, which ruins the viewing experience. Since I ruined all my viewing experiences by going to art school, I always have to let loose and tell myself “Yes, that’s not real, but can I believe it?” Maybe it would help if other people could ask themselves the same.

  • metalmmaniac

    I may not agree with you 100%, but that was an interesting read. Great post

  • tissmekyle

    i find jurrasic park III to blend cgi and animatronics nicely

  • Beanie-Boy

    CGI is more often than not used as a short-cut. One example comes to mind “I Am Legend”, I truly liked that movie until it showed us the CGI zombies (not sure if they were considered zombies). I realize that the film deviated from the book a bit and the ending was a little bit anticlimatic but that film had real potential and showcased Smith’s ability to hold the screen solo for a good part of it. Still I wish Smith would have taken a look at some of the footage of the zombies and said $ 5 million off my $ 20 million salary and do this right. For instance the creatures in “The Descent” now that film benefited from the attention to detail in their creatures, even the creatures in the sequel looked better than the ones in “I Am Legend”.

  • intiside

    Avatar was a pretty good cartoon.

  • Its almost always an unfair comparison though: comparing a good bit of “real” with a poor bit of CG.

    Honestly, how could good would Jabba have looked as a guy in a alient slug suit going down the street? It would have looked far worse then the CG so they didnt even attempt it back then.

    For every good example of physical effects there was terrible examples of guys in wobbly costumes, or obvious scale models…..they wernt all upto Star Wars or Total Recalls standard by a long shot.

    CG makes more things possible, and more things possible cheaper.
    Jarrasic Park, Terminator 2…..impossible to do before really.

    And yes, even Avatar…honestly, if Navi were blue people in suits would it really have looked better?
    To say nothing of the landscapes. Without CG alien landscapes are stuck at using exotic earth locations and wobbleing sets.

  • JohnC

    Articles like this is why I come to this site. If you focus on relevant topics like such, Paul, you could do great things in your writing career.

    One thing I personally hope you avoid in any future discussion articles is your personal opinion in 1st person. Your opinion (and therefore bias) is going to show no matter what when doing an article of this nature, but I think it should take a backseat to the actual discussion.
    With that being said, I do agree 100% with you on the (over)use of modern fx.

  • JohnC

    I don’t think Avatar was lacking because of the inherent use of CG. It just seemed like the visuals were more of priority than the plot or dialogue.
    Did anyone find the story or characters memorable? Probably not.

  • rideforever

    People who sit in front of a computer workstation all day, in their heads … are uninspired and uninspiring. It’s not just a question of the “technique” on its own.
    The people who work with models use their hands, they are craftsman who use their bodies, who interact physically, this is interesting for them personally.
    Just sitting in front of a computer monitor all day is moronic in comparison,
    You sit in your “mind” interfacing in a machine.
    All day in front of a monitor and you forget you have a body.
    And machine-people sitting in front of a monitor, just produce robotic footage, endless robotic mind crap.
    Boring, lifeless no matter how many explosions you have.