Wednesday, April 2, 2014

CGI & Its Discontents

I was a huge fan of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when I was a kid, in a way that only kids can be huge fans of something. Went to see it, had a poster, the book-and-tape, the Marvel comic-book adaptation, even dressed up as Indiana Jones for Halloween one year. Watched the movie until it had fused with my DNA. I remember well the ugly bitterness and abject revulsion that greeted my first viewing of INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM as, only a few minutes into the picture, Indy and company bail out of a plane with only a rubber life-raft. They fall and fall then land with what should have been a sickening crunch but is, instead, only the beginning of a wild ride down a mountain, down a river... you get the idea. You've probably even seen it. People on internet message boards often speak of "having their childhood raped" as a response to some particularly bad screen version of something they loved when younger. I was still a child when I saw TOD but it was my first (and still worst) encounter with that phenomenon. What I was experiencing in that moment wasn't just the painful realization that no one behind the franchise even cared about turning out a quality product (what would later become known as the "jump-the-shark" moment); it was, more importantly for my purposes here, also an example of Hollywood learning that, if you throw enough special effects and rapid-fire action at an audience, the movie can make a bundle without having to be particularly good. TOD was filled with one absurdity after another and raked in nearly $180 million, becoming the third-biggest moneymaker of its year.

My article about WORLD WAR Z drew some interesting remarks in my "comments" section from a fellow named John. I'd intended to respond at the time but I've put it off for a while then decided I probably had enough to say to make a new article of it. In that earlier piece, I'd written of the big studio, big money "blockbuster" pictures,

"I've lived long enough to have seen the birth of the tentpole pictures. The ones that caught fire in my youth and created the trend made their big piles of money because they were actually good, or that's what I'd like to think."

John agreed and wrote that "there's been an incredible, tragic fall from grace for the modern blockbuster, and while the reasons for this are multifaceted and well-documented by countless writers, if pressed I would have to say that the biggest factor that ruins the enjoyment for me would be the overabundant CGI." John had been revisiting some of the movies of his youth and was "amazed at how much quotable dialogue and memorable set pieces exist per capita. The inherent constraints of a pre-CGI world forced filmmakers to not only use their spectacle more sparingly (and with more buildup), but to supplement those signature moments with inventive lines and performances."

There's a lot of truth in that but I'd add, as caveat, that it wasn't just a matter of force. The filmmakers who worked on the blockbuster pictures when those pictures became so central to Hollywood's cash-flow--JAWS, STAR WARS and beyond--still had at least one foot in the old-school craft of filmmaking and its rules. Not coincidentally, they appeared during a particularly fertile period for American cinema, the "decade under the influence."

If I may be allowed a digression...

In the waning days of the mogul system, Hollywood had faced a crisis. This crisis had many aspects but one of the biggest was aging executives who just didn't understand what people wanted to watch anymore. After the runaway success of EASY RIDER and MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the 1970s saw Hollywood increasingly willing to turn its big moviemaking machine over to the rising young artists of the era, granting them increasingly large budgets with increasingly little oversight. The result was, among other things, the last (to date) great era of Hollywood filmmaking. Arguably its greatest era. One that was ended too soon though. A string of failures was capped, in 1980, by the flop of HEAVEN'S GATE--director Michael Cimino, hot off THE DEER HUNTER, had gone radically overbudget, producing a Western that cost $44 million and grossed only $1.3 million. After this, the show was over. The inmates were put back in charge of the newly-corporatized Hollywood asylum and thus began the reign of the money-men.

But before that fall, there had appeared, right smack-dab in the middle of this impressive era, a monster movie called JAWS. It was given a very wide release, heavily marketed and made a killing--became, in fact, the biggest moneymaker in movie history. Then a sci-fi fantasy called STAR WARS made the scene and blew away JAWS for the record. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND turned up the same year--also a big hit. The money-men saw the green, saw the potential and the next few years saw SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, ALIEN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and on and on. The PLANET OF THE APES pictures had, a few years earlier, demonstrated the moneymaking potential of creating franchises and licensing products in other markets and most of the successful pictures in this vein followed their lead--a second killing to be made in sequels and sales of lots of derivative music, action figures, books, games, toys. This was the beginning of what would become the tentpole blockbuster.

These films are generally seen as a countervailing trend to that "decade under the influence" and their success paired with the failure of HEAVEN'S GATE as a factor in killing it off. And that's mostly true. In an era marked by much more intimate, complex, down-to-earth and personal cinema--challenging films that had to carve out an audience to succeed--they're blatant mass-appeal spectacles. Expansive, escapist films, huge releases, huge marketing campaigns, minimal risk and they're the path Hollywood chose. What I've long thought is missed or at least obscured by that analysis is the extent to which these films were, like those others, also a product of that era of Hollywood filmmaking. The creators behind them were as well, steeped in the craft like those doing the edgier stuff. Their work was quite good for what it was--that's why we're still talking about it--and they benefited from the relative freedom of the era--in any other, they wouldn't have been allowed to make the films as they did then. They had both talent and enthusiasm for their projects and, reflecting the period, often put a lot of themselves into the work, even when it was work-for-hire. The new special effects were, in their hands, merely a tool for telling a story, not the story itself. They couldn't rely on those effects to sell their films[1] and doing so wasn't, for the most part, even their aim. They understood that film is, in part, a magic trick, an art of illusion, and their conventional wisdom was that, to sell an audience on something implausible, one must make it and everything that unspools around it seem as plausible as possible.

My youthful experience with TEMPLE OF DOOM was an example of Hollywood unlearning all of this and walking away from it. TOD's director Steven Spielberg had already absorbed some lucrative but, artistically speaking, very pernicious lessons about pop cinema via the runaway success of his E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL two years earlier,[2] and, as he has admitted many times over the years, he didn't even want to make TOD. The film was merely a cynical cash-in on the original and its past-his-prime director's indifference is painfully obvious throughout it. More importantly, it's also a film that proved wrong the conventional wisdom regarding selling the implausible. Most importantly of all, neither the manifest indifference of its creator nor its infinity of inanities prevented it from making a fortune.[3] As CGI rose to prominence, these lessons would have a major impact on the course of Hollywood filmmaking.

Computer-Generated Imagery grew out of the use of computer graphics in films going all the way back to the late 1960s. From a one-minute sequence in 1982's STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN--the "Genesis Effect" remaking a planet--to the awesome light-cycle sequence in that same year's TRON, CGI grew into the alien-directed water-tentacle in James Cameron's THE ABYSS (1989) and to the liquid-metal killing-machine in his TERMINATOR 2 (1991). Eventually, it progressed to the point where George Lucas used it in his very unfortunate STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) to generate an entire universe and many of the "characters" in it. It has been an ubiquitous feature of upbudget Hollywood flicks for two decades and a familiar part of films in general.

In the hands of capable and talented filmmakers, CGI technology is a wonderful tool. It can be, among other things, a major time-saver, a safer alternative to dangerous stunts, a cheaper alternative to location shooting and, most of all, it can allow the conjuring forth of images never before displayed on a movie screen. As it has developed over the years, it can put just about anything on a screen.

It can't do everything well, though. In general--and particularly in certain areas--practical effects still have an organic feel that CGI can't touch. A well-executed practical effects can seem quite real and if you're engrossed in a film, you can believe in it and accept its existence within that world. It doesn't draw attention to itself as an effect, and you don't find yourself thinking of it as one. That's very much a magic trick. And when it comes to things like gore effects (an area in which the use of CGI has become quite common), CGI simply can't pull that off. It's always jarring, it always calls immediate attention to itself, it always just looks like animation, no matter how well done,[4] and, as can happen with a badly executed practical effect, it distances the viewer from the movie.[5] While CGI can render inanimate objects that can't be readily distinguished from the real thing, animated CGI characters can be very hit-or-miss; if they more closely resemble something with which we're familiar in the real world, they can seem particularly dodgy. CGI can deliver wonderful stylized fantasy worlds but an abundance of it is often jarring if plopped down in a more familiar world. A world that is a mirror of our own but rendered via CGI can be particularly bad, a soulless cartoon.[6]

These and other limitations are often ignored by filmmakers, particularly in high-profile Hollywood releases.

Over the years, the Hollywood studios came to be quite dependent upon their annual blockbusters to keep their lights on. These films became their "tentpoles." The lessons from films like TOD[7]--that effects-laden, rapid-fire action setpieces can sell even a substandard movie and that mass audiences aren't even remotely as picky about plausibility as everyone had assumed--collided with the CGI revolution in a terrible way. Just as the studios were learning that quality didn't really matter that much and that mere spectacle (backed by largescale marketing) was enough to generate obscene amounts of money, CGI delivered into their hands a technology that enabled them to put on screen just about anything. Spectacle without limits.

The toxicity of this combination made itself felt almost immediately. In 1993, JURASSIC PARK hit the screens. Its incredible, mostly-CGI-rendered dinosaurs were a marvel to behold, but it was painfully apparent from its beginning that no one involved in its production (other than the effects teams) even had any interest in trying to make a quality film. It was strictly a showcase for the dinosaur effects and utterly brainless (and terrible) in every other respect. And it made $900 million on its initial release.

It was the future. The coming years would see a seemingly endless stream of atrocities like BATMAN FOREVER,[8] ARMAGEDDON, INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE MUMMY, TRANSFORMERS, 2012, MAN OF STEEL, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, the STAR WARS prequels, WORLD WAR Z, and on into seeming infinity--films in which the sole draw is a string of effects-laden setpieces of escalating absurdity and that are otherwise as offensively inane as anything ever proffered as allegedly professional motion pictures.[9]

John, my commenter who set me upon this article, identified CGI--or, more particularly, its abuse--as the "biggest factor" in the downfall of the blockbusters. I'm not sure I would entirely agree with that, as there were a lot of other factors involved,[10] but as an entire species of films exist solely to showcase various setpieces enabled solely by CGI tech--films that are otherwise quite dreadful--it has to rank high on the list.

It should also be noted, since I've bashed them to such an extent, that there are still some good upbudget Hollywood movies. Not many but certainly a few. The slew of comic book adaptations of the last 16 years have produced a handful of keepers (along with the expected boatload of stinkers). And within a system as driven by the buck as Hollywood, there are always a few talented filmmakers who have had enough commercial success that they can work on blockbuster-scale pictures and, to some extent, buck the usual trends, getting their way over the pressure to keep things so strictly lowest-common-denominator.[11] Pixar has done some good, big animated movies (I'm particularly fond of THE INCREDIBLES). These are mostly exceptions though. Even among the better ones, we're just not seeing the kind of classics that regularly appeared in this class of films in the past. John writes:

"It'll be fascinating to see how our current era is viewed 50 or so years from now. Nothing ages faster than special effects, and blockbusters that are built exclusively around green screen indulgence may be nothing more than the synthpop of cinematic history."

The last is an appealing metaphor. Where it may fall short is that even sythpop crap can invoke, in some people who lived through the era,[12] some little pang of nostalgia. Can you really imagine anyone ever getting nostalgic over THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW?



 [1] In the earliest days of the big-budget effects movies born with STAR WARS, this was especially true, because the effects technology was literally being invented for those movies and, half the time, they didn't even know how well those effects were going to work.

 [2] Among other things, he learned that he preferred to construct his films in such a way as to tell those in his audience exactly what they should think about absolutely everything he shows them on the screen rather than allowing them to make up their own minds about it and, most importantly, he learned that peddling schmaltzy, sentimentalist crap in this way can be quite lucrative.

 [3] It also served to reinforce Hollywood's already-growing conviction that nothing succeeds like success. A clone culture was a natural consequence of post-DUI corporate Hollywood's extreme aversion to risk. An environment positively awash in sequels, remakes and rehashes had appeared at the very end of the '70s and was well in place by the time of TOD, which was largely a small-scale, badly-executed rehash of the previous film. The clone culture eventually came to dominate Hollywood's output--today, almost anything on which any real money is spent has to be heavily derivative of something that has already succeeded.

 [4] The tech may one day enable such things to seem so realistic that viewers can't tell the difference, but we're nowhere near that now, nor have we been at any point in the decades since CGI appeared.

 [5] John Boorman makes a related point on the commentary to DELIVERANCE. Boorman came to the subject via Bill McKinney's extraordinary performance as a corpse after Burt Reynolds puts an arrow through him. McKinney apparently spent some time training himself to lie absolutely motionless, holding his breath and with eyes wide open for extended periods, which is how Boorman was able to frame relatively long sequences with McKinney's dead inbred rapist in the shot. Boorman (who, as I recall, was describing a conversation he'd had with someone else) decried the fact that, when people see something extraordinary in movies today, they just assume it was done with a computer. He thinks this takes a lot away from the cinema and he's right.

[6] And soullessness is, in my view, a more general problem with CGI, owing to its inorganic nature.

 [7] And I use that as my example solely to follow through on my earlier comments--I don't want to be seen as excessively picking on TOD; it's only one scores of films that reinforced those lessons and not even necessarily an important one of that particular many.

 [8] That was another one that left me stunned. I'd been quite fond of Tim Burton's original BATMAN (1989), which is still the best live-action iteration of that character, but I'd missed the 1992 follow-up BATMAN RETURNS. That film, as I later learned, had devolved the franchise into a witless cartoon but when I went into BATMAN FOREVER, I was wholly unaware of this creative collapse, which was, of course, even more severe in FOREVER. Only minutes in, I was flabbergasted and turned it off (I came back to it later and finished it only because I'd paid for it). Warner Brothers spent $100 million on a feature-length version of the old, awful Adam West Batman television series; it made over $336 million. The next sequel, BATMAN & ROBIN, was even worse.

 [9] The lack of serious limitations on the capabilities of the technology encourages less grounded filmmakers, chasing spectacle, to use it to inject into their productions an escalating stew of cartoonish idiocies, which kill any human engagement with the film. John, my commenter, used INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL as an example of where this can lead and it's a good choice. One of my strongest memories of that movie was Shia LaBeouf doing an embarrassingly bad Tarzan act, swinging on vines through a hail of mimicking monkeys--a cartoon jungle, cartoon monkeys, a brainless, unengaging--even anti-engaging--sequence that actively alienates everyone not predisposed to ooh-and-aah over such asininity. John chose the film's swordfight, carried out through the jungle on the backs of two moving jeeps--abjectly ludicrous cartoons. He could have chosen the cartoon ants, which, at one point, carry off a cartoon of what's supposed to be a full-grown man. And on and on.

[10] Including, for example, the more general--and pathological--aversion to risk by studio suits, the insistence, beyond a certain budget level, on persistently dumbed down movies micromanaged by people with MBAs in place of any knowledge of the art of filmmaking, the clone culture, the shortening attention spans of audiences--something Hollywood has helped drive--and so on. A major factor in recent decades has been the opening of large foreign markets. More sophisticated material rarely travels well; those markets act as a major disincentive to producing it and a major incentive to keeping things as dumb and broad as possible. It's also the case that these populations haven't been as widely exposed to Hollywood's usual pap, which Hollywood reads as yet another opportunity to try to repeat past successes with a new audience.

[11] That's how we got Ang Lee's quite good HULK (which was criminally underappreciated), and two very good X-MEN films out of Bryan Singer. And also how Singer then shot himself in the foot with the unfortunate SUPERMAN RETURNS.

[12] I've lived through that, but I'm not one of them.


  1. Good post, especially your comments about TOD. It is an old childhood favorite, so I had never regarded it critically before. I agree that compared to RAIDERS, TOD is significant step down. But taken by itself, I still feel TOD is not without a few redeeming charms.

  2. Excellent post. I love 70s movies, absolutely love em'. You are correct in the fact that Cimino's Heaven's Gate killed all that was great about movie making from that period and forever changed the movie making landscape.

  3. And the critical trashing of HEAVEN'S GATE was also extremely unfair; it was one of the early examples of a movie that was bashed by critics primarily because, after the press had its little field day portraying it as an ever-escalating fiasco (before it had even been released), critically bashing it became a fad.