Wednesday, August 17, 2011
What's the Matter With Hollywood, Part 6: The CGI Disaster
When CGI (computer generated imagery) first became convincing, with the one-two punch of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park in the early ‘90s, it seemed like a great leap forward in action/adventure filmmaking. When Braveheart used it a few years later to create fake armies, it seemed like it might save the historical epic, too. Then everything went to hell.
The problem with CGI was that it made not one promise but two: it wanted to make movies both cheaper and better-looking...Spend less, get more. But, as often happens when a business pursues two contradictory goals at the same time, Hollywood got its wires crossed, and somehow the process totally backfired: It soon became, “Spend more, get less.” We now have the first generation of Americans who have come to expect a lower quality of special effects than their parents did. CGI has lowered the bar.
The first generation of CGI creators understood both the promise and the limits of the technology: it could do things that their models couldn’t do, but it couldn’t actually replace the models: T2 and JP were still filled with model work. CGI merely bridged the gaps where the models failed. But as CGI spread, the effects creators soon found actual models more and more annoying: Models made you deal with factors like gravity, light, and physics, while CGI offered the promise of a weightless, shadowless, free-flowing world, where hollow pixels could bounce around the screen at the same speed as the animators’ imagination.
In the original King Kong, the model had to be sturdy and support itself. It wasn’t sprightly. It had to lumber about—like a real ape. In the 2005 remake, Kong was allowed to skate on a frozen pond, swing on vines, even fall off a cliff only to land as light as a feather. And why not? He was clearly hollow: sunlight seemed to pass right through him. He was not an object anymore, he was an effect. The result was laughable. By 2005, we had managed to lose the progress that we had made by 1933.But before the ape even appeared, effects had already killed off any sense of believability. When the crew first disembarks in a small boat to row to the island, we see the CGI boat beating against the CGI waves, and we can see that the effects team added in all sorts of wave-breaking effects using the wave-breaking tool, but the final result bears no resemblance to what a real boat looks like in real water.So wait—I understand why they had to use effects to create a 30-foot tall ape, but why use effects to create a boat rowing to shore? Why not just film an actual boat rowing to an actual shore, which is something that movies have been able to do since the 1800s?
The answer would seem to be “because it’s cheaper,” right? Nope. CGI has inflated budgets to truly gargantuan levels. Unconvincing effects are no cheaper to produce, because a big part of the process is all the endless tinkering. Every effect can be done and redone and redone again. Each re-do jacks up the price, but only makes the effect worse, because they’re just adding artificial layers to artificial layers.
No, there’s a different reason that they didn’t put a real boat in real water: abject laziness. We’ll pick up there tomorrow.