CGI has yet to define itself as a vibrant new color in the cinematic palette. This is an idea or attitude I’ve been carrying around for a little while now. The way I see it, what is now possible in cinema is really only a cheat. Lauding a modern film’s effects, with phrases like mind-blowing or spectacular, seems sad to me because it all happened in a computer. A cold piece of machinery is a tool and like any tool it can be used correctly or incorrectly. If you want to inspire awe you can’t rely on a machine, you have to use it.
Now I’m not saying that, in time, CGI or digital effects or however you refer to technology better suited to making video games couldn’t be used in an interesting way. But what that requires is another 20 years. This isn’t time needed to develop the photo-realistic effects often spoken about by the likes of Cameron or Jackson. This is time required for a new generation to grow up with the look, the feel, an inherent understanding of how these things play best and how they could or should be used.
You see, CGI has yet to define itself as a new way to tell a story. We can create anything we want in a computer, any alien landscape, lost civilizations, crazy alien creatures, etc. But we’re stuck with the last, say, 50 years of movies. This would be the last two generations who were grappling with the problems of how to render the fantastic on the silver screen. We went from guys in rubber suits, to animatronic puppets, to digital cartoons to be stand ins for our dreams and nightmares. Physical, physical, fake. Technology always moves forward, thank goodness, but you also have to take a moment to consider results.
We’ve spent about 80% of cinema’s existence working on ways to trick the eye. Cinema had the advantage here because, unlike a magician, cinema permits only one point of view at a time. Unless you’re DePalma. But only allowing you one vantage point at any given point in a film means that the advantage goes heavily in favor of movie magic. At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, we can only see Belloq’s face melting after the ark is opened. What we can’t see are the hot air guns just off frame melting the wax figure they constructed by layering bone, blood, and flesh over a skeleton and we can’t know that the film was shot at high-speed so that, when played back, the face appears to be melting in real time. We also don’t want to know that and if you find yourself watching the film with someone who grabs you’re arm at that point to tell you how the trick is done you can tell them to shut up because you already had that ruined for you.
I’ve had many other secrets like that revealed over the years. I wasn’t mad, I was actively seeking out these answers because I wanted to know how you do it so I could do it. Each time I discovered how some practical effect was pulled off I can tell you I was struck by that particular kind of genius: ingenious! It takes skill, creativity and patience. Years of application, trying and failing, went into effects pre-CGI that gave each new accomplishment a feeling of accomplishment. That’s over now.
But hope lies with the children. I admit my bias, that I haven’t grown up with these new kinds of “do it in a computer” effects so naturally I’ll look at them as a cheat. When I was a kid and back in my day and when I was growing up, etc. But if I was exposed to this stuff as a child, if I grew up with the dreams that this kind of technology makes possible, perhaps I could internalize this cold, indifferent technology. Maybe I would have an insight into its uses that could be linked to an emotional reality that I could then turn into a story. And maybe this will help serve to truly push things forward instead of merely making it easier on filmmakers who no longer have to figure out how to shoot something. Though, if you remove a step from a process that requires thought, ingenuity, and a refocusing of what’s important to telling the story I can’t see how that would be helpful.
But I didn’t grow up with this stuff.