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Why CGI Still Doesn't Work…

Three little letters strike fear into the hearts of genre movies fan over the age of 30: CGI.

As fans now know, that trio of characters stands for "Computer Generated Imagery," the technical method by which movies produced today offer audiences their "amazing" visual effects. This technique, almost literally computerized cartoons, first came into the forefront of the public imagination in 1993 with the release of the Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park. Since that time, cheapskate producers everywhere have deployed bad computer generated imagery to dramatize planets, spaceships, aliens, and a variety of unique vistas.

My first exposure to really dreadful CGI came in 1995 with the TV miniseries The Langoliers (based on the short story by Stephen King). The titular "Pac-Man"-like monsters of the production, as well as the central vehicle, a commercial airliner stranded in limbo, were unconvincingly rendered via this process, and any resemblance to vehicles or creatures living or dead was purely coincidental. I kept abreast of the industry buzz, and understood that this new process—this CGI—was being touted as the wave of the future. To paraphrase the ads for The Fly, I was afraid…very afraid.

Why didn't CGI work in 1995? Well, at that point, the fledgling technology, for whatever reason, couldn't accommodate realistic detail or movement—two rather essential qualities for special effects such as swooping spaceships or roaring monsters. In most cases, CGI moments looked like a cartoon come to life, and yet they were meant to symbolize reality. I remember debating this fact on the net with a producer of Babylon 5. He believed the show's effects were terrific, and noted that they had even won some coveted award. I politely reminded him that the 1976 version of King Kong had won an Academy Award for special effects too—and that film just had Rick Baker in a gorilla suit! As in so many cases, the Emperor was simply wearing no clothes. If this was the state of the art, than the state of the art was crap…

As a genre aficionado who grew up with precise, highly detailed miniatures representing aircraft and spaceship, as well as motion-control systems effectively fostering movement, the shift to C.G.I in the mid 1990s was a painful one for me, and still is. Just the other week, I managed to catch several episodes of a 1970s live-action Saturday morning TV series called Space Academy (produced by Filmation). It was filled with miniature effects, model spaceships called Seekers, and, by God, the effects held up pretty darn well for being a quarter century old. The Seekers moved convincingly, seemed to have "substance," and were a believable design…much better than anything I ever saw on Babylon 5 or Crusade. The same is obviously true of more expensive older productions such as Space: 1999, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Battlestar Galactica. Their miniature effects all hold up remarkably well. And, I still don't believe that it is merely my nostalgia at work here: these special effects were convincing—real—in a way that the CGI of Babylon 5, Lost in Space (1998), and Escape from L.A. (1996) never managed, no matter what the hype tries to sell us.

In 1997, the real drawback of CGI special effects became evident when George Lucas went back to create the Special (Revisionist…) Edition of his brilliant space fantasy, Star Wars. Suddenly, belching, whinnying, silly-looking creatures could be inserted into the background of every frame of film depicting the planet Tatooine. Suddenly, Mos Eisley no longer looked like a backwater town, but a thriving metropolis. It was all rather distracting and distancing. Initially, Star Wars was great (and revolutionary) because the creatures (dewbacks, banthas, tusken raiders, jawas) and vehicles (sand crawlers, land speeders, moisture farms, et al), had a sense of "used," "ragged," or "aged" realism to them. They were created on set, and looked real. They were seen under the real light of Tunisia (under the real sun…) and thus cast realshadows. What a concept! Actors weren't merely reacting to vast green screens on empty soundstages, but to real objects and props—and that was why everything felt right. Star Wars offered a wonderfully convincing glimpse of a poor world with a diverse and strange population, and above all, it was believably presented. By contrast, Lucas's 1990s re-do became nothing less than a freak show that emphasized the reasons why CGI doesn't work.

It's one thing to create a monster with a computer and to place it into the frame, it's quite another to have actors react appropriately to it, or have the lighting right, or the sense of weight seem correct. Those things still tend not to happen in CGI productions. Remember Jabba the Hutt, "inserted" via CGI, in the 1997 Star Wars? What a joke! The 1983, the "prop" Jabba of Return of the Jedi was a hundred times more convincing than this plastic, cartoon creation. The monsters in suits during the second season of Space: 1999 were more convincing than this. The special effects of 1956's Godzilla were more convincing. In other words, CGI was bad five years ago, and it doesn't hold up now either. It has a shorter shelf life than Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes. These effects are instantly disposable (which is why, in years to come, I predict we'll see Star Wars—The Really Special Edition, with improved CGI effects…)

Despite my obvious and overt dislike of CGI special effects, I really loved Attack of the Clones. I thought it was a spectacular film, and a fine addition to the Star Wars series. By far and away it was improvement over the lifeless Phantom Menace. But did anybody else want to hide their eyes and just "deny, deny, deny" during that scene on Naboo when Anakin mounted that cow-like creature, and the film lingered—painfully—on a CGI Anakin riding the bucking bronco? It was like a living cartoon—and not for a moment did it impress or convince. On the contrary, it was downright embarrassing.

Twenty years ago, this style of special effect was handled much more convincingly in The Empire Strikes Back. Remember those creatures called Taun-Tauns, on ice planet Hoth? In long shots they were depicted with stop motion (rather noticeable today), but in scenes involving actors Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, the creatures were convincingly dramatized with life-size mock-ups. The result was a creature that looked and felt real. It had texture, motion, and most of all, connection to what material the actors were vetting. Hamill and Ford could pull at the beasties' reins, pat their furry, horned heads, and in some scenes, you could even see the creature's breath. All in all, it was a convincing illusion.

Today, Attack of the Clones has brought such illusions crashing down. By attempting to create a fully "computerized" Anakin and steed, the film only succeeds in taking the audience right out of the film's story line. Anakin looks fake, the creature looks phony, and movement is not captured in anything approximating a realistic fashion. It is herky-jerky animation that wouldn't have passed muster in a Kirk Alyn Superman serial of the 1940s. Why should we accept it? Because the producers associated with the film laud the "groundbreaking" special effects? Are we to be cowed by this aggressive publicity campaign, or as Yoda might say, "in our own eyes, trust should we?"

It's not just that the CGI effects are bad themselves (though they are clearly inadequate), it's the bold-faced manner in which the CGI effects are thrown in our faces. George Lucas has stated several times that he was limited by technology when he created the first Star Wars trilogy. I hate to say it, but that was probably a good thing. Limited technology meant that the original films concentrated on character interaction and story rather than special effects. The effects were good—great even—but they weren't the whole show. Had the speeder bike sequence on Endor in Return of the Jedi been as long as the ludicrous and sleep-inducing pod race sequence in the Phantom Menace, it probably would have looked cheesy too. But there was a sense of restraint and propriety in 1983, a knowing belief that technology could not "do everything."

By contrast, in 2002, there is a deep and misguided overconfidence in CGI special effects, and so we look at them, shocked—as they prove, again and again, just how phony they are. Now we get long, lingering looks at inadequate visualizations, instead of tantalizing glimpses of really neat stuff. In 1977, we saw a tentacle and an eyeball of one creature in Star Wars—the trash compactor beast. It pulled unsuspecting Luke Skywalker into the muck, and was terrifying because of what the filmmakers didn't reveal. What did the creature's maw look like? How thick was its tail? What shape was the body? How many tentacles did it have? It was actually better not to know, and our imaginations filled in the gaps. Suffice it to say that the idea of being pulled underwater by a slimy, cyclopean monster was more than enough to generate shivers. Today, I fear, we'd get to see the creature in CGI, and there would be no mystery left. Worse, it would look like something out of a comic book, Luke Skywalker would ride its back for a while, and then it would get killed, and we'd see every last CGI death throe.

Believe it or not, I don't intend to criticize George Lucas or Star Wars in particular. Lucas may be leading the trend, but others are following him, lemming-like, over the computer generated precipice. Consider Spiderman. It's another movie I really enjoyed in a lot of ways, primarily because of Tobey Maguire's performance and the script's droll qualities. What I didn't like was that once Spiderman came on the scene, there was no longer any connection to the human hero. Since we don't even get to see Spiderman's jaw in his neato costume (as we would in, say, a Batman movie), there was no vital connection to reality in the costumed sequences. We were watching CGI cartoons duke it out instead. Again, I have to remember the past, and the Superman films of the 1970s and '80s. How Christopher Reeves, in those battles with Zod, Non, and Ursa in Superman II, was able to express emotion while he kicked butt. Sure, we were seeing characters attached to wires or propped against blue screens, but the actors sold the emotions of the scene. The fight felt immediate. Now we get to watch computer titans duke it out in worlds that, as Roger Ebert noted, look more like storyboards than fully realized visuals. The actors don't have to participate. Is Tobey Maguire Spiderman? I don't know, maybe. How often was he in the suit? And how often was the great hero merely "animated?" I'd like to know, for the record, but the balance feels wrong.

I've been especially disturbed by the use of CGI effects in horror films. Maybe, maybe CGI can work in science fiction and fantasy—when new worlds are being created. But to depend on CGI to scare people is a really terrible idea. Witness Resident Evil. Or The Haunting. Again, filmmakers seem to think they can substitute cartoony transformations and morphing for suspense or texture. Ask yourself: which is scarier, The Others (starring Nicole Kidman) or the 1999 version of The Haunting? Why? I think, CGI is probably one answer. It is blatantly fake and I'm amazed that so many audiences are accepting it as the new wave of effects. The Others took the time to develop a sense of place, an empathy for its dramatis personae, and a mood of gloom. The Haunting was all about morphing CGI statues coming to life and peering at badly-drawn characters.

Back in the "good old days" of the 1970s and 1980s, special effects were utilized to enhance the reality of a situation in film. Today, they are utilized to take one out of the reality of a situation. We're supposed to gasp at the implied wizardry, but there is no heart and soul to be found. It all seems like H.A.L. 9000's lucid dream, wondrous only in the sense that people are actually buying it. When CGI works (as it does in Moulin Rouge, Gladiator, and Lord of the Rings), it manages to take us into a separate reality where the characters are as real as the monuments, monsters and moonscapes. CGI fails when it is intended to substitute for motives, characterization, and stories.

I shudder when I think that a fourth Indiana Jones film will go into production in this environment. Can you imagine how deflating it will be to see a CGI Indy straddling a CGI horse, gripping his CGI fedora and CGI bull whip? And what of Ang Lee's adaptation of The Incredible Hulk, in which the title character will be totally computer generated?

Oh, Lou Ferrigno, how I will miss thee…


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