Friday, January 1, 2016

The Filmmakers Awaken: the art of practicality vs. CGI overload

by Melissa Parkin 

When CGI first emerged, it proved to be the best way to create realistic effects otherwise unachievable by practical means. In the early years, Jurassic Park revolutionized the industry and helped usher CGI into your common blockbuster. As time has gone on though, movies have become virtually reliant on CGI, resulting in lazier filmmaking. George Lucas proved to be the prime example as his Star Wars prequels hit theaters. In the days when you couldn’t just conjure up a rancor or the Death Star’s explosion on a computer, it forced the creators to get more imaginative to realistically achieve the look. By the time The Phantom Menace went into production, those time-consuming efforts became obsolete, resulting in green-screen galore. But if these practicalities have truly become out-of-date, then why weren’t we impressed by its sprawling CGI?

The answer: Overkill.

CGI was at its best in the 90s. Not because the technology was better, but because filmmakers still had to use the effect more sparingly. As the budgets have gotten bigger and the technology more advanced, the passion behind capturing the realism of the story only gets more lost in translation. Viggo Mortensen, star of the  Lord of the Rings trilogy, even spoke out against its creator, Peter Jackson, for his loss of subtlety and organics in production. As the franchise progressed, this resulted in the filmmaker’s eventual dependency on CGI. 

When the effect is used at its best, it leaves its audience in awe, unable to decipher the 
difference between what’s real and what’s not. In modern-day cinema, we’re no longer fooled. Seeing Orlando Bloom defy gravity in his infamous cartoonish rock jump in Jackson’s third installment of The Hobbit trilogy is proof in itself. The entire series is an expansive fantasy, but the end result still looks like advanced video game animation as there’s virtually no real landscapes and practical effects. As Dr. Ian Malcolm so eloquently said in Jurassic Park:

You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.”

CGI is ultimately an insipid shortcut. No matter how top-notch it may be, at the end of the day, the effect is distracting and less convincing to our experienced eyes. Now, nothing can quite replace the real thing.

CGI-based movies have become the equivalent of smut fiction to the film industry. They lack substantial vision, but often prove to be more bankable than even its better story-oriented contenders. But is Hollywood really to blame when audiences continually attest that bloated, high-octane CGI explosions take precedence over effective storytelling? Despite Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise continually being panned since Revenge of the Fallen, its latest installment Age ofExtinction still became the highest grossing film of 2014 (a resounding $1.104 billion box office return). We keep asking for better movies that concentrate on its acting, plot, and originality, yet we only corroborate that mindless CGI will line the pockets of producers’ wallets.

Tom Cruise has remained an unceasing beacon of hope for those of us still praying that filmmakers will rediscover the craft of practical effects. He continually puts his life on the line to deliver jaw dropping sequences. With nothing but a helicopter harness for protection, the man climbed, ran, and flew around the outside of the freaking Burj Khalifa in Dubai at dizzying heights. Cruise’s dedication to place the value of realism over the convenience of technology has made him the last of a dying breed of action stars. He proved yet again in 2015 that his fearless commitment hasn’t wavered as he hung on to the outside of an airplane in the midst of takeoff at the beginning of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

Better yet, this year proved to be the revival of more filmmakers returning to practical effects. George Miller’s back-to-basics approach for the fourth installment of his Mad Max series, Fury Road left audiences spellbound by the perfect balance of stunt work, elaborate choreography, props, and minimal CGI in one of the best action films to hit the silver screen. Working alongside a former Cirque du Soleil player, stunt coordinator Guy Norris even set up an eight-week training program to bring the fan favorite polecats sequence to life. 
J.J. Abrams also listened to the outcry from fans as StarWars: The Force Awakens went into production. Though the sci-fi adventure has its fair share of CGI, Abrams and Lucasfilm refused to take shortcuts and used CGI as minimally as possible. Could this be the turn of the tide moviegoers have been waiting for? With next year’s highly anticipated SuicideSquad in the hands of old-fashioned film director David Ayer,
who much rather prefers practicality over computer graphics, it seems all the more possible. Just as hardcore music fans prefer vinyl over digital, the physical experience found in practical effects proves to be winning over audiences because the authenticity can be felt, while CGI often remains cold and distant. Hopefully, Hollywood continues to hear our pleas and returns to form. Fingers crossed, people. Fingers crossed.
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