Have you ever been in a cinema, watching the destruction of a city, and found yourself being bored?
It’s an odd sensation. There’s so much to see in front of us, carnage on a scale we’ll hopefully never witness in real life, entire buildings lifted from the ground, ripped apart by superheroes, aliens, military helicopters, whatever! But we yawn, we check our watch and – most importantly – we disengage from the story. We start to plan what we’ll have to eat when we get home.
We’re bored of CGI! We’ve seen so much of it over the last twenty years that we’re no longer impressed by it. Those amazing visuals aren’t enough to keep our attention, we need something far more fundamental: reality. We get that through a compelling story, which is why I can happily watch TV from the 70s and 80s and still be captivated while my daughters laugh at the crude visual effects. Or maybe it’s nostalgia?
Either way there’s been a resurgence in practical film-making in recent months. JJ Abram’s Star Wars promises practical sets and real props and costumes, something sorely missing in the prequels. And it’s not alone. In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Tom Cruise is hanging off the side of a plane, shouting “Look! This is real! This is real!” Movie makers are keen to show us that their films exist, that they have really made the things they’re showing us, that people toiled and risked life and limb for your entertainment.
CGI vs HGI
But take a moment to think about those CGI artists. Often, they’re the ones who are blamed when for a movie’s bad. It’s not their fault! Yes, there are artists behind those effect shots we yawn through. They are usually the last part of the pipeline, and while they should be included from the very beginning they’re often not. Sometimes they’re just an afterthought: “Oh, those CGI people will sort this out. OK, the script might not be perfect but the big fight sequence when the city gets destroyed will look amazing! We’ll use that in the trailer.”
Perhaps part of the problem is in the name: Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI for short. It’s a term that dates back to the beginning of the technique and it’s understandable why it’s been adopted. But it’s misleading. Graphics and animation are no more computer generated than this blog post, or one of my novels is. Just because I write on a laptop using text-specific software we wouldn’t dream of calling books Computer Generated Novels. CGI is created by humans, not computers. Those humans are skilled technicians and artists, but their skills are no longer seen as a craft, they’re seen as a way to speed up the film-making process and, most importantly, to cut costs. And as artists we’re guilty of underselling our skills, of devaluing them and doing jobs for little or no money just so we can work on a major movie or a cool project.
So maybe we shouldn’t call it CGI any more. Maybe we should put those creative, enthusiastic, starstruck people back into the equation and call it Human Generated Imagery. HGI. Why not? Maybe then film makers (and film goers) might remember that those impossible pictures are made by stressed, overworked people in a sunless basement who toil away, hoping they do good work. After all they don’t want to make bad CGI but sometimes they just don’t have a choice. Money, time and a “Who needs to plan? We’ll fix it in Post” attitude conspire against them, forcing them to compromise their craft.
Another thing to remember is we only notice bad CGI. The good shots are invisible. I’ve done my share of VFX work and I was always delighted when I managed to do something that no one would ever see. The good stuff gets missed. It looks real! Which is, after all, the point of CGI.
RocketJump Film School say it so well in this video:
CGI isn’t a sticking plaster to fix a bad movie at the very end of production, it’s a tool that should be used alongside practical effects, models, make-up, and a good script, to make the best possible picture.
I’ll end with a clip of what is still, in my opinion, one of the best uses of CGI alongside models, practical effects and sound. This famous sequence from Jurassic Park works so well because it was planned meticulously by a director at the top of his game. He didn’t use CGI as a gimmick, it was first and foremost a tool to aid the story, nothing more. Which is exactly what it should be. So it’s ironic that the very same director is behind Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull…
Some further reading: Why the VFX of Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers hold up