Special effects have come a long way from the rickety stop-motion that once held the audiences of Jason and the Argonauts captivated. Without CGI, films like Toy Stoy, Life of Pi and Intersteller could never be fully realised. It has the power to create immersive worlds, unbelievable monsters and impossible architecture and place them all directly under our nose for scrutiny. However, to quote the old maxim: With great power comes great responsibility. CGI is but one tool in a director’s arsenal, and through overuse and constant bastardization of the technique, we are teaching filmmakers to be lazy.
Practical effects still have a vital part to play in cinema. No matter how good CGI can be, it is always added in post-production and thus will never match the realism of something that shares a physical space for the actor to see and touch, and can share the same practical lighting setup.
I recently watched David Yates’ version of Tarzan, and while I appreciated the attempt to bring a deeper context to the classic story, I was astounded by how heavily the film relied on CGI. Scenes which were supposed to carry emotional gravitas, fights between Tarzan and the gorillas, the classic vine swinging: All of these fell into the uncanny valley and brought a sense of total detachment as I watched them. Every animal in this film was animated, to the point where the movie felt lazy and rushed.
One of the main reasons Jurassic Park has stood the test of time is its mix of CGI and practical effects to suit the requirements of each scene. When Alan Grant lies on the poorly triceratops, we are exposed to a beautifully intimate moment where two species bridge a gap spanning millions of years to achieve something previously impossible. The very power of the beast is apparent as Grant physically rises and falls with each breath.
Period dramas like Legend also make clever use of CGI, blocking roads with green screens during filming and adding the detail of 1960s London in afterwards. Instead of relying fully on CGI, effects combine with a meticulous production team that use props & wardrobe to bring the directors vision of the past to life.
On the other side of the spectrum, Tarantino prides himself on not using CGI in his films. Compare the opening scene in Django: Unchained to the final scenes in Skyfall, and watch closely the characters breathing. In the former, Tarantino actually filmed outside in subzero temperatures to achieve the condensation in the air, whereas Mendes relied on post-production. When you really put the work in, the differences are apparent. Working as much as possible in principal photography simply makes your film look more polished. The effort shines through and allows the audience to be fully immersed in the world you create for them.
Time and money constraints are big reasons for CGI becoming more and more apparent in films, but therein lies the problem. We are allowing studio budgets and deadlines to get in the way of true art. The more time and you put in, the better a film will look. Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lord of the Rings. These films, like Jurassic Park, will always stand the test of time because they are projects on a grand scale, with artists lovingly toiling over every minute detail to ensure a piece of beautifully crafted cinema. We mustn’t let box office figures dictate what will be the next big hit.