CGI is advancing so quickly that it’s starting to make itself look bad.
Moore’s law states that approximately every two years, the processing power of personal computers essentially doubles, so your once laughable fear of a Terminator-style machine takeover is becoming more and more justified as time goes on. The rapid progression of technology is something of a double-edged sword; tech is cheaper and more powerful, but what were once incredibly sophisticated systems are quickly rendered obsolete. As cinema burrows ever deeper into the digital age, the duality of Moore’s law becomes increasingly apparent – digital cameras and effects are getting better and cheaper all the time, but at such a rate that films even less than a decade old are already looking outdated.
Consider 2005′s King Kong – it not only hasn’t aged well, but by current CGI standards it looks amateur
Consider Peter Jackson’s 2005 film King Kong. Of course, whether something looks good or is convincing is a matter of opinion and personal preference, but as this is a dictatorship, and a ruthless one at that, any dissenting citizens will be taken outside and shot. Or tickled relentlessly, it’s a bit of a gamble really. Totalitarianism aside, despite being only eight years old, King Kong not only hasn’t aged well, but by current CGI standards it looks a bit amateur.
A mere five years on from King Kong, another monster movie, the aptly named Monsters, has arguably far better visual effects. It’s Moore’s law in effect, because here’s the kicker: Monsters director Gareth Edwards did all the visual effects himself. In his bedroom. On a budget of less than $500,000. King Kong’s budget was $207 million. You do the maths, because that’s a tricky fraction to work out and I’m almost criminally stupid.
More Special effects: Try the videos that can give you a “Braingasm”
It’s difficult to imagine a film like Avatar (say what you will about Pocahontas In Space, it looked amazing) ever looking dated, but the reality is that in 10 or 15 years time it probably will. A landmark in the history of CGI Avatar may be, but so was Tron once upon a time. Over 50 years on from its release, the special effects-free Lawrence Of Arabia still looks absolutely breathtaking. Conversely, just 12 years on from its release, The Mummy Returns looks like a Mattel-flavoured nightmare, presenting a CGI vision of The Rock even less convincing than the real world flesh and blood version.
This gives rise to an inherent problem with CGI: it’s CGI. Something in our brains just will not accept CGI as a credible replacement for reality – apparently the same part of our brains that rejects astrology, tarot reading and other slabs of bullshit gateaux. We can accept completely computer-generated films like Toy Story and the like because the entire world is fabricated; there are no uneasy juxtapositions for us to try and make sense of. But when live-action is mixed with CGI, things start to fall apart.
Lurtz in LOTR looked positively terrifying; the CGI orcs in The Hobbit are as scary as a Cub Scout pack that never got their Um Bongo
Recently the trailer for the next installment of The Hobbit was released (sorry Peter, it’s nothing personal) and one word came to mind, the worst word any director could ever imagine: meh. CGI orcs and goblins just don’t have the same weight as their physical Lord Of The Rings counterparts. Lurtz in The Fellowship of the Ring looked positively terrifying; the orcs in The Hobbit are about as scary as a Cub Scout pack that never got their Um Bongo. It’s just difficult to invest in CGI characters, as you instinctively know that they’re not real. Of course there are some exceptions to this, most notably Dobby from Harry Potter, who apparently had audiences in floods of tears after spoilering his spoiler so Harry and friends could spoiler to safety.
In defence of CGI, when it is applied properly it can be a very useful way of achieving the otherwise unachievable. If there’s one man who doesn’t need any more smoke blown up his arse, it’s Christopher Nolan, but his approach towards CGI is to be applauded: achieve as much as is physically possible in camera, then use CGI to enhance what you already have. Practical effects will always carry more weight than CGI because you are actually seeing a real thing do a real thing in real life. Sort of. The problem is that directors have become too reliant on CGI, whether through studio pressure, laziness or a fear of trying. 20 years ago, Jurassic Park was released, a milestone in animatronics and practical effects. Will The Hobbit stand up as well in 20 years time? I doubt it.
Featured image: Walt Disney Productions
Picture: Alphaville Films