Today's big budget movies have the technology to create worlds and characters unlike anything we've ever seen before... but is that really a good thing? What if CGI just distracts from all the important things about moviemaking?
Wired magazine's recent story about the making of Avatar contained the following passage:
Cameron is trying to show me something with a laser pointer. He queues up a scene towards the end of Avatar and freezes the frame on an image of a large crowd of Na'vi. He uses the pointer to draw attention to an ornate headdress composed of hundreds of tiny beads. The onscreen image is amazingly crisp, and the headdress appears utterly real. Each bead was designed by a digital artist, Cameron says, so it would look handmade. "Every leaf, every blade of grass in this world was created," he says, and his laser pointer streaks across the screen, alighting on so many things I can't follow its path.
When I read that, I thought to myself, that's everything that's wrong with CGI movies. I'm always torn when it comes to live action movies that rely so heavily on CGI'd surroundings and special effects: On the one hand, it's amazing what can be done with the technology, but on the other, it's depressing seeing what has been done with it, as well. CGI has become the atom bomb of movie special effects: Yes, we have the technology to "fix" everything, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we should use it.
In many ways, the argument against the overuse of CGI is like critic Douglas Wolk's complaint against autotune in modern pop music:
And now, the smallest errors are vanishing, too. The gift that modern digital technology has given pop music is the ability to fix every nagging inconsistency in a recording, note by note and beat by beat. If you hear a contemporary mainstream rock record, you're almost certainly hearing something that has been digitally nipped and tucked and buffed until it shines.
The little inconsistencies in musicians' performances aren't just glitches, though: They're exactly what we respond to as listeners — the part that feels like "style," or even like "rock." The exciting part of guitar-bass-drum-voice music is the alchemy of specific musicians playing with each other, and the way those musicians' idiosyncratic senses of timing and articulation and emphasis relate to each other. That's where the rhythmic force of rock 'n' roll comes from; that's also why a great band can replace one of its members with someone who's technically a more skillful musician, only to discover that their instrumental chemistry isn't there anymore.
Watching movies where CGI has created entire worlds like Pandora - or The Lord of The Rings' Middle Earth or anywhere in the three Star Wars prequels, for that matter - and what you're seeing may be technically impressive and the work of hundreds of artists up and down the moviemaking food chain, but none of it entirely convinces; there's a distance that we, as viewers, instinctively pick up on because what we're watching is so fake that it can't even convincingly fake verisimilitude. It doesn't matter how many how many hours or computer modeling programs have been spent to create "lifelike" scenery or surroundings, it will always lack the element of chaos, the potential for mistakes, that makes it something we can believe (and lose ourselves) in. Moviemakers today can try and distract us from that missing piece - with occasionally unintentional results; how many times do we watch something and think that it's impressive or "must have taken a lot of work," and not notice that we're being taken even further out of the story in order to do so - but there hasn't been any CGI-centric creation that has managed to replace it, yet.
More worryingly, CGI has given free rein to the worst, most-OCD elements of moviemakers' imaginations. Whereas, before, worldbuilding would have meant coming up with the strongest stories and performances in order to pull audiences in, now both of those seem to often take backseats to the spectacle of the spectacle itself (Think of this summer's Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen, which didn't appear to make sense, or again, the Star Wars prequels, where Lucas as a director was clearly more in love with the technology responsible for the worlds he was building than the actors and dialogue he was populating them with). That James Cameron has created languages, flora and fauna and hundreds of elements for Avatar's Pandora that we may not even really see in the finished product is, at once, both an impressive and incredibly frustrating feat: Good for him for being so dedicated, but without a good story, it'll be the most expensive window dressing for a store that no-one wants to shop at.
As technology has become more and more adept at literally translating someone's imagination into a finished product, so, it seems, has the focus of filmmaking become using that technology: Pushing it to create new things, replace reality as closely as possible and take out all of the confusion, disarray and accidents of the real world. But in doing so, actually imagining things seems to have become diminished, both in terms of the creators - because flights of fancy soon become weighed down by translating them into something that computers can understand and model in visually "believable" terms - and in terms of the audience, who now get imaginary worlds presented to them in as close to photo-realistic terms as possible, but missing any genuine life. What we're left with, then, are movies overpowered by themselves, making everything more "perfect," more sterile and more lifeless than what we've seen before, no matter what our eyes may tell us.
Of course, I'm writing this before seeing Avatar, so maybe I'm wrong; maybe Cameron has spent enough time on the story, perhaps all the actors involved do wonderful work, and all of the work that's gone into the CGI has created everything we've been promised: an immersive, believable new world unlike everything we've ever seen before. But everytime I think of Cameron boasting to the Wired journalist about the CGI-creation of blades of grass - because, obviously, real grass isn't good enough sometimes - I worry that it'll just be more of the same old empty razzle-dazzle.