Is CGI ruining movies?

Let me ask you, is CGI (computer generated imagery) ruining movies? Do your eyes roll at the thought of another CGI-filled summer blockbuster? Do you wish the movies would go back to the wonder years of cinema before computers ruined everything? Have you watched Jurassic Park recently? That film really holds up, and you know why? It’s because they used practical effects. Practical effects just look better and movies need to use more of them, like Mad Max: Fury Road. The use of practical effects made that film one of the hits of this year.

So why are film companies still using CGI? After all, it’s ruining movies, right?

Well, I disagree.

Why do people hate CGI?
I know I must sound mad, but hear me out. The reason CGI gets such a bad rep is because people only see the bad CGI - when it seems the director has given up trying to film something and handed it to the effects department to “get it in post”. Computers have become a victim of their own success. As the technology improved, computers were able to render entire sequences, making anything possible.

An actor can’t make the shoot? Make them CGI.

Need aliens flying through an exploding city? Just do it with CGI.

Need to swing from tree to tree with a tribe of monkeys? Yeah, you guessed it: CGI.

This is where the magic breaks. People just can’t relate to these scenes. You get pulled out of the experience and find yourself pointing out the CGI and how ridiculous it looks.

So why do I disagree that CGI is ruining movies?

The good CGI
For every bad CGI shot that hurts your eyes there are a hundred that you didn’t even notice. When CGI is done right and paired with solid storytelling it becomes invisible. Learning the weaknesses of CGI and supplementing it with other effects is the key to creating a believable effect. When people hear ‘Michael Bay’ they think CGI-effects-driven action film with more explosions than dialog. I believe Michael Bay is a master at using CGI and practical effects to create beautiful scenes. No one can deny that Transformers was visually impressive. It was the story and characters that were lacking.

Effects should be used to support and drive the narrative rather than be the story itself. That’s what’s happening now in so many ‘bad CGI’ movies. But when CGI’s doing the right job, it should go unnoticed.

What’s the difference?
See, computers are great at making things: cars, buildings, chairs, basically any solid object. It’s also good for water effects - that’s been CGI ever since the movie Titanic back in 1997. CGI is used to create backdrops, car chases, crowd scenes, not to mention almost anything that flies, in a remarkable amount of TV and film. Watch this VFX show reel for Game of Thrones. It’s incredible what has been added with a computer and isn’t obviously CGI. Even Mad Max: Fury Road, praised for its practical effects, used CGI to supplement it. Just watch the breakdown.

But what about people? CGI can’t do people, can it? Well it’s getting better. How many people thought Brad Pitt’s aged appearance as Benjamin Button was makeup? It was, in fact, computer generated.

No one has complained about CGI ruining these movies. Granted, the story might not be for everyone, but CGI isn’t the culprit.

In conclusion…
So is CGI the villain or merely misunderstood? I believe it’s the latter.

CGI is an incredible tool for directors, when used correctly, but it can’t save your crappy script from getting a Razzie next year. The truth is people remember great stories and we will forgive some questionable effects when we see them.  Would the stop motion skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts pass today’s standards? Almost certainly not, but we forgive them anyway. We are so entranced by the story that we aren’t in the back of our heads looking for an easy scapegoat.

The problem, it seems, is not with the visual effects but with the movies themselves. After all, visual effects have been part of movie magic since the beginning and are just another tool on the moviemaker’s tool belt. A good craftsman never blames his tools, so why should we?