What makes CGI inferior to practical effects?
Author: Krystian Miderski
Cinema has been continuously evolving since Lumiere brothers presented moving images, including factory workers and a gardener being pranked by a young man, in a Parisian café. Over the past 128 years, the art of film has witnessed incredible progress. Longer runtimes, color, wider screens, and, finally, technology that allows the achievement of the seemingly impossible on screen have delighted audiences in theaters. Contrary to popular belief, special effects are not entirely new in cinema.
As early as 1895, when cinema embarked on its long journey, filmmakers were able to show the beheading of Mary Stuart in The Execution of Mary Stuart, and shortly thereafter, audiences were amazed by the extraordinary tricks of Georges Méliès. One could argue that the visual effects of that time were a tougher nut to crack, requiring more sweat and spilled blood with far less advanced technology. For decades, visionaries came up with new ways to surprise and captivate audiences. Studios constructed increasingly larger models and sets, hand-drawn characters were set in motion, and the talents of makeup artists and puppeteers brought forth new astonishing creatures on screen. Even before the advent of sound, audiences could see dinosaurs (The Lost World from 1925) or dreamlike cities (the legendary Metropolis from 1927) on the silver screen. Before the era of CGI, viewers had encountered a wide array of monsters, journeys to outer space, laser battles, and various explosions or apocalyptic scenarios. With the arrival of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, directed by James Cameron) and Jurassic Park (1993, directed by Steven Spielberg), audiences went wild for computer-generated imagery (CGI). It was clear to Hollywood by then that CGI would have a permanent place in the industry. It was supposed to be the next step for the Tenth Muse, illustrating things previously unattainable in cinema. Every major production began to employ animators. Just as everyone expected computer-generated images to be timeless art, capable of withstanding the test of time. Unfortunately, the truth turned out to be much more painful…
Dawn of CGI
When we examine the beginnings of CGI in the Dream Factory, we often feel that the effects that were supposed to be groundbreaking now appear quite outdated and don’t blend well with the real world presented on screen. This is a rarer problem with older productions. Let’s take a look at a grand film from 60 years ago. Let it be the famous Ben-Hur by William Wyler—a work that left the Oscars with a record 11 statuettes. While watching, it’s hard to dispute the Academy’s verdict from that time because it’s an absolute spectacle, and you can feel the crew’s sweat in every frame. The film’s hallmark is the legendary chariot race sequence, which seems to be executed almost flawlessly. A viewer witnessing this pivotal scene in the film’s history absolutely believes in what is on screen. What’s the secret behind it? Well, Charlton Heston and the other actors weren’t actually accompanied by green screens; instead, they had colossal on-screen sets that looked life-sized. For comparison, consider Timur Bekmambetov’s remake from a few years ago, where the chariot race was brought to the screen with the help of a computer. It raises a certain saying: “What a difference!” Computer-generated effects often have the characteristic of being visible. Viewers usually recognize that something is the result of extensive work by animators and subconsciously don’t completely buy into its authenticity. Unless it’s done so well that this fact almost slips by them, which is becoming more common in modern cinema. Of course, one must consider the extent to which computer animation will continue to develop, potentially making a character like Thanos disappear from the list of best special effects with the snap of a finger.
One cannot fail to mention, for example, Peter Jackson’s two adventures in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which are separated by just a decade. No one denies that the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy put the “finishing touch” on the creation of grand spectacles in the 21st century, and its contribution to the field of CGI cannot be trivialized. Let’s not forget that Jackson, while preserving Tolkien’s legacy, didn’t rely solely on technological innovations. They had their place where they belonged. After all, how else could we imagine Gollum in any other form than what was offered by the talent of Andy Serkis and the sensational motion capture technology at the time? It’s true that the creator, in his pursuit of scale, also trusted a team of remarkable set designers. He would have sinned if he didn’t include the nearby New Zealand landscapes in the film, which gracefully played the role of the fantasy world. Not many years passed before the long-awaited The Hobbit visually stood in the shadow of the previous trilogy and fell into a technological trap. Do you remember the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers? The unprecedented emotions that accompanied you during that dazzling sequence? Now try to recall the Battle of the Five Armies, and well… the same conclusion comes to mind as with the two versions of Ben-Hur.
Practical vs. CGI
This issue is not so common with practical effects. Of course, there are cases where some practical effects may now evoke more pity, but it’s really a matter of creative commitment. When we watch the futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner, we don’t feel that it’s just a camera flying over a model. We believe that this is the real metropolis of tomorrow before us. In the same year, John Carpenter’s cult classic The Thing was released, and much of its genius can be attributed to the invaluable work of Rob Bottin. The mysterious creatures visible in the film still take our breath away with their palpability. Although both films were released 40 years ago, they continue to make a strong impression on subsequent generations, and one might speculate that if they were made years later, in the digital era, they would not have generated such amazement, at least not over the course of those 40 years. In fact, there’s no need to speculate; you can simply watch any part of the 2011 version of The Thing, in which you can see the titular extraterrestrial life form in action.
Another perfect example of this gap between practical and computer-generated effects is Star Wars. George Lucas’s fascination with modern technology reached such a high level that he began to tamper with the original films using it. Some will say it’s an artist’s refinement of his work, while others will argue that it’s just ruining the magic of a galaxy far, far away. However, let’s get to the most important point: I encourage you to compare the character Jabba the Hutt. Originally, Han Solo’s employer was not shown in A New Hope. He was initially intended to be portrayed by an actor (in this case, Declan Mulholland), but the scene was cut from the theatrical version. It was later resurrected from the editing room’s trash when Lucas prepared a special “enhanced” edition with updated special effects. However, instead of Mulholland, we got the computer-generated Jabba, whom we knew from Return of the Jedi. The Jabba from the third episode is the work of talented puppeteers, and you can truly believe in the presence of this repulsive gangster from Tatooine. Even after all these years since the premiere, it still feels palpable to the viewer. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the CGI Jabba from the subsequent special editions of A New Hope, which is increasingly showing its age.
Of course. Computer-generated effects are still essential for the development of cinema. It was this technology that finally allowed James Cameron to realize his dream of the planet Pandora. Meanwhile, Marvel productions, using a more traditional approach, could end up on the shelf labeled “unwatchable kitsch” rather than being recognized as a guarantee of popcorn entertainment. Despite its undeniable advantages, improper use of CGI often brings negative results, and returning to the classics after it can be more painful than satisfying.