June 27, 2004
What do you think of the new computer generated images (CGI) that
are all the rage in Hollywood these days? You
know the ones I mean. That big green bouncing whosit in the Hulk
movie, for example. Or the Gollum from The Lord of the Rings? To
quote the redoubtable Chester Field: "How do you like it sofa?"
I ask because I know I have mixed feelings. See, I spent my formative years -- that is, in the Stone Age before the advent of CGI effects -- in a seemingly ceaseless state that was about fifty percent naive hope to fifty percent jaded disappointment. Everything from The Valley of Gwangi to Warlords of Atlantis; from The Land that Time Forgot to Clash of the Titans; from Battle Beyond the Stars to Superman -- again and again I was suckered in, each time fully convinced that this time, THIS TIME the special effects were going to convince me. Or at least they were going to live up to the promise held out by the One Sheets. I really was going to believe a man could fly. But again and again I found myself doomed to disappointment.
I know many of these movies were pretty low budget affairs, which
may excuse some. But even a blockbuster like Superman (three mil
for Brando, remember?), for all that I loved it to bits, didn't really
live up to its tagline. Okay, the
wire work was excellent and when Christopher Reeve did that first
banking turn in the Fortress of Solitude...I just about cried.
But the other stuff, the stuff showing him high in the sky against a
projected image of New York, that just never worked for me. I
know the filmmakers reportedly invented a whole new film process just
for those shots, but the end result is all that matters. And, for
me, the end result wasn't good enough.
But there was a greater problem. Even as a kid, I
understood that the filmmakers were necessarily limited by their
special effects. There were stories they simply couldn't
tell. If the special effects wizards couldn't do it, out it went,
into the trash heap of lost ideas, never to be seen, at least not on
the silver screen.
And then, along came something we never imagined. We
discovered that computers could draw pictures which looked almost as
real as the real thing. (Funny isn't
it, to look back at a show like Star Trek's The Corbormite Maneuver. A
super intelligent alien wants to fool Kirk and crew into thinking he
looks like an ugly monster. Today we would have him send them a
visual transmission showing a computer generated monster's face.
Not back in the sixties. They had him use...a puppet!?! It
hadn't yet occurred to anyone that a computer could be used to create
completely imaginary, but competely believable images.) I think
my first encounter with the possibility of
computer generated images came in the form of the Disney movie, Tron. But in that same year,
1982, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
made movie history with a computer generated rendition of the "Genesis
Planet". Sure, both those films depicted images which were
supposed to represent a computer's idea of reality rather than reality
itself, but together they pointed the way. After that, there was The Last Starfighter, which came a
lot closer to creating convincing computer generated images (in the
form of spaceships). Then TV shows
like Star Trek: The Next Generation
and Babylon 5 carried the
ball and ran with it. And what TV did for machines, Jumanji and Jurassic Park next did for
animals. For eighty mil, Steven Spielberg showed us
what it looks like to be eaten by a T-rex whilst sitting on the crapper.
Along the way, there were countless other "firsts". The first
"morphing" effect -- Jacko turning into a black panther in
his Black or White
first imitation of light flares in the camera lens -- Babylon 5 again. The first
depiction of realistic hair -- Monsters,
Inc. The first use of "bullet time" (slowing the image to
a crawl while still rotating the camera) -- The Matrix. The first
completely computer generated character -- Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
And of course James Cameron's The
Abyss with its shape-shifting
water pseudopod and Terminator 2
with its T2 "liquid metal" shape-shifting robot -- both hailed as
"firsts" in their day.
Until at last here we are. No longer in Kansas. It has
said countless times, but I'll say it again: There is probably
nothing a modern writer
could dream up which a modern special effects wizard could not depict
using computers. No longer are filmmakers restricted in
the stories they can tell. They are limited only by their own
imaginations. And the special effects themselves have now become
nearly invisible, seamlessly inserting images into other images,
creating entirely self-consistent realities which we could only dream
about thirty years ago.
That's the plus side.
But, like I said, in spite of all that, I have mixed feelings.
I have three main
complaints. First, I find for all that computer effects can
produce just about any image you can imagine...How can I put this?...I
still leave me entirely unsatisfied. I don't know why that is,
I find there is something about computer generated images that makes
them seem ephemeral and impossible to "see". Take the movie, Jumanji, for example. The
elephants and rhinos and assorted African fauna were no doubt
carefully rendered and as realistic as you could want, but after
watching Jumanji, I found I
what they had looked
Honest. It wasn't that they were blurry. They were
simply...ephemeral, hard to "see", hard to focus
on. Like ghosts.
Why that should be, I don't know, but I have a theory. (I always have a theory.) A
real animal has infinite detail to its
surface. That is, the closer you look the more detail you will
see. But a computer generated lion (to pick an example) doesn't
detail. It has just enough detail as you need for the distance at
which you are seeing the thing. To put it another way, zoom in on
a real lion and you will see each little hair on its pelt. Zoom
in on a CGI depiction of a lion and the image breaks up into
pixels. In theory this shouldn't matter. As long as we
don't zoom in, we won't notice whether there is infinite detail or
not. But maybe, just maybe, on a subconscious level, we are able
to detect that detail. And, when it is missing, the animal
doesn't seem to be entirely "there", no matter how carefully we draw
him. That may not explain the problem, but it's the best I can do
without a steady paycheck.
My second complaint is that I still feel that computer generated
creatures move like computer
generated creatures. From the bouncy Hulk to the equally bouncy
Spider-Man, from the loose limbed Jar Jar Binks to the rag-doll army of
Mr. Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded,
I find they look and move, one and all, like what they are: very well
cartoons. Evidently gravity just isn't that easy to
duplicate. Don't get me wrong. Watching the Hulk rampaging
like a big green tornado, tossing tanks like giant
Frizbees, and going toe to toe with a Hulkified poodle was a jaw
dropping experience. But I don't think it was the computer
generated Hulk which deserves the credit. It was the sheer
magnitude of the destruction which leaves the reader breathless.
You could have shown Tweety Bird hurling those tanks and it would have
produced the same effect.
Nonetheless, I can understand why I hear so few complaints.
Slightly more than a cartoon, slightly less than a
mechanical model, computer effects are just good enough to get the job
They carry us along, allowing us to see amazing things with just enough
verisimilitude that, for most of us, we are able to suspend disbelief,
overlook the flaws,
and accept them for what they are supposed to be. Once upon a
time, audiences felt the same way about stop-motion animation (or
"Dynamation" as Ray Harryhausen grandly dubbed it). It
has been said that scientists who watched the
original 1925 The Lost World
believed they were seeing film footage of the real thing. For
many years, every once in a while someone would come forward claiming
to have been the "guy in the monkey suit" used in the original 1933 King Kong -- claims which the
newspapers took quite seriously. Watching that movie today, it is
hard to understand why. It is obvious to the modern eye that
there was no "guy in a monkey suit". It was all stop-motion.
Stop-motion was a good effect in its day, but, over time, the
to recognize the tiny give-aways -- the
characteristic jerkiness, for
example. In the
end, the effect was relegated to very brief inserts, too quick for the
audience to notice, like the long shots of Tauntauns on the ice planet
in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
(Or else mechanical creatures which, because they are supposed to move
with a certain jerkiness, are better suited to stop-motion. For
example, the Ed-209 robot in RoboCop.)
But I said there were three
problems I have with CGI. I recognized
that third problem recently while watching an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. In
that episode, T'Pol, the female Vulcan, has a conversation with her
older self from another dimension. Nothing special about
that. After you've seen a gazillion Mr. Smiths scrumming Keanu
Reeves, what's a couple of T'Pols in the same
frame? (And, if you don't know
what "scrumming" means, ask a Canadian.) But, at one
point, the younger T'Pol passes a book to her
older self. Now, once upon a time, an effect like that would have
been really something. It isn't that hard to matte two images
together, but to show those images physically
interacting was almost impossible before we had computer
effects. But because computer effects have made everything so
easy, I hardly even noticed the moment when the book passed between
them. I just assumed -- "Ho hum, the book is probably itself a
computer generated image, that's all."
But then the ever watchful eye of "Drooling" D.K. noticed what I had
not. His Orcishness pointed out that the arm of the older T'Pol
wasn't in quite the right position for her body. Suddenly, we
realized how the effect was really done. It wasn't done with
computers at all. There was another hidden actor -- hidden by the
inserted image of the older T'Pol -- and it was actually that actor's
arm which took the book from the younger T'Pol.
The point of all this is that the third problem with computer
effects is that they are essentially
all one effect. And because they make just about anything
possible, we no longer even consider the possibility that the
filmmakers may be using some other, more clever trick to achieve their
effect. Once upon
a time, even if the effects were limited, we still found ourselves
marveling at each individual effect and wondering how it was
done. But no longer. Now we just think, "Computer", and
leave it at that. We stop being amazed.
Depending on how you look at things, this might actually be a good
thing. A filmmaker might point out that if we stop wondering how
it was done, we are
better able to concentrate on the thing that really matters -- the
story. Well, maybe. But I think, like it or not, that
special effects are supposed to amaze us like any magic trick. If
you believed in magic, think how boring it would be to watch David
Copperfield perform. One trick would be the same as any
other. Ho hum, magic, so what. We are amazed because
we know he isn't really magic. Each trick is a different
marvel. We are astonished because we wonder how it was really done.
I may be alone in my reaction to CGI special effects, but I don't
think so. Already there are grumblings
in Hollywood that the audience is becoming bored with computer
effects. More than a decade ago, the pre-release hype for Jurassic Park made it sound as if
the effects were almost one hundred percent computer generated.
You would hardly have known that they built themselves a full sized
T-rex robot. Computers were all the rage. But
now, check out the hype surrounding the recent Spider-Man 2. Based on the
commercials, I'm pretty sure Doc Ock's metal tentacles were mainly
computer generated. But in interviews, the filmmakers insisted
the tentacles were mainly mechanicals controlled by puppeteers.
CGI effects, it seems, are no longer the selling point they once were.
To be honest, I don't know how I feel about that. Like I said,
my feelings are mixed. I think there's something wonderously
exhilarating about a world where there is no limit to the stories that
can be told on film. This is truly a Golden Age. At the
same time, I miss the days when each effect was
its own little miracle. When you wondered how it was done.
And, for my money, no CGI will ever beat Christopher Reeve doing
that banking turn in the Fortress of Solitude...
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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