How much has CGI helped?

Discussion in 'Archive: SF&F: Films and Television' started by Obi-Ewan, Mar 17, 2010.

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  1. Obi-Ewan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 24, 2000
    star 4
    Many filmmakers, especially George Lucas, have hailed digital technology as the wave of the future, that will allow science fiction and fantasy film effects to be better and more realistic than ever before, and usher in a new age of better sci-fi/fantasy movies.

    Well, that future was first predicted back in the early 90s, but I have to question how much it's really accomplished, especially compared to traditional techniques.

    It's useful, I suppose, to distinguish two forms of computer generated special effects. The original Star Wars trilogy created its space battles using optical compositing, a photochemical process whereby separately photographed elements could be combined into a single film frame. The drawback was a black matte line separating the foreground from the background, meaning that the effect could often stand out like a sore thumb, unless you had outer space as your background to disguise the effect. Nowadays we have digital compositing, which does essentially the same job, but never results in a matte line.

    Then we have actual computer animation, in which the effect itself is created on the computer. Mainly, I'll be focusing on this.

    In Terminator 2 and The Abyss, CG was used to animate the water tentacle and the T-1000. The rest of the effects were largely accomplished practically. Battle damage on Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, was still created using make-up.

    Jurassic Park gave us CG dinosaurs for some wide-angle shots. Most of these, however, were designed to mesh seamlessly with robotic dinosuars operated on-set.

    1997 gave us the Special Edition of the Star Wars trilogy. Some expanded environments like Mos Eisley looked more realistic. The big embarassment was the animation of Jabba the Hutt. First, the design looked all wrong compared to the Jabba used in Return of the Jedi, and it didn't appear to really be occupying the space it was in. Two years latere we got an improved design, that looked more like the character from ROTJ, but the computer graphics weren't really able to create the disgusting feeling we got around him, as when Leia was made to stand closeby while he stuck his tongue out.

    The Lord of the Rings gave us Gollum, arguably the most successful computer generated character in a movie. However, much of the rest of the movie rests not on computer generated creatures, but on using digital compositing to put together practical effects. Thousands of ANZAC extras were made up in creature make-up. Large environments were created not on a computer (unlike Rome in Gladiator), but as practical models.

    What really makes me question whether CG has really led to better movie are the recent spate of horror movie remakes. We've gotten a new Halloween, a new Friday the 13th, a new Wolfman, we're getting a new Nightmare on Elm Street, and soon we'll be getting yet another remake of The Fly. They've all used newer technology to create flashier special effects, but have they really resulted in a better movie being made? I wonder what David Cronenberg thinks he can do with this new Fly that he couldn't do before. His previous take benefitting from the advances of its day in animatronics and make-up. And IMHO, it benefits greatly from having Jeff Goldblum act underneath the make-up, than be having computer animation create his disfigurement. Seeing Brundefly emerge from his body, even though I know it was an animatronic creature, is far more convincing to me than seeing a computer generated monster walk across the laboratory.

    There's a place for some computer generated effects in movies, but I personally feel we were making better movies with practical effects, and that todays suffer from too much digital trickery. A practical effect has a certain tangible presence that few if any computer effects have been able to replicate.
  2. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    Well, there are several factors at work.
    One is quality CGI vs cheap&fast.
    Another is design.

    For example: CGI yoda in the prequels was an embarrasment next to the puppet versions. He looked like a peeved Mogwai. It wasn't that the prequels didn't have the budget to build and render a good, high-quality character, it's that the actual design used was not up to the demands. Much like SE Jabba was a poor design.
    And CGI doesn't seem to get mucus right yet (that I know of), so no slobbering gross Jabba.

    Most horror movies are on a budget. Cheaper is better. So they usually settle for low-end.

    If you watch Bones season 2, they accomplish some great effects with CGI. Get the last disk from Netflix and watch the specials in the end. They turn a mostly empty field with a few bits of practical scenery into an huge graveyard full of tombs, gravemarkers, and bones sticking up. And it looks very, very plausible. They also made a very good replica of the "Vomit Commet" Zero-G testing plane interior (which to my mind is much easier).
    Watch a movie called "GoodBye Lennin." Not only is it a brilliantly funny movie (even if you don't understand German), but they have a wonderful shot of the woman watching as a statue of Lennin is being driven away. There is no statue--just a pice of green as a marker.

    I will give credit to Good CGI. Good CGI is invisible. Crap CGI is obvious. if you watch the bonus features to TPM, they's show you the "invisible" stuff. Almost every scene in that movie has a ton of elements that aren't really there. Some of them, however, (like JarJar and Jabba, and even some of the battledroid shots) are bad.
    Voyager had some of the last spacebattle scenes filmed with models before Trek went fully CGI. They worked a lot better for me than the CGI. Models are an art form that I wish I to improve my skill with.

    My understanding was that all the robot dinos for JP were scrapped as soon as Speilberg saw what CGI could do.

    Babylon5 had incredible effects (even if some of the burning spaceships didn't quite work). Take another look at those battle scenes--they would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive with traditional models, and they work extremely well. In fact, I would say the CGI for B5 alone says that CGI is an improvement for the entire film industry.
    Crusade, on the otherhand, was a major step down, especially in their greenscreen shots. The scene with the captain being chased on his hoverbike was embarrassingly bad.

    Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow, in addition to being a horrible, horrible movie, was supposedly made using almost all CGI and very little practical. I think it failed miserablly.

    Some things are much, much better with practicals.

    Like all technical and technological improvements, if you put the work, skill, and effort into it, the results really pay off. If you skimp, cheat, or otherwise short-change the project, it will suffer and produce an inferior result.
  3. Raven Administrator Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Oct 5, 1998
    star 6

    Well, I notice that you referenced James Cameron. Certainly, he's made a lot of use of practical effects (Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, the Abyss, Titanic) but he's also been one of the people pushing the envelope for CGI. And for what it's worth, the man who brought us some of the best practical effects ever filmed in movies he directed felt that Avatar needed CGI to be properly told.

    I also think that people have really only begun to put existing technologies to good use. We've yet to see a science fiction movie with a better space battle than the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith. There's no question in my mind that Avatar could have gone further with flight, doing more in the way of "over the shoulder" shots while weaving between the giant floating rocks and similar. If we ever see another Battle of Britain movie (or really, any WWII story involving dogfights) the potential is spectacular.

    Look at the new Battlestar Galactica, and what it was able to do on a television budget. Yes, practical effects were used for quite a bit. But so was CGI. BSG used practical effects when practical, CGI when practical, resulting in a show that was visually distinctive and completely believable from a visual perspective for the majority of the episodes.

    CGI has allowed more creative freedom. It's made shows more visually appealing. In some cases, sure, it's inadvertently reduced inventiveness. I don't think that Alien or Aliens could be made today, not with today's CGI. Executives would want more monster. But it's also led to shows like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, the new Star Trek film, and a ton of other problems being able to be made better than they otherwise would be.

  4. Obi-Ewan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 24, 2000
    star 4
    My understanding was that all the robot dinos for JP were scrapped as soon as Speilberg saw what CGI could do.

    Not true. The sick triceratops was entirely robotic. The dilophosaurus was robotic, CGI was only used to remove some support rods needed to make it stand up properly. The Tyrannosaur was robotic in close shots, CG only in full-body shots. Same with the brachiosaur--the head that we see in close up half-way through the movie was robotic. The velociraptors were also mainly animatronic or, in some cases, a man in a rubber suit, with the exception of jumping on the table in the kitchen, and the climactic scene which was entirely CG.

    Babylon5 had incredible effects (even if some of the burning spaceships didn't quite work). Take another look at those battle scenes--they would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive with traditional models, and they work extremely well. In fact, I would say the CGI for B5 alone says that CGI is an improvement for the entire film industry.

    I don't know if it was the rendering, or just the fact that the motion was too fast, but at least some of the CGI in Babylon 5 didn't do it for me.

    Many environments created on computer look like video game graphics. The only time it works, in my experience, is when there is some live-action element for it to be compared to.

    Well, I notice that you referenced James Cameron. Certainly, he's made a lot of use of practical effects (Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, the Abyss, Titanic) but he's also been one of the people pushing the envelope for CGI. And for what it's worth, the man who brought us some of the best practical effects ever filmed in movies he directed felt that Avatar needed CGI to be properly told.

    Count me as one of the people not all that impressed with Avatar. It's thematic depth is overstated and overpraised. Much like the prequels, it seems like a movie that existed only as a reason to give computer animators some work to do. Had the CG not been available, he probably would have gone for a more practical design for those cat-people, and maybe a bit less dragon-riding.

    I also think that people have really only begun to put existing technologies to good use. We've yet to see a science fiction movie with a better space battle than the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith.

    I have, it was called Return of the Jedi.
  5. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    Then I sit PEBKAC corrected. :)

    Look at the battle scenes in Season4,Episode6, the final battle between Shadows and Vorlons, with all of the First Ones present. Most of the StarFury shots (OK not in the battles with the triangular "Raiders", those loook bad now. Also, the StarFury ships did a good job of removing the hard edge of practical and CGI edges. So did the WhiteStars. If you see the actual sets, not even the trim around the windows is real. There's just a hole with green cloth behind it, and the window frames are part of some of the CGI.

    The story in avatar is weak. Very weak. This has been discussed in the Avatar thread. The effects, however... That's what made the movie. And again, there were a lot of effects that were 'invisble'. Where the OT had matt paintings, PT used a lot of CGI backdrops to add depth and life. (OK, you can argue how much 'life' was in the PT--I usually come down on the negative side)

    Really? I'd have gone with the asteroid chase in ESB as better. It seemed to me that the RotJ space battle was sort of tacked in as an afterthought. "Oh yeah, we need to do something with this..."
  6. The2ndQuest Tri-Mod With a Mouth

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    Member Since:
    Jan 27, 2000
    star 10
    The asteroid chase wasn't much of a space battle though- it's a chase sequence. The Falcon's running, not fighting back.

    I'd also say the ROTJ space battle is still superior to the ROTS one, partly due to FX quality and camera work, but also due to how it's presented.

    We see many facets of the battle. We're thrown in into the command bridges of both flagships, with defined leader characters there to associate with. We're thrown into the hero ship of the Falcon with a major character aboard. We're thrown into the cockpit of the lead fighter pilot and his interactions with squadmates. We see capital ships slugging it out as our hero ships swoop between them trying to protect them from enemy fighter craft, etc.

    All these elements are affecting each other. Whereas in ROTS, it's basically about two Jedi fighter pilots and a single clone fighter taking on 2 or 3 stages/waves of enemy threats. The rest of the battle is just scenery and has no impact on the story or characters (with exception to the single broadside attack damaging the Hand and making it plummet the first time).


    But we have seen some great CGI space battles elsewhere though. B5 had a few (Severed Dreams and a couple Season 4 eps in particular), New BSG has had one or two memorable ones. Space battles (in particular, dogfights) became a specialty of SG-1 and SGA (Battle over Antarctica, Battle of the Supergate, Defense of Atlantis and dogfights too numerous to list here). The battle in Nemesis is one of the best Trek battles out there (even if it is rivaled by primarily model-based ones like the Battle of Sector 001 in First Contact), and the opening battle of the new Trek film was at least an incredibly effective sequence, even if it wasn't much of a battle.
  7. Jedimarine Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Feb 13, 2001
    star 5
    To alter a classic quote:

    "That CGI is best which is noticed least."
  8. Raven Administrator Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Oct 5, 1998
    star 6
    Apparently there's been a new version of Return of the Jedi that I wasn't aware of. I'll have to go look it up.
  9. Jedimarine Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Feb 13, 2001
    star 5
    Now Now.

    While the volume and immersion of the ROTS battle scene was unlike anything else...it was also PAINFULLY brief and far too narrow a perspective.

    and I believe was intentionally done so as to not upstage the battle in ROTJ, the climax of the saga.

    The battle in ROTS was more a setting then a real plot point...and it's attention is curbed as such...Once Obi-wan and Anakin are on the ship, you almost forget the battle outside.

    ROTJ...that battle, and they way it weaves through the ground battle and the duel...it was all significant, and yet all very unique.

    ROTJ is still the best space battle on film...but it could be eclipsed if there was a purpose to do so...ROTS not only didn't have that purpose...they had reason to avoid topping it.
  10. Spider-Fan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jul 15, 2008
    star 4
    ROTS felt more like a chase in the midst of a battle we barely saw IMO. I agree ROTJ's felt much more like a battle.
  11. redxavier Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 23, 2003
    star 4
    I'd argue Serenity's battle was better than ROTS.

    I'm a bit anti-CGI these days, but then I'm a child of the 80s where we had some of the best stuff and people working the practical side of things - Ken Ralston, Stan Winston and Dennis Muren to name a few.

    CGI doesn't age well, it's rarely animated right, tends to lack the weight and interaction of real objects, and worse, it has sapped some of the awe out of movies a little. I miss the days where they really would get thousands of extras and do complex shots like the French cavalry attacking the British squares in Waterloo and the approach of Crassus' legions in Spartacus.

    Also, CGI was supposed to be cheaper, but is it really?
  12. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    Is CGI cheaper: well, in some ways, yes. Especially when it comes to multiple takes.

    Get something wrong in a take with thousands of extras, and you have to reset them, sometimes redress them, clean up outfits, an reset explosions, etc, etc, all of which takes time and $. Sure, extras get paid minimum wage, but at $8 per hour times 1000, plus all of the trained people, plus all the supplies and materials... Yeah, that builds up quickly.

    Whereas with CGI, if someone moves at the wrong time, you fix a setting and rerender. You want to change a camera angle by 3 or 6 degrees? no problem. You want someone to break ranks and charge faster? no problem.
    Granted, you don't want 1000 clones of the same 2 people, but that can be faked easily with only slight variations to the models, changing timing, and other minior customizing. Building the first couple models is expensive. After that it's the skill of your model builder, animator, texture editor, and CGI scenery builder that count. Sure, paying some guy $800 to $1200 an hour seems like a lot more than 1000 schlubs $8 per hour, but the ability to alter, customize, and refine makes the highly paid experts worth more than 1K cheap hacks.
    One of the big problems I've seen is that while individual models look great, all the effort frequently goes there, and not enough to worrying about the motion and interaction.
    Again, take a look at the Bones episode where they investigate the death of an astronaut. It isn't perfect, and the story has a couple huge plot/tech story holes, but the effect of the zero-G simulator is amazing. The Pen doesn't quite look right, but it is very, very close.

    One other note about Lucas and CGI:
    Pixar used to belong to LucasFilm. They sold it off because Lucas dindn't know what to do with it. When making The Last StarFighter, the CGI team developed a demo reel of 3 X-wings flying in formation. One of them Loops out of the screen and comes back in. Lucas wasn't impressed/didn't see the point. He may had got on board 15 years late, after B5 and JP showed him the way, but when it comes to CGI, Lucas is hardly a visionary.
  13. Obi-Ewan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 24, 2000
    star 4
    Get something wrong in a take with thousands of extras, and you have to reset them, sometimes redress them, clean up outfits, an reset explosions, etc, etc, all of which takes time and $. Sure, extras get paid minimum wage, but at $8 per hour times 1000, plus all of the trained people, plus all the supplies and materials... Yeah, that builds up quickly.

    There was a time when it was considered the director's responsibility; and to a certain extent the ADs; to get the best performance from everyone at the same time. Each shot would use several takes, but the best takes were cut together to make a scene. Director's also didn't fret about this.

    Not until Episode I came along did directors, or specifically George Lucas, start complaining that keeping track of all those actors was just too big a chore. "I can't be expected to get the best from Natalie and Ewan at the same time, so I absolutely must have in-frame editing."

  14. Jedimarine Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Feb 13, 2001
    star 5
    He wasn't a visionary in traditional effects...Guys like Muren and Dykstra had to make it happen.

    I have a theory...I usually use it for the "acting" but I think it could apply here too.

    In the 70s when this thing got rolling, the pressure wasn't on.

    and yes, I know all about the "pressure" from Fox and budget and timing issues, etc...but that's small stuff relatively speaking for everyone EXCEPT George.

    and it's even more true of ESB and ROTJ...It was a winning machine, they knew what to do, and more importantly, they knew how to handle it.

    ----

    Fast Forward to the prequel era...20 years of these movies becoming a pop culture mainstay...a cultural epoch even. The people brought in to do these films are excited beyond words about the opportunity.

    and terrified out of their minds about screwing it up. There isn't any real risk taking. The actors didn't take their lines and make them their own (either because the didn't know how [Hayden], or didn't want to risk it [Ewan].

    They lived in the shadows of a myth, and had to not only follow it's greatness, but serve as the introduction to it!

    This is why I feel the acting in the PT is cardboard and emotionless and weak...it's how George writes...You see the same corn dialog in the OT scripts as the PT ones...but it got changed by people who endeavored to improve the source...but unlike the fast and loose attitude of guys like Ford and Billy Dee, we got people too scared to change the lines or how they were delivered.

    You could make the same argument for the effects and any other department.

    And so...the PT...while probably being closer to George's true vision then the OT...is a weaker offering for being so.
  15. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    That's because George cannot direct actors/people. Period. That was never his strong point.

    Now, I think perhaps we're getting off topic.
    The question is, has CGI helped?
  16. Obi-Ewan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 24, 2000
    star 4
    Now, I think perhaps we're getting off topic.
    The question is, has CGI helped?


    Okay, then I'll pose an answer to that.

    When it comes to Pixar, I think those films show far more imagination and heart than most other animated films. (Dreamworks excluded.)

    In films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, it has allowed great stories to be told on screen that otherwise would have simply remained on the written page. (And having enjoyed both series of books, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.) Fortunately, both were based on books that already had a solid story, and couldn't rely on something as superficial as visual effects.

    But, as the prequels show, a director being able to get his "uncompromised vision" on the screen isn't always a good thing. It has allowed Lucas to focus even more than before on the role of post-production, so much so that he feels he can fix sub-par performances in the editing room. And it has allowed a great many films to focus more in effects than substance. (Avatar, for example.) I'd also argue that in the past, the challenge of having to create the desired effects practically 1) forced filmmakers to be more creative, 2) forced them not to overemphasize excessive effects, and 3) consequently resulted in a better film. Jaws would not be improved is there were more shark, as Spielberg originally wanted, and it generally agreed to be a much better film than Jurassic Park. The Star Wars films were not improved by having a poorly animated Jabba the Hutt, having Greedo shoot first, or adding a Busbey Berkeley number in Jabba's palace.

    With regards to the prequel's performances, however, I do feel the need to speak up in defense of Ewan McGregor. Matching certain aspects of Alec Guinness is exactly what he was called upon to do; not unlike Robert DeNiro in The Godfather Part II. But while the body language and accent came from Guinness, the personality was different--at least when he had enough to say to bring any personality across. Far from copying the kindly grandfather Guinness gave us, he gave us a much more strict persona. I agree about Hayden Christensen, however. Unlike, say, Harrison Ford; who openly complained that just doing what was in the script wasn't enough to make a convincing character, much less make sense of what he was supposed to physically do; Hayden seems to have won the Mark Hamill lookalike contest, tried to memorize his lines just before cameras rolled, and at times appears to be reading a cue card of screen.

    Of course some fo that staleness may come from another problem: the characters were interesting in the originals because some of them had a great deal of history behind them. The originals were also made without the intention of filming that backstory, for the simple reason that the characters were boring until some of their past was already established.
  17. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    So, like any new tool, using it doesn't guarentee a better product, but it does open up some new options.
    Talkees weren't necessarily better than silent movies--there's Carmine Copola's Napoleon, and the recent "Call of Cthulhu" by the HPLovecraft Historical Society.

    Color wasn't necessarily better than Black&White--anyone else remember the contraversy of Turner colorizing Casablanca and other classic movies (just because he could)?

    The Black Hole had a huge number of technological improvements, but it's relagated to the discount cheeze market (even though I still like it).
  18. Jedimarine Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Feb 13, 2001
    star 5
    Obi-wan as a CGI character in TCW has been better served then what McGregor brought to him...and we know he's capable of more.
  19. Jedimarine Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Feb 13, 2001
    star 5
    Love that movie.

    I used to imagine Darth Vader vs. Maximilian.

    If I were going to be trapped in a robot suit...I want one that FLOATS!
  20. Obi-Ewan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 24, 2000
    star 4
    So, like any new tool, using it doesn't guarentee a better product, but it does open up some new options.

    Yes, and those options aren't necessarily better either. A bad idea now relies solely on the judgment of the writer or director to realize it needs to be changes, whereas before that improvement came from working around technical limitations.

    Color wasn't necessarily better than Black&White--anyone else remember the contraversy of Turner colorizing Casablanca and other classic movies (just because he could)?

    A good analogy. Adding digital effects to an older movie (Star Wars, anyone?) doesn't make it a better movie, nor does remaking that old movie become a good idea solely because you can create effects more easily.

  21. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    The only remakes I can think of in which the new version was better than the old were The Fly and D.O.A. Arguablly you could mention Refer Madness and Little Shop of Horrors, but both of those were stage plays first.
  22. Obi-Ewan Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jan 24, 2000
    star 4
    The only remakes I can think of in which the new version was better than the old were The Fly and D.O.A.

    Haven't seen DOA but I did like The Fly. (Same writer, interestingly enough.) The newer fly was better for reasons beyond the effects though. Rather than cover Jeff Goldblum covered in a rubber mask the entire time, we actually get to hear him describe his condition--an advantage afforded by holding back on the effects. That being said, his deteriorating condition, and the nature of the accident, are more believable as well.

    I'd also include The Lord of the Rings on the list, though whether Jackson's films count as a remake of Bakshi's, or merely another go at the source material, is debatable.

    I could go into Ocean's Eleven, but that's really beyond the scope of this thread.
  23. Duragizer Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Apr 23, 2009
    star 3
    CGI is like alcohol - use it in moderation.
  24. Koohii Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    May 30, 2003
    star 5
    I was just watching a Hercules:TLJ episode. Yes it's cheezy and silly, and sometimes dumb, but it's generally fun, and I didn't get to see all of them when they were on TV. Plus the disclaimers in the credits (right after "Producer: Alex Beaton") which were different every episode, weren't visible when the TV station mashed them to 1/2 screen. Hey, they make fun of themselves all the time.

    The episode in question had flying demons carring people (and Hercules) into the air while they were still brawling. It wasn't flawless, but it was pretty darn good and effective. It made filming the sequence possible.

    Say what you will about the intellectual quality of the episodes, but it strikes me that they do an excellent job of ballancing practical with CGI, and they've pushed the boundaries of both fields. There are Wire-Fu stunts that the show invented and/or rediscovered how to do.
  25. Jedi_Keiran_Halcyon Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Dec 17, 2000
    star 6
    Hercules and Xena were great spiritual successors to the old Harryhausen flicks like Jason and the Argonauts. Unashamedly low-rent in many ways, yet envelope-pushing at the same time.

    And more exciting/entertaining than shows/movies with 10 times the budget.

    And it didn't hurt that they were worked on by a little-known Kiwi effects shop called WETA...
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