The Case For (And Against) CGI | A Breaking Geek Discusion

Welcome to Breaking Geek, a column where uber-geek Nick Doll offers commentary and reactions to the most interesting news of the week (or whatever else he wants), using his expansive knowledge of all things geek! This issue is our latest “Breaking Geek Discussion” with input from LRM’s Editor-in-Chief, and my friend, Joseph Jammer Medina, as well as LRM contributors Cam and Kyle. 

CGI. Computer Generated Images. You can’t make a movie without it today. Whether it is used as the entire spine of Avengers: Infinity War — complete with an entirely “animated” CG villain — the first opportunity to show convincing dinosaurs in 1993’s Jurassic Park, or used to bring realism to films built on physical stunts like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, Mad Max: Fury Road, or the last two Mission: Impossible films, CG is impossible to avoid in the modern Blockbuster.

The question is, how much CG is a the “correct amount” to include? Is it best suited assisting in modern day stunts, or does it replace them completely? The typical LRM team discusses…

Doll: Okay, I am obsessed with practical stunts in modern film — hence my love for Mission: Impossible – Fallout — because today, it is a rarity. I swear you can tell the difference between Tom Cruise in front of a Green Screen or Tom Cruise actually hanging onto a helicopter flying over New Zealand (meant to be Kashmir). Even though Paris is added below Ethan Hunt (Cruise), you can feel the reality of the HALO jump, not just air blown at an actor as he “falls” in front of a Green Screen.

No better comparison can be made than watching Skyfall, the best 007 film, and Fallout back-to-back. Marvel as 007 holds onto a CG elevator that goes taller than Fallout’s elevator that Tom Cruise actually clung to. Be amazed as a villain pushed his face against a CG tunnel as the two fight on top of a CG train. It’s just not the same. Even subconsciously, my brain can tell what is real and what isn’t. 

It ties back to the ‘80s, the best era of cinema. Stunts were the only option, so they did them. Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Raiders of the Lost Ark can always hold that over modern films, even if they were limited in scope due to technology. Today, CG is best used to fully complete stunt driven scenes, creating the impossible, like a lightning strike, when it cannot be predicted or filmed. Removing the wires required by the studio on a dangerous leap between buildings. Boys, what are your thoughts?

Cam: I agree in principle that practical stunts tend to look more convincing. I agree that practical make-up effects often look better for close up shots and dramatic scenes. However, without CG there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe; without CG movies would be as limited as they were in the ’80s.

Sure, by having one’s imagination limited by the effects has meant directors had to think of other unique ways to tell stories. I can’t imagine what Jaws would be like if it was made now. Spielberg’s ideas were often limited by what they could pull off, but those obstacles helped craft a better movie than the one Spielberg had planned from the outset.

But there is simply no way a film like Avengers: Infinity War could be done without CG, and without it we wouldn’t have some of the great movies we have now.

I think the perfect example of how to do this properly is the new Star Wars films. I have my issues with the Disney produced Star Wars content, that’s well publicized. However they are in my opinion the best looking films we have had in years in terms of visual effects. This is due to the directors always striving to go practical where they can and only using CG where their imagination goes beyond what’s possible with practical effects and stunts. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be. As opposed to the prequels which felt like one big video game.

Kyle: I am with Cam on the Star Wars stuff. The Force Awakens looked AMAZING and The Last Jedi did mostly… Canto Bight looked as bad as Coruscant did in the Prequels. I would love to see more practical effects and stunts in movies, but I wonder if insurance costs are rising on the stars that make millions per film. The bigger the star, the higher the cost I believe, and this may drive down the desire to put them in danger.

I also know that there’s no way to practically create some of the worlds and scenes that exist in comic book movies. However, I do wish they would use more practical costumes and makeup. It’s annoying to think that the a large portion of the time Tom Holland is on set he isn’t in a practical Spider-Man costume. I also loved how great Red Skull looked in the first Captain America movie and wonder why they use so much digital enhancement for The Vision.

The important thing is to make sure the digital and the practical blend well. Wakanda looks amazing through most of Black Panther, but that waterfall scene is so obviously fake that it takes me out of the moment, as does the fight in the mines. I think filmmakers should consider rewriting scenes to allow for better blending. Have any of you been completely ripped from a movie due to the obvious CGI in a scene?

Cam: I’d have to go back to the Star Wars prequels again, it’s just not real-looking and even the stunts don’t feel like stunts. But those movies are not alone.

Doll: When done correctly, sometimes you can’t tell what is CG and what is not. The perfect example of it blending well, as Kyle said.

Watching the feature long documentary about the making of The Last Jedi, I was surprised the number of sequences that were real with CG components. Some of them — like Luke jumping a crevice to fish or the giant green milk lactating creatures being animation instead of animated — felt unnecessary. With Star Wars or the MCU, I expect CG to be everywhere to a point where I’m not focused on whether it is a stunt or not, which is perhaps unfair to Star Wars. I will say the make-up and masked creatures in Solo: A Star Wars Story were among the best practical designs I have seen!

But yes, even a movie like Infinity War has a scene or two that rips me from the movie. I’m especially thinking of Banner’s head floating when he’s in the Hulkbuster suit, or a similar shot of RDJ in the Iron Man armor in Civil War.

Meanwhile, while I recognize a hand painted backdrop when I see it, like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or when faces are melting with old effects, again like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s part of what makes an ‘80s movie charming. It would look ridiculous today.

Which is why CG is great at augmenting films like The Dark Knight, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Then again, you have Two-Face in The Dark Knight, which should have been done with practical, Walking Dead style make-up.

Tom Cruise breaking his ankle never rips me out of the movie. I wince every time because it’s REAL!

Jammer: Dammit, you and your Tom Cruise fetish. Though how much about that Fallout stuff has more to do with the behind-the-scenes story and less to do than the actual end product? Would you actually wince if you didn’t know he broke his ankle?

Okay, I get where you’re coming from, but the reality is the best of the best stuff you’re referring to are singled out as amazing because they are the exception, not the rule. CG has allowed fantastic effects to be done cheaply and effectively. I’ll agree that some of the magic has been taken out of the filmmaking process, and I’ll even agree that CG is overused. Superhero movies being the biggest culprit. They can use less CG, but it would likely hamper their directors, who often don’t have the most experience in visuals and action. Using CG, and people who know how to plan for VFX shots allow the filmmakers to focus more on working with actors and telling the story they want to tell. Perhaps it’s a crutch, but we can’t pretend practical effects are always better.

One in particular that’s always bugged me is the big rig from The Dark Knight getting flipped. Everyone made such a big deal when it flipped, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most distracting flip ever. Right at the bottom of the truck, you can see the steam from the damn hydrolic that flipped it over! Why not use VFX to remove the steam? Every time I see it, I’m distracted that it’s NOT CG.

At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act, but CG has allowed us so many storytelling possibilities. Not only does it make a more visually dynamic MCU and Star Wars universe, but it allows filmmakers with talent — but not so much experience in action — actually tell some of these big stories that have restricted to the Michael Bays for decades. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I’ll leave for you to decide, but I think it’s led to a greater variation of the big budget stories being told.

Where do you fit into the age-old CGI argument?  Do you want more films that rely on stunts with CG augmentation, or do you like your animated purple villains? Let’s discuss!

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