CGI Isn’t the Problem: In Hollywood, Reality’s Not Guaranteed
Joshua Sikora | On Jun 16, 2015
As another summer of blockbusters rolls around, it seems like the audience may finally be losing its appetite for computer-generated images (CGI) — at least if articles like this or this are to be believed. Across social media, friends of mine have been sharing these articles as proof that Hollywood just needs to ditch CGI in order to return to a more golden era of practical filmmaking. And yet the crowds flock to Jurassic Park 4 and The Avengers 2 (aka the 11th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) in record-breaking numbers, even as smaller, more unique genre films languish in obscurity at the multiplex.
The charges against CGI range from the resulting images simply appearing too fake, to the more extreme argument that CGI is a dangerous drug that is destroying the magic of Hollywood. I think there’s a kernel of truth to these criticisms, but they ultimately miss the point and put the blame in the wrong place. Sure, there are plenty of examples of bad CGI — and we all know it when we see it — but no one seems to complain about digital effects when they’re used well (and tastefully) in films like Gravity or Ex Machina, not to mention when the entire film is created digitally (like any Pixar film).
The easy target then is the filmmakers. Good filmmakers (like Alfonso Cuarón or Christopher Nolan) know how to use visual effects well and the rest of Hollywood must be lazy and uninspired, giving in to the addictive power of this easy tool. Again, there may be some truth to this, but this assumes that filmmakers even have an option besides CGI. In most cases, they don’t.
You see, mediocre visual effects (which were found in films long before the invention of CGI) usually have a lot more to do with money than creativity. Real artistry takes time, but from a business standpoint, why should a studio invest that extra time when they know that the audience is going to show up as long as the film has “Marvel” above the title? Long before Colin Trevorrow was ever hired to direct Jurassic World, bean counters at Universal knew exactly how much money they were willing to risk on the film based on how many people they could estimate would buy tickets for a Jurassic sequel. Trevorrow got to make whatever movie he wanted to, as long as it fit within those budget constraints — and didn’t risk those audience numbers.
Studios figure that franchise films can get away with cheaper visual effects because fans will still show up based on the brand alone. Notice that the most impressive visual effects appear in stand-alone films like Pacific Rim and Gravity, which don’t have the built-in advantage of name recognition. Still, these original films prove to be much bigger risks for the studio, often confirmed by their disappointing box office numbers (see John Carter, Edge of Tomorrow, and Interstellar).
Looking at the process behind these films, it’s easy to see that the problem isn’t with CGI itself, or even primarily with the filmmakers employing this versatile tool. The problem is that nearly every decision in the entire filmmaking process is influenced by the singular goal of convincing you to buy a ticket. And it turns out that we are more likely to buy a ticket for a familiar sequel, spin-off, or remake than something original, no matter how much better that original film might be.
You want to see a finely-tuned business model? Look at Marvel, which elbows out unique voices like Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon, knowing that for their assembly line to succeed, the filmmakers have to be in service to the franchise rather than the other way around. Whedon’s not-so-veiled criticisms of studio interference on the latest Avengers film show just how hard it is for even the most successful of filmmakers to fight this machine — let alone fresh young artists like Trevorrow.
Or look at Netflix, where algorithms and wide-reaching viewing data appear to be driving certain creative decisions. “We know what people watch on Netflix and we’re able with a high degree of confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based on people’s viewing habits,” Netflix’s Jonathan Friedland told Wired magazine. “We want to continue to have something for everybody. But as time goes on, we get better at selecting what that something for everybody is that gets high engagement.”
And this is why the complaints against CGI are truly a red herring — because CGI isn’t the only place where the real is replaced by artifice. Look at the stories that are told in these summer blockbusters. Most are just as formulaic and manufactured as the effects are. The character arcs, the dramatic crises, everything is as hollow and calculated as those fake-looking digital simulations. There are real writers, struggling to get their stories told, but the machine keeps reshaping those stories, ironing off all the interesting bits — all the rough edges that might rub people the wrong way — so that all that is left is the mere semblance of reality. CGI may be the most visible sign of artificiality, but the problem runs much deeper and pervades the entire process.
Hollywood has been perfecting this formula for success for nearly a century, weathering changes in technology and distribution platforms and consumption habits, and all of that has led to our modern entertainment equivalent of fast food: movies calculated to appeal to the lowest common denominator, manufactured for greatest efficiency and profit-maximization, and marketed as loudly as necessary to cut through the flashy competition. Turns out, we like superheroes, mass destruction, and happy endings just about as much as we like our burger combos with fries and a drink.
Jurassic World is a perfect example of this. You can feel how every scene has been designed to tap into your nostalgia and excitement for past films. It doesn’t hold the same power as the original Jurassic Park, because to do so would require much more difficult — and therefore riskier — work. This is the safe option, less creative and groundbreaking, yet still enjoyable enough to bring in the crowds (and with its record-setting opening, Universal can confidently plan more sequels — whether or not there is more story to be told).
Compare this to Colin Trevorrow’s debut film, the small indie drama, Safety Not Guaranteed. Made for less than a million dollars, Trevorrow and his co-writer Derek Connolly crafted a fun and romantic film about a man who believes he can travel through time and the young reporter who falls in love with him. I think it’s a beautiful little film, although your mileage may vary. That’s part of the film’s charm — it’s personal and rough around the edges. Put another way, it’s “real” — it manages to be more organic and interesting than Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, not because he somehow became a worse filmmaker, but simply because he was able to craft a more honest work of art when $150 million of the studio’s money wasn’t on the line.
That’s the challenge that even great filmmakers are facing as they tackle these visual effects extravaganzas. There are the rare few who seem totally at ease in that world (the James Camerons and Ridley Scotts), but most of these young directors find themselves out of their element and at the mercy of executives that already have the film’s priorities laid out. Marc Webb, the director of the indie film (500) Days of Summer, managed to inject wonderful flashes of humanity in his Amazing Spider-Man reboot, but most of the film’s action scenes felt like paint-by-number versions of set pieces ripped from other movies.
At the end of the day, it would probably be better if filmmakers like Trevorrow and Webb could continue making smaller, more character-driven films, but there’s no longer a market for these kinds of stories. So if these talented artists want to build their careers, they have to take on these massive genre films. That’s where the audience is — that’s what we keep asking for, every time we buy a ticket for the latest superhero film rather than something more unique.
I’m as much at fault as anyone. I caught Jurassic World this weekend, contributing to those record-shattering opening numbers. I chose that over more critically-acclaimed (and likely more interesting) films like Love & Mercy or When Marnie Was There. My logic was that I needed to catch World first since that’s what everyone would be talking about, but implicitly I confirmed to the Hollywood studios that they’re smart to invest in CGI-heavy franchises over smaller, more creative alternatives.
If we want our films to be more real — not just in their visual effects, but through and through — then we have to vote with the one language Hollywood understands. We have to support the dramas, the indie films, the quirky comedies and not be drawn in to every sequel just because it’s the brand we love. It doesn’t mean we have to give up our favorite blockbusters, but it might mean waiting until that critical opening weekend has passed, choosing to catch a smaller film first.
I doubt this will make the CGI any better — but I guarantee it will lead you to more interesting and more genuine cinematic experiences. And it might just help some young filmmakers along the way.