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C'mon Hollywood: Why CGI is not the problem with bad CGI in movies

04.18.2017

I couldn’t have been the only one who watched JURASSIC WORLD last year, and noticed that the CGI somehow looked worse than JURASSIC PARK almost 25 years prior, right? I’m not going crazy? PLEASE TELL ME I’M NOT GOING CRAZY!!! And that’s not the only movie. I mean, we have POWER RANGERS, the new TRANSFORMERS, that JUSTICE LEAGUE trailer – all with shitty CGI plastered all over them. I mean, has CGI really gotten that bad over the years? What the fuck is going on?

Well, like it says in the title, CGI (or computer-generated imagery) is not the problem. CGI is just a tool, and it’s a powerful one that a filmmaker can utilize to great effect. To blame CG itself for this mess is like blaming a hammer for a shitty looking house.

Essentially, given enough time and money CGI can look amazing and photo-real, and do pretty much whatever you want it to. And it’s not just dinosaurs, giant robots, or giant robot dinosaurs, either; there are also many things you wouldn’t think of that CGI does regularly, like the sheep in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, the baby in CHILDREN OF MEN, or the virtual sets of WOLF OF WALL STREET. So, if that’s the case, why are there still so many scenes that look like the cut-scenes from a PS1 game?

Well, for one, studios push VFX houses into strict release dates and deadlines, while at the same time putting more strain on post-production than ever before.  CG shots were around 50 when JURASSIC PARK was made in the early ‘90s, then ballooned up to almost 2,000 with JURASSIC WORLD last year. As such, the VFX companies simply aren't able to keep up. This is why you can have CG shots that look fucking amazing, next to shots that look like a Dire Straits video. Not only that, but top-name VFX houses like ILM and WETA Digital are constantly swamped with big movies – and due to an abundance of FX shots and rushed deadlines – they sometimes have to send some shots to a shoddy VFX outfit in bumfuck North Carolina or China or some shit. And these outfits aren’t chosen for their ability to do good work, but rather just the ability to do the work on time and for cheap.  

Also, when people say that filmmakers are being lazy having “computers do all the work for them”, that is not accurate at all. Sure, there may be some truth about the filmmakers themselves, but there are still hard-working VFX artists that are being shut out of the conversation. I mean, it’s not hard to find countless horror stories coming from VFX houses, such as the production of SAUSAGE PARTY where artists were overworked, underpaid, and straight up abused and threatened. Or what about the most egregious example with LIFE OF PI, where the VFX company Rhythm 'N Hues won a fucking Oscar for their effects work, but still went out of business since they had to lower their prices to be viable, and by doing so couldn’t pay upkeep and went bankrupt. That’s because studios seem to think that effects just come out of the computer, fully-formed. However, in actuality, it takes great skill, artistry, and craft to do CGI - just like making an animatronic puppet or an expressive stop-motion maquette is. So when studios see these craftsmen as interchangeable and believing the computer is doing all the heavy-lifting, it becomes easier to justify putting more strain on the post-production, cutting wages, shrinking deadlines, etc. I mean, all they gotta do is punch in 1s and 0s, right?

So one of the first things that needs to happen to fix the abundance of subpar CG in movies - if studios are indeed going to keep pushing CG-heavy event extravaganza films down our throats - is they need to realize that dumping thousands-upon-thousands of VFX shots with strict deadlines is going to lead to some effects shots being rushed and unfinished. Or, worse, shipped off somewhere else.

So, ironically it costs the studios more in the long-run, because when the main VFX houses (like the aforementioned ILM and WETA) inevitably get overwhelmed by their workload, the studios have to pay extra for smaller VFX companies to pick up the slack. And then when the studios browbeat and low-ball the smaller VFX houses into bankrupcy, they create an even bigger monopoly in the VFX industry than there already is (never good for business). It’s an unsustainable system, to say the least.

But, that’s not the only problem. Thing is, in reality, there are still budgets and time constraints and release dates to consider. Sometimes it’s just not possible to spend the money to prolong the production, especially since – even though VFX companies are being outsourced and underpaid – it’s still an expensive-as-fuck process.  So another way to help lessen the load of VFX artists is for filmmakers do more effects practical and in-camera – using CGI mainly to erase wires, add particle effects and debris, or do things that only CG can do (like make Michael Douglas look young).

Now, while that won’t necessarily cut down production costs (and could even sometimes add to them), it will at least guarantee less shoddy CG work. Basically, it allows the VFX team to work solely on things that only CGI can do (or would be way too cost prohibitive to do practically), and lets them to focus their efforts. Not only that, but it also helps that doing effects in-camera means things like lighting, weight, and movement of an object is already accounted for, without the need to animate and code it.

Look: CGI is great. I mean, it opened entire worlds to us! Suddenly dinosaurs actually roamed the Earth, the real JFK was resurrected, and we got to see the battles waged for Middle Earth first-hand. Even if the effects look dated now, CG allowed filmmakers to do things that couldn't have even been accomplised at all previously. Hell, Stanley Kubrick didn’t want to start making A.I. until he saw the potential of CGI after watching JURASSIC PARK (even if he didn’t live to actually produce it himself).

So CGI is a powerful – but unwieldy – tool, and an extremely potent one when used correctly. But if a studio doesn’t have the money to properly pay for the workers and spend the time to get it perfect, or are unwilling or unable to do things practically, maybe they should focus more on creating dynamic characters and an interesting story that uses CGI wisely, rather than trying to distract us with all these shitty pixilated CGI-fests that are honestly starting to blend together.

Just a thought.

Extra Tidbit: The first effect ever rendered in a computer was Yul Brenner's digital POV in FUTURE WORLD.
Source: JoBlo.com

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11:32PM on 04/22/2017

futurworld

Michael Crichton directed Westworld, the sequel (futurworld) was directed by Richard Heffron
Michael Crichton directed Westworld, the sequel (futurworld) was directed by Richard Heffron
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4:40PM on 04/25/2017
Thanks! I'll fix that.
Thanks! I'll fix that.
4:40PM on 04/18/2017

Eye of the Beholder

When Blade II came out I shrunk in my seat at how bad the CGI had become. I did the same with Matrix 2 and 3. I remember remarking to friends "what is up with Hollywood lately"? Growing up, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 (I now have to spell it out, thanks T2: Trainspotting) and Independence Day was seamless effects. Most of it was flawless and the few flaws that were left were so quick and covered with other movie magic elements nobody cared (this is probably why I didn't notice the raptors skin
When Blade II came out I shrunk in my seat at how bad the CGI had become. I did the same with Matrix 2 and 3. I remember remarking to friends "what is up with Hollywood lately"? Growing up, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 (I now have to spell it out, thanks T2: Trainspotting) and Independence Day was seamless effects. Most of it was flawless and the few flaws that were left were so quick and covered with other movie magic elements nobody cared (this is probably why I didn't notice the raptors skin not being perfect the first 100 times I watched JP). Then, all of sudden... CGI started to suck in most films and that lasted until (in my opinion) just lately (about 2013). It wasn't that the technology was any worse, but the craftsmanship behind the CGI had changed prerogatives: now it wasn't about hiding the fact that the film was "faking it" with CGI, it was about making it look like the quality one would expect from a top of the line video game (as the two industries so intertwined their audiences and franchises). At the time I assumed this was a mistake... but it has become clear over the years that studios care less and less about making the CGI look "real" and more about the spectacle of making it look "cool". That is why a film that focuses more on a deep story, one that will probably appeal more to a traditional (sadly, older) audience spends more time on fewer effects and doesn't call attention to itself (the baby in Children of Men is a great example of that, talk about the audience never even realizing the work that went into that). Films that people go to for the spectacle, only have to worry about it looking cool, few fans really care if the CGI looks cartoonish or is hidden. Even though House of the Dead is one of the worst movies of all time, I appreciated the rawness of its decision to literally cut in shots from the video game... because to me that's how most special effects were looking at that time anyway. Audiences go to films for very different reasons. If Hitchcock were alive today, he would probably say something like "if the audience is commenting on the skin tone of the CGI... you've probably already lost them with a lack of story, camera shots, style anyway... so who cares"? Right now, finally, for the first time since the CGI revolution filmmakers are starting to come up in the ranks who appreciated classic cinema techniques of hiding the strings, because they appreciate the original innovators of CGI like Speilberg. When Spielberg made JP, he originally was going to use claymation... because at the time CGI only worked on shots that were static and locked down. It wasn't until they invented a method of tracking the camera motion and he was told that he could move the shots that he made the change. Yet, so many films since, the second that a CGI part starts the camera suddenly starts turning into some crazy obvious CGI angle, thoughtlessly spinning around or showing us an entire square block of chaos when all we really need to see is a close up of the main characters face for full emotional impact. Ironically, the opposite problem is true in "quieter films" which seem to not want to break away from the either the close up or the super close up... for fear that every person who sees the film will be squinting to watch it on a smartphone. Filmmakers needs to stop worrying about what they think the audience wants and worry more about what THEY want the audience to see and appreciate. Hitchcock never worried when he went in for a super close up and denied you a view of the opposite person's face whether or not the audience would approve (they did, but that's beside the point). CGI companies are overworked. Greenscreen is overused. The thought of doing anything practically or (gasp) coming up with a new way of doing something is scary to many filmmakers on a tight deadline. Passing the workload to the post production has been an ongoing trend for decades for so many things. "Fix it in post" has become "create it in post". A film is lucky to have the same crew members giving their input once the camera stops filming. Some shots must be (and should be) CGI... but it should be the last option a filmmaker uses... not the first, second , third or fiftieth. Have some pride in the product, filmmakers. Do what you can do live and enhance it in post. That's what was intended when CGI was created.
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5:31PM on 04/18/2017
You NEVER have to spell out T2
You NEVER have to spell out T2
1:45PM on 04/18/2017
The first dinosaur reveal in Jurassic Park and the raptors entering the kitchen is starting to look subpar. But mixing an animatronic T-Rex with close ups and a fully CGI one...At night in the rain... Nothing will ever beat that scene. That's also cause they knew not to rely on the CGI and also try to hide it... And they gave us plenty of shots of the real T-Rex you could touch... The skin... The mass... You knew that thing was real even when it was CGI later.
The first dinosaur reveal in Jurassic Park and the raptors entering the kitchen is starting to look subpar. But mixing an animatronic T-Rex with close ups and a fully CGI one...At night in the rain... Nothing will ever beat that scene. That's also cause they knew not to rely on the CGI and also try to hide it... And they gave us plenty of shots of the real T-Rex you could touch... The skin... The mass... You knew that thing was real even when it was CGI later.
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12:00PM on 04/18/2017
In my opinion "bad cgi" is Dr. Strange jumping between moving buildings, he looks like a video game character. Also Black Panther jumping and running in Civil War. And Spiderman in many of his movies. I never saw a dinousaur running, but I know how people jump and run lol and that scenes are pretty bad. (oh, sorry I forgot how u adore Marvel here lol). And the tiger from Life of Pi and the animals in Jungle Book looks amazing in some scenes and look fake in other scenes. And the apes from POTA
In my opinion "bad cgi" is Dr. Strange jumping between moving buildings, he looks like a video game character. Also Black Panther jumping and running in Civil War. And Spiderman in many of his movies. I never saw a dinousaur running, but I know how people jump and run lol and that scenes are pretty bad. (oh, sorry I forgot how u adore Marvel here lol). And the tiger from Life of Pi and the animals in Jungle Book looks amazing in some scenes and look fake in other scenes. And the apes from POTA (aside from Caesar) looks bad when they are running, jumping or fighting. But POTP movies are great anyway. So, sometimes cgi looks bad, but most of the time works for me.
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11:54AM on 04/18/2017

No.

Anyone who says the CGI in JW is worse than JP is simply talking out their ass. It's simply not true. Take off the thick rose tinted goggles and you may actually refrain from spouting nonsense from your ass. The JP CGI is indeed dated in many ways. It still holds up, but IT IS dated. The first money shot (its-it's a dinosaur!) looks like shit now and there are many instances where skin and texture are very undetailed and dated.
Anyone who says the CGI in JW is worse than JP is simply talking out their ass. It's simply not true. Take off the thick rose tinted goggles and you may actually refrain from spouting nonsense from your ass. The JP CGI is indeed dated in many ways. It still holds up, but IT IS dated. The first money shot (its-it's a dinosaur!) looks like shit now and there are many instances where skin and texture are very undetailed and dated.
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12:50PM on 04/18/2017
Here's me talking out of my ass: the CGI in JP is still the best I've ever seen. Not ALL of it - you're right, the first reveal of the brachiosaurus is green-screeny and not really convincing anymore. Other scenes - like the T-Rex escape - are stunning and put anything and everything in JW to shame.
Here's me talking out of my ass: the CGI in JP is still the best I've ever seen. Not ALL of it - you're right, the first reveal of the brachiosaurus is green-screeny and not really convincing anymore. Other scenes - like the T-Rex escape - are stunning and put anything and everything in JW to shame.
11:39AM on 04/18/2017
I had no idea the company that did Life of Pi went bankrupt. When I think of a movie that uses CGI right, that one is high on my list. Remember when Avatar was coming out and James Cameron talked about how audiences won't be able to tell the difference between what's real and what's not. Well, there's some truth to that, but when you have as many VFX as that film had, the tendency is to assume what you're looking at is fake. Now the movie Arrival, a lot of those army jeeps coming over the hills
I had no idea the company that did Life of Pi went bankrupt. When I think of a movie that uses CGI right, that one is high on my list. Remember when Avatar was coming out and James Cameron talked about how audiences won't be able to tell the difference between what's real and what's not. Well, there's some truth to that, but when you have as many VFX as that film had, the tendency is to assume what you're looking at is fake. Now the movie Arrival, a lot of those army jeeps coming over the hills weren't real, but because the hill was real, and the main actors were real, and THEIR vehicle (and maybe two others) was real, I thought it was all real. And that's when you get real movie magic.
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11:23AM on 04/18/2017
The reason CGI looks bad is because we only see bad CGI. The best CGI shots are ones you never notice were there in place of a practical shots. when done well and paired with solid story telling and character and ubdeestanding its strength and weakness CGI is really good in certain shots like things cars,furniture, building,solid objects and used all the time but human cgi is still very difficult because we are so use to what other beings look like so any anomal sticks out to us.
The reason CGI looks bad is because we only see bad CGI. The best CGI shots are ones you never notice were there in place of a practical shots. when done well and paired with solid story telling and character and ubdeestanding its strength and weakness CGI is really good in certain shots like things cars,furniture, building,solid objects and used all the time but human cgi is still very difficult because we are so use to what other beings look like so any anomal sticks out to us.
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11:07AM on 04/18/2017
CGI is looking better than ever, that's not the problem. The problem is there is way to much of it. Jurassic Park had very little CG, the dinosaurs were all animatronics or actors in suits except when you saw them running (T-Rex chase, Gallimimus, Brachiosaurus opening). There was also barely any CG involved in the rest of the scenes, everything was real. Movies like Jurassic World think they'll save time and money by using CG but apart from the fact that CG is more expensive than ever, it also
CGI is looking better than ever, that's not the problem. The problem is there is way to much of it. Jurassic Park had very little CG, the dinosaurs were all animatronics or actors in suits except when you saw them running (T-Rex chase, Gallimimus, Brachiosaurus opening). There was also barely any CG involved in the rest of the scenes, everything was real. Movies like Jurassic World think they'll save time and money by using CG but apart from the fact that CG is more expensive than ever, it also makes everything look disconnected from reality. Abrams saying there is little CG in Force Awakens is bullshit, this film has more CG than all the prequels combined. Every single frame is colour corrected, has layers and layers of filters, lens flares, matte painting compositing, etc... there are even shots and whole scenes that are 100% CG. I'm all for CG but it should be used the same way stop motion was used 25 years ago, as one of the tools in your toolbox.
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