Has CGI Gone Too Far?
November 12, 2013
(The shortened opening)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. Are you sick to death yet about CGI?
(Footage from various blockbuster movies are shown, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Spider-Man 2, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. "Piano Concerto No. 21" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart serves as the background music)
NC (vo): Nobody would blame you. It's practically impossible to see a movie that doesn't have some form of CGI, aka computer-generated imagery, in it. And it's not just movies.
(Various images of what NC describes are shown)
NC (vo): It's in our commercials, our phones, it's even in our breakfast cereal.
(Back to blockbuster movies)
NC (vo): And the consensus from people seems to be the same. "We're sick of it! It's everywhere! We want a little bit more variety!"
NC: So, how come it keeps popping up all over the place? And should we just flat-out put a stop to it?
(Footage from Son of the Mask is briefly shown. This is shortly followed by a large majority of clips from Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
NC (vo): Well, the first thing to analyze is why people are getting annoyed by the use of it to begin with, because, before, people couldn't get enough of it. When they saw it bring groundbreaking effects to life in movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, people were hypnotized. They never saw anything like it. And even to this day, these effects still hold up pretty well. Part of that is because it was the filmmakers' first time using it, and so, they felt they had a lot more to prove and mix the effects with a lot of other elements.
(Footage of the T-1000 is shown)
NC (vo): For example, there's motion capture after motion capture after motion capture of Robert Patrick as the T-1000, which would most likely be filmed in just one shot today just to get an idea of the lighting and movement. On top of that, not every effect was CGI. Anytime the T-1000 was injured, it was always a practical effect on the set. Yeah. That's an animatronic right there. Pretty damn impressive, huh?
(Footage of the T-Rex is shown)
NC (vo): The same thing with Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs half the time were CGI, but the other half were life-sized robots that were right there in front of the actors. Like many effects in the past, this worked effectively because they were constantly using different methods to fool the eye. The more variation you use, the more difficult it will be for the eye to get used to the effect and thus spotted.
NC: But then, somewhere down the line, we got too fucking greedy.
(More footage from The Phantom Menace and Spider-Man 2 is shown, along with clips from The Last Airbender)
NC (vo): And I guess, really, it's no big surprise. You could suddenly see things and do things you couldn't have done before. You could get shots or perform stunts that'd still look cool, but didn't have to endanger anybody, and was usually at half the cost. But because it was used so often, we naturally trained our eyes to spot it easier.
(More footage from Jurassic Park is shown)
NC (vo): When we first saw Jurassic Park, we didn't know what was computer and what was a robot. But now, because we've been so exposed to it, it's a little easier to spot. And because computers work in a way where you can just take an existing program and add on to it, less time is needed to create a creature from the ground up. (Images of what NC mentions next are briefly shown) You can't just take something like a Ninja Turtle and build a Jabba the Hutt out of it. However, with computers, the lighting and movement of a dinosaur can now be reproduced in a totally different monster in a totally different movie, the idea being if it worked in one film, logically, it should work in the next.
(A scene from Men in Black is shown)
NC (vo): But like I said before, people started to catch on to these patterns, and they were becoming more and more noticeable.
(Scenes from Who Framed Roger Rabbit are shown, along with behind the scenes footage of the same film)
NC (vo): When you look back on films like Roger Rabbit, you ask yourself, "How did they make those cartoons that were obviously drawn still somehow seem three-dimensional?" Well, that's because they did a test shot for every take they did to get an idea of where the lighting was going to be, so they could see how the camera captured it and reproduce it as best as they could.
(More footage from The Phantom Menace is shown, mostly focusing on Jar Jar Binks)
NC (vo): But here, we have programs that can do the math for us, and figure out where the lighting would be. But the reason this doesn't always fool people is because, in reality, light is not always going to fall where the mathematical equations says it will. Whether it be the environment, the camera angle, whatever, there's always gonna be something a little different about real life that a computer is not going to catch.
(Footage of Yoda, both the puppet version and the CGI version, is shown)
NC (vo): Why do I know that this Yoda was really there and this Yoda wasn't? Because the one that was there had the light hit it in its own unique way. Because this Yoda is an illusion in that he's an animated puppet, but this Yoda is not only an animated puppet, but an animated puppet that's not really there. So now you have to deal with two filters of reality, two illusions going on at the same time. And when there's two illusions going on as opposed to one, that makes it a lot easier for people to spot what's false.
NC: Now there are times where CG can still look very realistic. I mean, by God.
(Footage of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings is shown, as well as some behind the scenes footage)
NC (vo): Gollum from The Two Towers still looks fucking unbelievable. Once in a while, he looked a little phony, but for the most part, it looked and felt like he was, honest to God, really there. And that's because he was really there. Andy Serkis, who provided the voice, also got dressed up in costume and shot the scenes with the other actors. So not only did the animators have onset movement and onset performances, but they also had an onset model that they could capture the life from that was really there in the scene. And on top of that, the guy they got to do the textures for the skin wasn't a computer guy. He was a makeup guy. In fact, he was originally designing a puppet/costume for Gollum, but when they decided to do the CG rout, they taught him the program because they figured he knew what textures should look like. And he did, and it looks so believable. So this wasn't just all-computer programmers that were putting this together. It was a variety of artists who all knew how to do different illusions in order to bring the major one to life.
NC: But...that's pretty ballsy saying computer animators do nothing but type in a program. I know there's a lot more than that.
(More footage from Spider-Man 2 is shown)
NC (vo): You have to fool people into thinking something is in front of you from literally nothing. But like I said before, because it's an illusion of an illusion, convincing an audience of something that's fictional exists while also convincing them it's in a scene when it's not, it's harder to fool people.
NC: However, that's when the accepting of the illusion comes in.
(Footage from a couple of Disney animated films is shown)
NC (vo): We don't watch movies like Lion King or Beauty and the Beast with the idea that what we're seeing is in front of us are really there, we see it because it has a story and characters that we enjoy, and we give into the illusion more because we know there are benefits to it, like how expressive it can be, how artistically pleasing it can be, and so on and so forth.
NC (vo): I think this is why CG-animated movies have caught on so much, because now, it's reversed. Rather than CGI being an illusion of an illusion, in a world of animation, it's the closest thing to looking realistic than we have. You always come across those people who say they can't watch cartoons because they know it's not real, they know it's a bunch of drawings and nothing else. But CGI has helped audiences like that, because even though they're clearly animated, they look more three-dimensional and realistic. So now, the hand-drawn style is the illusion of the illusion. And as much as I adore 2D animation, there's no doubt that 3D animation looks more like real-life, and thus, is probably gonna be more acceptable to wider audiences, and has been for the past several years.
[Footage from a Super Mario video game is shown briefly, before going back to clips from How to Train Your Dragon]
NC (vo): Granted, when CG animation first started, it was piss poor, with the faces seeming like lifeless puppets because...well, let's face it, that's what they were. But as it evolved, CG animation has managed to capture almost as much, if not just as much, emotion as the classic hand-drawn animated films.
[Footage from Sin City is shown]
NC (vo): This accepting of the illusion has also led to some great imagery in live-action films. Sin City, as well as a lot of Robert Rodriguez movies, clearly have most of their world in very fake-looking CGI backgrounds. But they're so stylized and so artistically pleasing that we don't care. We just love looking at them.
[Footage from 300 is shown]
NC (vo): This is usually a risk, seeing how most audiences want to believe as much as possible that what you're seeing is real, but still, films like 300 found an audience despite our awareness that it's obviously not there.
[Footage from Sleepy Hallow, Evil Dead, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are shown, before again showing footage from 300 and Sin City]
NC (vo): And speaking of not there, that's another great effect CGI can pull off: getting rid of the strings. That is to say, we've all seen puppets, stop-motion animation, or other greenscreen effects before, and you're almost always aware that that's what you're watching with that pesky line, because the lighting in two different locations never quite matched up. But now, CGI can blend that line out almost flawlessly, allowing two different elements from two different rooms to seem like they're in the same one.
[A fight sequence in Sin City is shown with the caption, "Those two actors were never in the same room". Footage from Forrest Gump and Sleepy Hollow are shown next]
NC (vo): As laughably noticeable some of the effects in Forrest Gump are today, we're still pretty blown away by the absence of Gary Sinse's legs. There's also no trouble believing that the Headless Horseman really is headless. So, maybe CGI is better convincing us something is not there rather than something is, and there definitely is a lot of benefits to it after all.
NC: So, should we be sick of CGI? In some respects, but I don't think that means stop it altogether.
[Footage from The Phantom Menace, 300, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Sin City, Shrek, and Spider-Man 2 are shown]
NC (vo): CGI is great for creating worlds and illusions, but it shouldn't probably be used for every part of that world or every element of those illusions. Every story's going to tell itself differently, and if the idea is to be like a magic trick where you know it's an illusion but you appreciate the showmanship anyway, CGI is gonna be great. But if the idea is to tell a story where the illusion is supposed to completely fool you, then it's probably wiser to mix it up with models, puppets and other practical effects. As an art form, it's come a long way, and opened up all sorts of avenues and visual wonders. But people forget how many avenues can be opened up by combining old tricks with new tricks, and can often create much more powerful illusions. So, CGI shouldn't go away or be criticized for all that it's done, but it should be acknowledged as only one method that can be used in creating an effect, not just for the sake of variety and creativity, but because the common person is just catching on to it.
[An image of a magician holding a hat with a rabbit inside is shown]
NC (vo): Because the more a magician repeats his trick over and over and over again, the more likely an audience is gonna be to catch on to it and beg for something more.
NC: Especially if that magician is CG. I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to.
[He gets up and leaves. The credits roll]