Why CG Sucks (Because Sometimes It Does)

Freddie Wong recently uploaded a video on why computer-generated imagery (or CG) sucks.  “Except it doesn’t,” he qualifies.  I’m a big fan of Wong’s work, most of which is available on YouTube.  He’s a talented artist and entertainer, and he’s done a number of informative behind-the-scenes videos.  His channel is a great resource for fledgling filmmakers.

The general thrust of his latest is summarized in an opening line:  “I think the reason we think CG looks bad is because we only see bad CG.”  He asserts that there’s a lot of great CG work that goes largely unnoticed, precisely because it’s so strong and seamless.

And while I agree with that, I think Wong brushes some significant negatives under the rug.

Something that can’t help but color the video is its intended audience.  “Do your fingers rage across subreddits and message boards about a simpler, better time…back before computers ruined movies?”  Wong’s audience is filmmakers and aficionados.  Unless I’m grossly underestimating the general populace’s interest in CG, who else is bemoaning the loss of practical effects?

And many of his examples are minor touch ups.  Note the snow on the ground in the shot with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.  It’s a relatively still camera with limited movement in the frame — not a huge challenge to paint in effects.  Or the stadium shot from “Forrest Gump.”  The filmmakers hired enough extras to fill a section.  What you’re seeing is a bunch of practical elements composited on a computer.

Forrest shoot Forrest finished effect

I think these two examples constitute good and, indeed, invisible uses of CG.  Critically, they’re also limited.  Computers were used to augment reality, not fabricate it whole cloth.  To my mind, this is all those lamenting an overuse of digital effects are asking for — a little restraint.

Now, I don’t want to blanketly condemn computer-generated effects and certainly not the artists who create them.  As Wong points out, it’s a segment of the industry that gets pummeled on a regular basis.  And sometimes it can be hard for practical methods to achieve a desired effect.  I’m a big fan of Japanese giant monsters, and those films are known for using men in suits and miniatures.  That said, I appreciate that recent kaiju films, such as “Pacific Rim” and “Godzilla,” opted for CG instead.  Rendering the physics of something that big (and the destruction it causes) can be difficult with a suit or even animatronics.

I’m for whatever looks best.  Yes, sometimes costs are going to demand one approach over another, but having something physically on set is almost always going to trump the thing that gets added in post.  Even if you as an audience member aren’t aware of what strategy is being used, I bet you’ll have a more visceral reaction to a practical effect than a digital one.  After all, it’s not just you reacting to that robot, alien, dinosaur or what have youit’s the actors.  Imagine you’re a filmmaker, and you’re spending vast sums of money by the hour.  You’re going to get better results a lot faster if your actors have something to act to.

Wong concludes:

“So maybe the reason why people seem to think visual effects are ruining movies isn’t really a problem with the visual effects, maybe it’s just a problem with the movies themselves…CG, just like every innovation in cinema, is simply a tool on the filmmaker’s tool belt to tell a story.  But when the end result is bad, maybe it’s not the tool’s fault.”

Clearly CG is not a sentient being out to destroy movies.  It’s still grossly misused.  Wong cites practical elements in the “Transformers” movies and praises their digital effects work, but don’t get me started on the exaggerated and overcomplicated animation of its title characters.  Is that the fault of the digital artists?  Of course not!  That was Michael Bay’s vision…one made possible by computer animation.

TRANSFORMERS, Optimus Prime, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

And that’s ultimately my point.  Some filmmakers have become so enamored with being able to put anything and everything up on screen that they forget how it looks.  CG’s become a crutch — one that fosters laziness and poor choices.  The set pieces of many tentpole productions are established before there’s even a script so that digital artists can get to work (including “The Avengers,” which is cited in this very video).  That’s backwards thinking, and it underscores the studios’ priorities when it comes to effects and story.

What are your thoughts on the film industry’s use of CG?  Comment below!

A lesson in basic narrative structure, courtesy of “Stairway to Heaven”

Last week I revisited James Cameron’s “Aliens” for the umpteenth time and marveled at its slow burn structure.  Like its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it takes a whole hour for the titular critters to show up.  But this storytelling model has fallen by the wayside.  We rarely see it employed, and it’s rewarded even less.  Instead we shovel money at Michael Bay and his Transformer movies…upwards of a billion dollars domestically to a franchise with more explosions than stakes, tension, or story.

I don’t mean to sound like an angry old man shaking his cane, but how do you determine the end of a story if not by the climax?  A climax is something you have to build toward, so if your film is nothing but climaxes, then your ending is going to feel as meek and tepid as limp chestburster.

chestburster

But let’s consider this strategy from a different angle, from a smaller and more easily digestible approach: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

It’s pretty much unanimously regarded as one of the great rock songs and maybe the greatest rock guitar solo.  And for good reason, but I would argue a critical element to the song’s power is its construction.  It builds to that solo.  Were the whole thing wallpapered with Jimmy Page’s virtuosic playing, we would be desensitized to it.  I don’t think we’d be as enamored with that version of the song.

”Stairway” clocks in at 8:03.  During the first 2:13, we get Robert Plant’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and some recorders.  Led Zeppelin is laying the groundwork.

In the first 20 minutes of “Aliens,” a salvage crew finds Ripley floating in deep space.  She makes a report to the Powers That Be, during which, she learns that while she was in hyper sleep, a colony was established on the alien world.  We also witness Ripley’s nightmares of an alien exploding from her chest like a grotesque jack-in-the-box.

At 2:14 into “Stairway,” we get a little electric guitar.  Now the song is taking shape, rooting itself more firmly.  This is rock ‘n’ roll after all!

Ripley learns from Company Man, Burke, that communications with the colony have been cut.  A team of marines is sent in.  Hoping to silence her fears, Ripley agrees to tag along.  When they arrive, they find the colony in shambles — the only survivor is a young girl named Newt.

ripley and newt

Now, we’re 4:19 into this roughly 8 minute song, and here come the drums.  This is what we signed up for!

Likewise, halfway through “Aliens,” we get our first look at the creatures.  Having stumbled into a hive in the basement of a power planet, the marines are ambushed by dozens of xenomorphs.  They regroup, only to discover that during the fire fight, the plant was damaged and is ready to explode…like a 40-megaton thermonuclear weapon.  Complications arise.  It’s revealed that Burke is trying to sabotage the mission by bringing creatures back to his company’s bio-weapons division.  The aliens launch an attack on the marines, resulting in Newt’s capture.

And at 5:56, we arrive at the famous guitar solo!

Ripley goes on a one-woman mission to recover Newt from the aliens’ nest.  She rescues her, and the two come face to face with the Alien Queen.  Ripley torches her eggs.  They take off, escaping an immense explosion, but then discover that the Queen has boarded their ship.  Ripley drives the creature into an airlock and finds herself in its clutches.

alien queen

“And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than a soul…”

She opens the airlock, which sucks the Queen out into space.

At 7:46, the solo draws to a close, and we come back to where we started with Robert Plant’s eerie vocals.

Ripley returns to hyper sleep with Newt.

“Can I dream,” the young girl asks.

“Yes, honey.  I think we both can.”

This model isn’t just meant for creature features.  “Die Hard” isn’t plastered with wall-to-wall action.  Indeed, it’s also a slow burn.  A fair amount of time passes before the first shots are fired.

And obviously, this template isn’t going to apply to every film.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” opens with a bang.  Though it’s a film that’s generally thought of as unrelenting, things quiet down after that initial set piece.  I also think there’s something to be said for dynamic range.  Yes, the opening of “Raiders” is exciting, but the ending is literally — as far as our characters are concerned — face melting.

But back to “Aliens”…You’d be hard pressed not to find a pantheon-level monster movie that doesn’t follow this structure — from “Alien” to “Aliens,” from “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” from the original “King Kong” to the original “Godzilla.”

If you’re firing at 10 nonstop, eventually 10 loses its luster.

Agree or disagree?  Comment below!

Remember Your First Time?

Matt Zoller Seitz recently published an excellent article about watching “Aliens” with his 11-year old son and a handful of his fifth grade friends.  He wrote, “I realized…that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”  Which is a sentiment I’ve always found to be true.  Watch a comedy you enjoy with someone who’s never seen it, and you’ll find yourself laughing harder.  Watch one of your favorite horror films with someone who’s never seen it, and you you’ll find your palms sweating.  In honor of Seitz’s writeup, I thought I’d share my experience showing “Jaws” to my college roommate.

Indeed, my freshman year roommate — and we would remain roomies throughout college — had never seen “Jaws.”  I felt determined and obligated to remedy this as quickly as possible.  He was a good sport, but he went into the experience with notions of what he thought the film would be.  Though he didn’t say anything beforehand, I could read it on him.  “Oh yeah, ‘Jaws?’  I’ve heard about the robotic shark.”  Or “I’ve seen other movies from this period, and I didn’t like them very much.”  Or “Horror movies have changed so much since the 70s.  Scary?  Yeah, we’ll see.”

One early autumn evening, we had three or four friends over to watch the film.  The viewing circumstances were less than ideal.  We were all stuffed into a small dorm room.  It was stinkin’ hot in upstate New York, and our door was open for circulation.  I still remember intoxicated voices bouncing around the hall outside as students were enjoying their weekend.  The television set was in the neighborhood of 15 inches, and it was wedged between the ceiling and the top of some large cabinets.  (They’re called “closets” in some circles.)

There was idle chit-chat among our friends over the opening credits.  I grimaced, not wanting to be a killjoy but also trying to maintain some semblance of a proper presentation.  With that first tug on poor Chrissie Watkins’s leg, things started to quiet down.  As she was ripped through the water by an unseen menace, the chatter completely turned to silence.

jaws-chrissie-smaller

Cut to 15 minutes later, Chief Brody sits on the beach with his family.  He anxiously watches bathers enter and exit the water, believing a shark was responsible for the young woman’s death.  A couple townsfolk strike up a conversation with him, but his eyes are fixed on the expanse of ocean.  The Chief explodes out of his chair at the sound of a young woman’s screams, only to discover that her boyfriend has surfaced beneath her.  He leans forward as a shape approaches a woman floating on her back.  It’s just a swimmer.  Little Alex Kitner enters the water and paddles out on his raft.  I watched with anticipation as John Williams’s menacing score started to thump and Spielberg’s roving camera — the shark’s POV — approached the boy from below.  The raft is overturned, and there’s a geyser of blood as Alex is taken under.

kitner

My roommate screamed:  “Oh God!  OH MY GOD!”

brody reacts

Movie viewings are rarely this gratifying.

As the full gravity of the community’s situation sets in, marine biologist Matt Hooper investigates a boat that was struck by the shark.  A moody night-time scene: lights from Hooper’s vessel filter through the inky water.  Eerie music indicates that danger could strike at any moment.  And then, my phone went off.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t have it on vibrate.  As it rang out, one of our friends piped up, “Well, that ruined the mood!”  Without bringing the phone to my ear, I spoke into the receiver: “Hold on.”  As Hooper approaches a hole in the hull of the boat, the craft’s former owner, dead, floats into frame to greet him.  Screams erupted all around me as I walked to the hallway to take the call.

boat scare

Afterward, my roommate would admit that he thought the film would be a victim of its times.  The next day, he posted a picture of the “Jaws” DVD online and simply stated: Best.  Movie.  Ever.

Do you have a memory of sharing a favorite film with a friend?  Comment below!