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!

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