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.

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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!

Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I’ve held off long enough (read: finally caught up with some films I needed to see).  Before I get to my top 10 of 2014, a few thoughts…I saw more than 40 movies, and it was a pretty solid year overall.  Not extraordinary, though the big summer releases resonated in a way that they haven’t for a while.  For the purposes of year-end lists, I generally don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This top 10 really represents a mixture of the two.  Okay, here’s my #6-10…

10.) “Nightcrawler”

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One of the keys to unlocking “Nightcrawler” is James Newton Howard’s music.  The film is about an amateur videographer, Louis Bloom, prowling city streets to find footage — home invasions, auto accidents — that he can sell to the local news.  While it has the trappings of a character study and a thriller, Dan Gilroy’s film is a rag-to-riches story.  Rather than offer a traditional moody score, Howard’s music has a hopeful quality.  It pines for our character’s success, as though it’s the music he might hear inside his head.  That his actions are morally murky at best and downright psychotic at worst is, well, beside the point.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wannabe newsman, and it’s easily the best performance of his career.  He talks with reporters and supervisors as though human interaction was something he learned from a book or website.  With each encounter, I grew more and more anxious, waiting for Louis’s psychosis to finally boil over.  Surely someone is going to get this guy help…or have him arrested.  Right!?  In an insidious bit of commentary on our media, help never comes.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

9.) “Selma”

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I’m always a little resistant to award season biopics.  They’re often more “history lesson” than “film.”  Not the case with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which is about the voting right marches of 1965.  I love the opening, when Martin Luther King Jr. (played wonderfully by David Oyelowo) is rehearsing a speech.  “It’s not right,” he sighs.  We assume he’s talking about the language, but it’s nothing so lofty.  He just doesn’t like his tie.  There’s flesh and blood in this monument.  A horrific and racially motivated act follows.  The film plays like a thriller, keeping the pressure on and never letting us forget what’s at stake.  And it moves like gangbusters, swiftly covering a lot of characters and events.  I loved the backdoor dealings.  As much as this movie’s about a man, it’s also about politicking and enacting change.  Some have criticized “Selma” for its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wasn’t a roadblock to the civil rights movement as dramatized in the film.  While I can appreciate those complaints, it frankly doesn’t bother me.  This isn’t a documentary, it’s not bound to factual constraints.  Rather, it’s a stirring account of fighting systematic oppression.

8.) “Godzilla”

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A couple of questionable plot turns and a wooden performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson aren’t enough to kill this gargantuan summer blockbuster.  Not by a long shot.  Director Gareth Edwards delivers spectacle of the highest order.  Sure, a number of mega-budget productions attempt the same thing, but few remember that there’s nothing less spectacular than non-stop spectacle.  Edwards is judicious in dolling out his setpieces, offering a wink and a nudge (see: a wry cutaway from a brawl in Hawaii) while making us wait for the hugely satisfying final showdown.  Another word for spectacle, at least as far as “Godzilla” is concerned, is scale.  Duh, it’s a movie about the grandaddy of giant monsters!  Everything about this film is intended to give us that sense of awe — from the structure to the evocative sound design to the camerawork that keeps us on the ground level.  Despite our best (and not-so-best) efforts, all we can do is stare up and appreciate the titans overhead.  “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”

For more of my thoughts on “Godzilla,” click here.

7.) “Gone Girl”

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Gloomy serial killer movies like “Seven” and “Zodiac” make it easy to forget what a lacerating sense of humor director David Fincher has.  But “Gone Girl” puts it on full bloody display.  The film, written by Gillian Flynn and based on her novel, is about a man, Nick (Ben Affleck) under investigation when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.  Much of the humor is derived from the media circus that surrounds her disappearance.  During a painfully funny press conference, Nick makes a brief statement that doesn’t sound particularly heartfelt.  He’ll later point out that that doesn’t make him a murderer, though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  A great ballet of looks between Nick and his sister (Carrie Coon) ensues as Amy’s parents make long, prepared statements.  Top to bottom, the performances here are excellent.  So many of the casting decisions seemed odd on paper — Tyler Perry as a New York lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as, well, a creeper — but they pay off big time!  And of course there’s Rosamund Pike, bringing so many shades to Amy.

For more of my thoughts on “Gone Girl,” click here.

6.) “Ida”

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In Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) visits her worldly aunt (Agata Kulesza) before taking her vows.  The aunt reveals that the nun’s parents were Jewish, and both were killed during World War II.  After finding their resting place, the aunt urges her niece to experience more of life before committing to the church.  In one of my favorite images of the year, the nun, slightly intoxicated, twirls within a curtain.  Sunlight streams through the window and illuminates the fabric producing a warm cocoon.  It’s such a wonderfully evocative depiction of a young woman coming of age.  This film is filled with striking compositions.  Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s black and white cinematography emphasizes institutions, often placing characters in the lower part of the frame so that these structures — the church, for example — tower over them.  Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are terrific, the latter saying anything that pops into her head and the former speaking hardly at all.

Stay tuned next week for my #1-5 picks!  What were some of your favorites of 2014?  Comment below.

A Cabinet of Curiosities

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work since 2006, when I first laid eyes on “Pan’s Labyrinth.”  As big productions become more and more homogenized, he remains one of Hollywood’s true (and truly eccentric) visionaries.

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I just finished Marc Zicree’s “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which is a book done in the vein of Francois Truffaut’s “Hitchcock,” in that it’s a long series of interviews with the filmmaker himself.  Zicree, an accomplished television writer and big-time nerd, delves into the things that make del Toro tick.

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The book offers a pictorial tour of Bleak House.  The director’s self-described man-cave is home to an astonishingly large collection of comics, props, art and other memorabilia.  Del Toro even has a storm room – not for emergency evacuations, this is actually a room that simulates a rain storm.  Gloomy clouds and rainfall are projected on a window to the tune of a thunderous soundtrack.  Another of my favorite details is the eerily life-like replica of H.P. Lovecraft that stands guard over his horror library.  In a section devoted to del Toro’s favorite authors, he lists Lovecraft as an all-timer.

The real highlights are pages from del Toro’s notebooks, which he keeps while working on projects.  Offering some insight on Captain Vidal, a monstrous character from “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Del Toro writes that the Captain is consumed by legacy, and his obsession is embodied by his father’s watch.  Throughout the film, we spend a lot of time with the Captain in a mill on his estate.  Its many angles and gears connote watch imagery, but del Toro also intended it to be an illustration of the character’s unerring expectation that everyone follow his orders.  His is a very regimented existence.

Del Toro typically fills his notebooks with story and design ideas, but they contain everything from fantastic illustrations to his thoughts on art and life.

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“Judging a movie after one viewing seems strange to me.  The conscious mind absorbs every image, which took hours of work to create, in a matter of seconds.  But if the image is powerful, if it speaks to the viewer’s soul in some deep way, then those few seconds are enough for love to take shape.”

Though del Toro isn’t all lofty proclamations.  I got a kick out of a passage where he was carefully monitoring the “Pan’s Labyrinth” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.  One of the things I appreciate most about him is his lack of ceremony.  “I’m not a candy-ass Teletubby,” he tells Zicree.  Actually, I’ve witnessed del Toro’s informality first hand.  At a Q&A he moderated with Christopher Nolan, he applauded the filmmaker for achieving mainstream success while maintaining his strangeness.  Del Toro playfully warned, “That makes me want to kill you…a little bit.”

Something I love about books like this — I’ve already mentioned Truffaut’s but Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations with [Billy] Wilder” is a good one, too — is the way they get me excited about work I haven’t seen.  I’d watched all of del Toro’s films, but this book inspired me to read my first Lovecraft novel, “At the Mountains of Madness.”  [He’s been trying to adapt it for 20-some years.]  It’s rewarding to be exposed to what inspires your favorite artists and entertainers…no better way to understand what makes their creative hearts beat.

Review: “Godzilla” (2014)

In honor of the disc release of this summer’s “Godzilla,” I wanted to offer my thoughts on the film. You might remember that I’m a huge fan – gargantuan, even – of the character. The following is pretty spoiler free, with one exception, but I’ll give you a heads up.

“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man…”

Those words were sung by Blue Öyster Cult in their hit song, “Godzilla.”  It’s a philosophy director Gareth Edwards took to heart in this summer’s dazzling reboot.  A nifty title sequence sets the stage.  We learn that the presumed nuclear tests in the South Pacific of the 1950s were in fact attempts to kill the creature.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a rousing score, as we get a brief glimpse of the titular monster, his dorsal spines cresting the surface of the ocean, like the world’s largest super shark.

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Cut to 1999, a strange incident causes a Japanese nuclear power plant to go into meltdown.  Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a supervisor at the plant, provides our emotional hook into the film, as he spends the next 15 years trying to figure out what happened.  His son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home after a tour of duty.  Having spent only a few hours with his family, he’s reluctantly called to Japan to bail his father out of prison.  Joe was trespassing in the quarantine zone in an effort to discover the cause of the disaster.

Turns out it wasn’t an earthquake, as reported.

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There’s a passing of the baton, and Ford becomes the main focus.  This brings us to the film’s biggest liability: its characters.  Especially Ford Brody. The supporting roles are thin, but they’re played by talented performers, so the mediocre writing is tolerable.  In addition to Cranston, the cast includes Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, and Sally Hawkins. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t equipped to imbue his character with any gravitas or charisma, and questionable character beats and developments land with a thud.

One such moment occurs near the end of the film.  In the interest of remaining spoiler free, I’ll just say Ford gives up at a critical juncture when he should be fighting tooth and nail.  Some have criticized the movie for the characters’ insignificance and lack of impact next to the monsters, but that isn’t an inherently bad thing.  What do the protagonists accomplish in “Seven?”  Nothing.  In fact, drama is derived from their inability to change their fate.  That’s what this “Godzilla” needed, but make no mistake, Godzilla should confound mankind at every turn.  After all, the character was born out of Japan’s anxiety over nuclear attacks.

Much has been made about Godzilla’s lack of screen time – a complaint that frankly boggles my mind.  Gareth Edwards understands, like Spielberg and Ridley Scott before him, that the quickest way to take the majesty and menace out of a main attraction is to overexpose it.  Each and every time Godzilla is on screen, Edwards makes it count.

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Indeed, he and screenwriter Max Borenstein allow their film to build toward a distinct and succinct climax, shrewdly dolling out spectacle in small doses until the thunderous ending.  I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see filmmakers respect their audience in this regard, particularly when so many blockbusters are structured for itchy teens.  Climax upon climax upon climax – after a while, it stops meaning anything.

Edwards and Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey rigorously adopt P.O.V. camerawork, with much of the action being framed from the ground level.  This creates scale, placing us in the action, and combined with the well-timed set pieces, gives the film a genuine sense of awe that’s been missing from multiplexes.  So many blockbuster directors are seduced by their budgets, and they use shots that showcase their resources but fail to involve the audience.

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Despite the bleak subject matter, and contrary to a criticism that the film takes itself too seriously, Edwards knows how to have a good time.  Just as things start to heat up, he wryly cuts away from a bit of action at the Honolulu International Airport.  (Gotta leave enough fuel in the tank for the big finish.) Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise” scores the destruction of Las Vegas.  And there are so many playful uses of the camera.  As Ford waits on a tram to get to his flight, the power goes out.  When the lights come back on, we follow their progress from inside the tram.  Suddenly, they illuminate this hulking titan as it lumbers into the airport.  It’s a motivated camera movement, an organic reveal, and it provides a nice little scare to boot.

And Edwards isn’t just adept at money shots.  He’s got a true filmmaker’s eye, hanging entire sequences on simple images that are so lo-fi, they could have come from his low-budget debut, “Monsters.”  The camera lingers on an empty hallway in a power plant in crisis, as we wait to see what will round the corner.  A group of marines storm a nuclear waste site searching for something.  Nothing out of the ordinary in the first two containment facilities, but when a marine pulls back a sliding door on the third one, he’s greeted with a blinding shaft of light.  What’s that about?

Okay, it’s gonna be difficult for me to avoid spoilers here.  If you haven’t seen the film, go ahead and skip to the next bit of bolded text.

At the end of the film, Godzilla slides into San Francisco Bay, having defeated an ancient menace that threatened the city.  Onlookers cheer as a news broadcast proclaims, “King of the Monsters — Savior of our city?”  I love the nod to the Americanization of the original film and the clever commentary on our media’s propensity to slap labels on things.

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The celebratory nature of the ending has been ribbed in some corners, but I thought it was a wonderful continuation of the film’s main theme: man’s hubris.  What could be more arrogant than to assume that a force of nature acted on our behalf?  “He did this for us!” Think I’m overreaching? Check out how Edwards’ camera descends as Godzilla submerges.  We’re left at the surface, as though we were treading water, a precarious place to be when there’s a massive beast swimming beneath your toes.  The shot holds after Desplat’s triumphant score has faded, creating an eerie calm, as though waiting for the creature to re-surface for one last attack.

Okay “Godzilla” virgins, it’s safe to come back now.

“The arrogance of man is assuming nature is in our control, and not the other way around,” Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa intones.  It’s there in the way tsunami waters wipe away a coastal street.  It’s there in the way a dog surveys bodies at a train wreck.  And it’s there in the way nature has retaken the quarantined city in Japan, plants and animals clinging to every surface.  Rest assured, nature will retake more major cities before the movie’s over.

What did you think of “Godzilla?” Comment below!