A little rant about CGI and practical effects

Two of the best special effects movies ever came out in 1968 and 1982. As the kids say, “change my mind.” I’m talking about 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Now, I do expect that other people will have their own opinions. But watching these two movies on their own terms will give you a new appreciation for how effects can be used to advance the plot of a good film.

Why we all hate CGI

One thing these two films have in common are their practical effects. While Wrath of Khan did feature some of the first CGI in a film, it was in a very specifically defined sequence and it was acknowledged to look like CGI. It was supposed to be real.

Both films used big models, specialized cameras, and every trick they could muster using only chemicals, film, and other real-world technologies.

The result is that the spaceships look real. They act like real spaceships would act. A lot of effort was put in to try to create the impression of what these large objects would do in space. In both films, creating the impression of another time and another place was critically important.

And this is what we tend to hate about CGI. CGI often seems like a generic cheat. It’s used in ways that are supposed to amaze us but sometimes take us out of the movie altogether.

CGI, while wildly expensive, is also cheap in comparison to other parts of the filmmaking process. It’s often bid out to multiple companies to try to save time and money, and the result is inconsistent and generic looking. The artists involved aren’t given enough room to really do their best work.

When CGI really fails, we get something like Cats, which had such uncomfortable CGI sequences that the whole film was ruined. The impossible timeframe also led to some fairly high profile mistakes that made it to the final film.

CGI gets a bad rap because it seems like a cheat. Practical effects get our respect because they don’t.

But in fairness…

The truth is that we don’t notice CGI when it’s good. Because, it’s that good. Today’s films are filled with CGI, changing backgrounds, extending sets, and removing mistakes in production that weren’t seen until later. Occasionally, CGI is so good that you think it’s a practical effect. I point out the most recent three Star Wars films as well as Max Max Fury Road as films where the CGI is impossible to tell from the practical effects. More of it is CGI than you think.

So that’s the paradox of CGI. We think CGI is bad because the purpose of good CGI is not to be noticed. We tend to only really think about it when it pulls focus from what we are supposed to see.

And we have to acknowledge…

If you look at the effects in 2001, they do look fairly arthritic. In high definition you can see the parts of the backgrounds that were nothing but paint on wood. The camera angles are fairly static, and if you look closely enough you’ll realize that there isn’t really a lot of detail on those ships. They look… like models.

But the point is not the execution. The real reason we’re drawn in by those effects in a 50-year-old film is because artists worked hard on thinking about what they should look like. Given the time, budget, and inspiration, special effects artists can do great things. Given the lowest possible cost and an impossible schedule… you get what you get.

Sometimes it’s self-fulfilling

I saw Titanic in the theater during the 1997 holiday season.  I saw it on the best possible screen, in a modern theater. And I was blown away. It was so easy to just imagine it was all real. I was astounded by how well the ship had been recreated. And, as years went by, I saw documentaries about how the effects were done. How parts of the ship were complete CGI and parts were a giant set on a motion rig. I learned how a lot of the extras weren’t even real. And slowly, the cracks in the film started to show. I still watch the film now and again if it’s on broadcast TV, but I cringe now at the fake-looking people and the overly smooth ship with its not-quite-floaty appearance. The practical effects still look ok, but the CGI does not.

This isn’t the fault of the film. Over time I’ve conditioned myself to know what the fake stuff is, so it looks fake.

The same is true with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I knew, going in, that Peter Cushing was not alive, and therefore could not have starred in the film. I therefore didn’t buy the CGI Tarkin, not at all. When walking out of the film, though, I said to my companion, “I guess they still have a long way to go with CGI humans.” They had no idea what I was talking about. They thought Tarkin was played by a real actor and when I asked them to guess which character was CGI, they guessed Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic. Sorry Mr. Mendelsohn, I guess you’re just not realistic.

Here’s what I was thinking about

If you want to know why I was thinking about this stuff, it started with this YouTube Video.

I agree with pretty much all that’s said here, except that I still think the CGI in the original Transformers was pretty cool. It just suffers because all the other films in the franchise got progressively worse.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.