Post-production digital enhancement and CGI have become critical elements to visual storytelling, especially in some of moviegoers’ favorite genres. Think about how much Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy would have lost if the city of Minas Tirith had just been a miniature or if Gandalf had gotten in a fight with a guy in a balrog costume. Some movies couldn’t have been made at all; “District 9” would have lost all impact if it hadn’t had realistic aliens, and “Jurassic World” without dinosaurs would’ve been pointless.
This post isn’t a rant against CGI. I love knockout special effects too, and it’s exciting to see filmmakers push the envelope. There’s a risk, though, of something being lost if everything’s done digitally. Some films lose touch with reality as they over-saturate, digitally manipulate, and hyper-stimulate viewers with spectacle instead of storylines.
Is there a point where filmmakers should put down the mouse? When is that point of no return, and what can movie makers do to pull back from the brink?
Add Back Practical Effects
Some of the most exciting and memorable effects in movies weren’t done digitally. Think about the original orcs from “The Fellowship of the Ring” and compare them to the slick, processed look of CGI characters from “The Hobbit.” Special effects need some practical elements to anchor them and keep them grounded in reality. Even with the sophisticated CGI available today, it just isn’t possible to get all the texture, movement, and subtlety of real objects. The best effects-driven films I see use a composite of practical and digital effects to create a world that feels real to viewers.
Use Editing to Tell the Story
“Jupiter Ascending” should have been a hit. It had leads who are proven box-office draws, an ambitious plot, and the Wachowski buzz that usually guarantees an audience. It could have been a fun, campy piece of space opera, but instead it just numbed audiences with its constant quick-cut action sequences. Nothing stayed on the screen long enough to appreciate or fully grasp what was going on, and the overall effect during the big chase scenes made the entire movie seem chaotic. With its huge budget, the digital effects were amazing, but editing here didn’t serve the story; it did the opposite and hid a lot of the post-production team’s work. Editing should help tell the story, not cover it up for the sake of CGI that can’t stand up to more than a second or two of scrutiny.
Give Actors Something to Connect With
As much as people criticize Peter Jackson’s later Hobbit movies as being CGI-heavy action-fests, few people can criticize his most memorable computer-generated creation: Gollum. Played by Andy Serkis throughout all the movies in which he appears, Gollum is a high-water mark for CG acting. That isn’t an accident; it’s due to Serkis standing in on set and doing what Gollum does, making the faces the character makes, and interacting with other actors as the role demands. When Elijah Wood as Frodo talks to Gollum, both actors – the real one and the one with a computer-generated face – play off one another. They connect. Some films heavy on virtual effects are missing this connection.
Don’t Forget What Makes CGI Work
Some of the most effective virtual effects are ones we don’t even notice in the course of a movie. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was a recent CGI-heavy blockbuster that got it right. Practical effects combined with bold but not overdone CGI thrilled audiences when they saw a “Land Speeder” levitate off the ground in “Star Wars.” Audiences didn’t see how it was done, they just believed. When audiences see only the over-saturated teal and orange color scheme or the CGI monsters chasing the heroes, they no longer believe what they’re seeing. Great CGI lets you trust your eyes – and trust the director who’s treating audiences with the respect they deserve.
About the author: Jonathan Roberts is an NYU Tisch student of cinematic and commercial filmmaking with a passion for storytelling.
FilmThat™ is a video production company founded and run by Jonathan Roberts. FilmThat.com™ explores the world of filmmaking and visual narrative. Favorite topics include impact driven screenwriting, producing, directing, shooting, and editing cinematic, corporate and documentary films.
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