Monday, 20 May 2013

The future of SFX belongs to Pixar

With the death of Ray Harryhausen announced recently, I was reminded of all the great effects that where used up until the advent of CGI. There are many funny and ridiculous examples (Mysterious Island, of one), but the good examples are really good and propel the story telling ten fold (think A Trip to the Moon, Aliens, Jason and the Argonauts, Scanners, ET etc.). Whether a special effect is brilliant or silly they are always authentic. The audience isn’t dumb. They know if an effect is shoddy, but they’ll tend to respect a handmade one because it relates in the real world – we can see the actors physically acting with it, or in the case of films like Jason and the Argonauts, at least the effects look as real as the actors.

Which brings us to contemporary cinema. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) didn’t come into effect until 1967, where a line drawing of a hummingbird was brought to life in a 10 minute short by Charles Csuri and James Shaffer. The technology has only grown and excelled since. From Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings Golum to Brad Pitt’s youthful face in Benjamin Button, CGI almost seems like a character in itself. The main problem I have with CGI is that it is always obvious. Sometimes its done well, like the aforementioned films, but most of the time it drives me to pure annoyance. If its not a director thinking they can make a classic better using it (the laborious King Kong by Peter Jackson, for example), its films where its presence is overwhelming. Avatar was meant to be a spectacular film about eco-politics, but I was so distracted by its 10ft blue men and FernGully like trees that I couldn’t concentrate on the storyline. For me, this film was just too much. If it was all CGI and no real actors I could probably have enjoyed it more, but all I could picture was the green screen they where acting against.

It makes me wonder, is CGI really defunct as an authentic story telling tool, at least with flesh and blood humans anyway?  The only films, in my opinion, where CGI has been the most effective is in digital animation, and with their excellent raconteur skills, I believe Pixar are the future of this medium. Really, could you imaging a human dragging a CGI house attached to CGI balloons along a CGI cliff? It just wouldn't look good, and Up would no where near of had the same amount of power and emotion that it did have. Toy Story would have looked silly with a real boy and computer animated toys. Finding Nemo? All I can picture is those weird Homeward Bound films that seemed puerile even back in 1993. 

This is a lament. The last thing I want is films to be devided between humans in "real life" drama's, where the only computers are the ones the obnoxious child actors wile away their time on, and fantastical, over the top animated films. As an audience, we should be able to place ourselves, via actors, into strange situations, magical landscapes and interact with curious creatures. But the experience will not be enjoyable unless directors can release themselves from the stranglehold that is CGI. It may seem easier to use computers, but I employ directors to give the old fashioned special effects a go first. I want to believe what I'm looking at, not spend my whole time going "wow, that CGI was good".

Think I'm right? Think I'm wrong? Let me know in the comments.

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