Why CGI is degrading cinema

Contributed image.

Special effects have been a staple of cinema for decades. Ever since Georges  Méliès—commonly referred to as the Father of Special Effects—discovered he could manipulate the film, exposure and perspective of his images, the truly unfathomable has become plausible, regular and ordinary.

Of course, with time these techniques have been improved and streamlined. At this point in cinematic history, CGI—computer-generated imagery—is the default over practical filming. Production companies quite often prefer expensive visual effects over the time necessary to construct and produce practical shots, costumes and stunts.

Marvel is often the most guilty of substituting practical effects for artificial visuals. Although admittedly badass, the entire airport scene from Captain America Civil War is a jumbled mess of special effects, head replacements and far too much motion blur. Compare that to Iron Man 1, a film in which a practical suit was built for actor Robert Downey Jr., and the noticeable degradation of quality will astound you.

Practical effects are unmatched in regards to continuity and quality when contrasted with CGI. Films like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, 127 Hours, The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road have all benefited from opting against computer-generated imagery and favouring practical effects.

When it comes to CGI, there will always be a massive gap of possible error. Even Avengers Endgame has noticeable visual flaws, and God knows that Thanos face tracking is not going to age well.

With practical effects, that gap is significantly decreased—or at least it seems to be. These effects feel genuine. You’re fully aware that you are being tricked, but, if done well, you should never be able to notice. 

Jackie Chan is easily the most notable for this. His stunts are best described as inhuman, frequently stunning his audience with shots that today’s average consumer would crudely assume are CGI. 

And the truth is, today’s consumer-centric cinematic industry quite likely would have gone about a lot of these stunts through CGI. An actor backflipping midair over a speeding car? Throw in a quick digital model, some motion blur and an eerie hue and there’s your shot, right?

Well, this brings me to my biggest quarrel of late: The Mandalorian, proof that CGI is not always the best option. In fact, I will avidly debate that one particular CGI shot ruined the entire series.

The concluding shot in the series features a poorly deep-faked Luke Skywalker retrieving Baby Yoda—I know that’s not his name but I’m not calling it Grogu.

Regardless of the intent behind the scene, this is undoubtedly a terrible shot. In no way is the audience convinced that this ghostly character is Luke Skywalker. Similar to Rogue One, these single shots effectively serve to discredit the entire production in a matter of seconds.

If the shot can’t be done, it shouldn’t leave the draft board. Marvel has been nailing the de-aging shot for years yet Disney continually fails to translate these techniques over to the Star Wars franchise. 

How hard would it have been to shell out a couple extra thousand, tweaek the timeline and hire Daisy Ridley to conclude the series, giving fans a satisfying end to their investment?

It’s the nostalgic ploy we’ve come to expect out of Disney and there is nothing genuine to justify it. Honestly, I’d rather have seen an Ewok waddle his way in to save the day. 

Leave Mark Hamill to star in Kevin Smith movies from now on. He’s served the Star Wars fan base well and these butchered CGI shots are nothing more than a knock to his character’s legacy.

Of course, there is a time and a place for computer-generated effects. Avatar, Lord of the Rings and even Tron have all shown that CGI done well can be masterful.

But there is no doubt that CGI is overused. It often degrades the quality of a scene that otherwise serves to drive the narrative. All we can hope for is that production companies begin to realize the value in practical effects, regardless of the time commitment.

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