August 4, 2015

Come On People, It's Time to Stop Hating on CGI

Mad Max Fury Road

If you're one of those people who reads internet editorials about film and filmmaking (and let's face it, the fact that you're reading this right now is a good indication that you are), then you've undoubtedly heard somebody lament that computer generated imagery is destroying everything sacred about the moving image medium. In all honesty, I've been that guy, and I'm not particularly proud of it. That kind of attitude is emblematic of a fundamental misunderstanding about what visual effects enable us to do, and that is tell stories better than we otherwise could.

In a brand new video from RocketJump Film School, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite new YouTube channels, Freddie Wong takes us on a journey through a brief visual history of digital effects, and explains why, in his opinion, CGI has unfairly gotten a bad rap in years past. Check it out:

Freddie's argument here is manifold. First, he points out that we don't even notice a vast majority of the visual effects work that goes into modern visual content. Most of the CGI work these days is incredibly subtle, ranging from rain and smoke and various particle effects that would be difficult to capture physically, to various elements of world building. A much smaller percentage of CGI, on the other hand, isn't particularly subtle, like giant shapeshifting robots galavanting throughout the city. Unfortunately, that's what many of us associate with CGI, even though that kind of content only accounts for a tiny minority of what the technology is actually used for.

Another argument that is often brought up is that practical effects are inherently better, that they're somehow more effective and immersive than computer generated effects. While there's an undoubtable charm to practical effects, saying they're inherently better kind of misses the point.

Take the latest Mad Max film for example. Though it was heavily touted by most everybody — ourselves included — that the heavy use of practical effects is what made that film so visceral and immersive, in truth, it had as much CGI work as any other modern day action film. With that said, you can't discount the incredible power that practical effects ultimately had on that film. In the end, though, it was the combination of those two styles of effects, the practical and digital, that created some of the most thrilling action visuals in recent memory. One of those types of effects without the other, and the film most likely would have been a complete bust. But the combination of the two allowed for something magical.

Mad Max Fury Road Digital and Practical Effects
Credit: fxguide
Mad Max Fury Road Digital and Practical Effects
Credit: fxguide

All in all, it comes down to the fact that CGI is a tool. And like any other tool, it can be and has been misused. As Freddie points out, though, the films where we feel inclined to hate on the CGI are, more often than not, just plain bad films to begin with. They're not very compelling stories, and the characters aren't worth an investment of our emotional energy. And it's when we're not drawn into those crucial elements that we begin to criticize pieces of the production like the VFX and lament that they're ruining movies.

On the other hand, great stories and characters can support mediocre effects, and mediocre sound, and mediocre cinematography. That's not to say that good storytelling is necessarily a panacea for bad technical filmmaking, but when the core story elements are in place, you're far less likely to be hearing audiences resent the production elements that weren't particularly strong.

Here's the exciting part of this whole thing. Even though CGI has already helped filmmakers create some marvelous films that never would have been possible without that technology, I don't think that we have fully realized the potential for CGI yet. It's still a wide open frontier, one that continues to expand as our computers get more powerful and our software tools improve. And if that alone doesn't get you excited about the future of CGI, then just consider the stories that the new technology will enable us to tell.

What do you guys think? Has computer generated imagery been unfairly demonized, or do you agree that CGI isn't a beneficial tool for filmmakers and film fans? Let us know down in the comments!     

Your Comment

34 Comments

Thank you! I have never hated CGI, or blamed its use for terrible blockbuster movies - in fact, I've always been fascinated by it and have been experimenting with it a lot over the past 10 years.

Whenever someone makes the "CGI makes movies bad" argument, I ask them if they've seen Argo. Argo's not my favorite film, but I think it was a good one. I didn't know until after I'd watched it that the exterior shots of the plane in the film are basically all CG, as well as any Iran city imagery.

I wish more people would read this article than watch this awful, awful video blaming CGI for bad movies:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iz6UTYzAwi4

August 4, 2015 at 11:11PM, Edited August 4, 11:12PM

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Christian Druitt
Director/Cinematographer/Composer
153

I won't attack GGI across the board, but one benefit of practical effects is that the result obeys the same laws of physics that audiences know from real life. In Argo, I recall the airplane chase looking phony and stupid, so in that instance yes, CGI failed.

August 5, 2015 at 8:34AM

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That's a good point. I didn't notice that personally, but CGI starts from a theoretical foundation instead of a physical one in terms of the way materials interact, motion and physics, lighting, etc. It's hard to get it just right, so I think the artists that do get it right deserve credit for their work. (I say this because I've seen a lot of people with the opinion that CG work isn't as respectable as practical/special effects, as if it's easier and a "magic machine" does all the work automatically.)

I think with practical effects, short of using an actual plane (which would be feasible in some cases, in other cases, not), CG might be a better option than, say, models or other practical methods.

My viewpoint is that CGI/VFX and practical/special effects both have their uses, benefits, and limitations - so a good film will use the right tools to tell a good story, with either method. Perhaps too much confidence is placed in flashy CGI in a lot of films, but I would still disagree with the "CGI makes movies today terrible" assertion, which I see all too often.

August 5, 2015 at 5:00PM

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Christian Druitt
Director/Cinematographer/Composer
153

Well said. I agree with you that CGI which manages to fool everybody deserves high praise.

August 6, 2015 at 8:59AM

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duplicate post

August 6, 2015 at 8:59AM, Edited August 6, 8:59AM

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"...but CGI starts from a theoretical foundation instead of a physical one in terms of the way materials interact, motion and physics, lighting, etc."

this is 100% wrong.
the rigid body/fluid/particle simulations done in 3D software is based on real physics...from papers published in academic journals (ILM has a partnership with Stanford for example).
when you see something fall and bounce in an unrealistic manner it's because it was either animated by hand to create a specific effect/look or the motion was changed by specific request...the responsibility for these changes lay with the VFX sup and/or the director. and have you ever seen a real explosion? they're actually pretty lame...
lighting is the same - directors and studios don't want 'real' light falloff if it means the audience might not see the action clearly etc...on the other hand product shots in ads (esp car commercials) are almost entirely CG.

August 6, 2015 at 6:04PM

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Michael Goldfarb
Senior Technical Director - Side Effects
348

The people who hate CGI don't know what they want to see.
In one hand they say CGI makes every movie bad and in the other they love AVATAR...

August 4, 2015 at 11:39PM

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Nico Saiger
Indie Filmproducer
207

Nice video! :)

August 5, 2015 at 12:54AM

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Don't hate CGI, hate lazy "fix it in post" filmmaking

August 5, 2015 at 1:03AM

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Matt Robinson
Film Educator & Cinematographer
238

The funny thing is that in Mad Max: Fury Road all the interviews I have seen with the crew say that George Miller was constantly saying "we'll fix it in post" and I think that movie was incredible. Fix it in post doesn't necessarily mean lazy all of the time.

August 5, 2015 at 5:07AM

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Brendan Plake
Freelancer
100

We have to remember though that George Miller had made 2 cg films before, so he knows where the limitations lie. Too many directors don't.

August 6, 2015 at 12:32AM, Edited August 6, 12:33AM

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Grant DK
224

Thats true for low budget film makers, but as the video shows, nearly every big budget movie is fixing it (enhancing it) in post and no-one will ever notice. Example: cars, background extras, landscapes.

August 5, 2015 at 6:01AM

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double post

August 5, 2015 at 6:01AM, Edited August 5, 6:02AM

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When people say that they don't like CGI, I think that they probably mean that they don't like when films over-rely on CGI, because the script or actors are not up to scratch or yeah, simply bad films. The same story over and over again does not get better with more VFX.

August 5, 2015 at 1:21AM

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Guido Gautsch
Education Person
332

I love CGI since its inception. The problem is these days filmmakers rely too much on CGI at the expense of good storyline. CGI itself has never been the problem.

August 5, 2015 at 4:07AM

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Randy Lao
Filmmaker/Cinematographer
74

My favorite CGI movie is Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" because most of the time the CGI is subtle enough that you really don't notice it. This is how CGI should be used.

What I hate are film projects that throw out story and acting so they can create these giant CGI monstrosities that are fun to look at, but oh so utterly stupid once you look beyond the CGI spectacle. The new Mad Max "Fury Road" is exactly this kind of film, and by far the weakest film in the entire MM franchise. Yes, it was gorgeous to look at, but take out the visuals and what's left ? Pretty much nothing. A throw away story with "rock opera" acting. While I know this type of film can make a lot of money, and it's a fun ride while it lasts, but I know I will never watch this film again, and I'll never buy a blu-ray copy of it.

I kind of feel the same way about the new "Jurassic World" movie, where it felt like a B-grade sequel to the original "Jurassic Park". I really liked the main leads in this film, but I would rather see them in a better project where they get to tell a great story and have a chance to show off their talent. Again, big money maker, but it's still nothing but a "popcorn" movie in the end. Such a waste.

August 5, 2015 at 6:11AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33426

Pretty sure the first Mad Max is the weakest. That movie was so painfully slow.

August 5, 2015 at 7:13AM

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The original "Mad Max" (1979) was George Miller's first feature and was made on film for less than $400,000. So for a low budget first feature it's a pretty outstanding film. ( hey, it launched Miller's career along with Mel Gibson's )

August 5, 2015 at 8:31AM, Edited August 5, 8:52AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33426

'Rock opera' acting - perfect critique. I only lasted 20 min with Fury Road.

August 7, 2015 at 1:24AM

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I, as a CGI artist, I would like to say: Stop hating the art itself but the artist or artists who doesn't satisfied your interest. It is common sense. I would like to know what people would say if CGI in movies didn't existed in the first place. Imagine your favorite movies without CGI, imagine.

August 5, 2015 at 8:41AM

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Edgar More
All
1207

>>>I would like to know what people would say if CGI in movies didn't existed in the first place. Imagine your favorite movies without CGI, imagine.

You mean films like...

2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968)
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)
Alien (1979)
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Blade Runner (1982)
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)
Aliens (1986)

...In terms of story and acting the 1960's and 1970's were the golden years of Hollywood, and then CGI came along and trashed everything.

August 5, 2015 at 8:58AM, Edited August 5, 9:31AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33426

That's is a very mean way to say it. I was talking about all the movies in general, not Hollywood itself. I was talking about the subtle, unnoticeable CGI that makes the final picture with out calling the attention of the viewer. For me, and almost all the people that can't afford almost anything, CGI is a gift from God that allow us to get what is needed in order to make the movie of our dreams. If you happen to get the chance of making the movie of your dreams, and you need a military helicopter flying on the background in order to take the money shot, then good luck hating CGI.

August 5, 2015 at 10:28AM

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Edgar More
All
1207

I don't have a problem with CGI as a concept, but what I do have a problem with are movies that are totally driven by CGI and don't give a sh*t about story or acting.

When I look at the big-tent Science Fiction movies made before 1990, that were made without CGI, the story and acting was a heck of a lot better than what you will see in equivalent films made today. And I put the blame on the Hollywood CGI blockbuster formula, where CGI effects are the big draw and everything else is almost optional. Big budget mindless movies.

August 5, 2015 at 11:02AM, Edited August 5, 11:02AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33426

Amen.

August 5, 2015 at 12:36PM

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Amen.

August 5, 2015 at 12:36PM, Edited August 5, 12:36PM

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And what about period pieces? Love it or hate it as a film (I like it), but The King's Speech is a good example of CGI used well: https://vimeo.com/27765945

Also, what about movies that are intentionally set in a fantastical or unreal world for artistic reasons? Like Being John Malkovich or Synecdoche, NY (or just about anything else Kaufman has written)? They're beautiful, powerful movies that just plain wouldn't be possible to make with CGI.

August 6, 2015 at 4:52PM

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Benjamin Reichman
Post Supervisor/AE/Editor
296

Of course, CGI on it's own isn't the problem. The problem is making movies is a financial system, not a creative one. Many times, it's more cost effective to do it in post, than to do it on set. Some examples are in Freddie's video. So even when it would look much better to actually shoot in downtown NY, the permits and cost to do so lead to productions turning to CGI. When you're making the Avengers and you have a huge budget, then everything looks great. When you're not the Avengers, those CGI scenes just look..."off". Good CGI is as expensive as location shooting. It's simply more convenient and safe.

So if you had two choices. Make you movie with a much smaller budget and fast turn around CGI...or don't make your movie at all. What would you choose?

August 5, 2015 at 9:20AM, Edited August 5, 9:20AM

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seanmclennan
Story Teller
940

As far as Mad Max is concerned,was it not something like 90% of the CGI effects were used on improving the landscape of the film? Which is fair enough, I believe CGI is best used for subtle changes or when there are no other options. I just hate the fact that Jurassic Park(a film from the early 90's) is visually more impressive than the recent Jurassic World. In my opinion the reason is practical effects(in this case puppetry),the look and texture to Stan Winston's dinosaurs can not be beat with visual effects. I'm aware that CGI dinosaurs were used in that film but sparingly when there were no other options. You end up with the perfect blend of both practical and CGI which most films should strive for. Just seems nowadays people are getting lazy and believe the answer lies in post.

August 5, 2015 at 9:23AM

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We need to establish the difference between CGI, computer generated images, and VFX. VFX is an umbrella term which includes compositing, what you see in most of those mad max plates. Combining images doesn't mean that one of them has to be CGI but rather you can shoot multiple plates and stitch them together to make a more aesthetically pleasing image. Think of simple stuff like sky replacements done because a shoot lasted all day and sky conditions changed. These kinds of things are done to nearly every shot of anything these days and most go entirely un-noticed. Here is a great VFX breakdown of some of the stuff on "Parks and Recreation" and it is eye opening:
https://vimeo.com/69212798

August 5, 2015 at 12:11PM

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Joe Hughes
Editor / VFX
173

Mad Max is probably a terrible example to give here considering that most the shots were HEAVILY composited and without the green keying, 80% of the film would look like crap. Absolute crap.

A second issue MOST (including myself) have w/ CG (stop using "I") work is that it's rarely convincing beyond small scale composites (even most green screened window plate shots aren't convincing).

Sure there are exceptions, like Game of Thrones (and even THAT has many shots that look unconvincing) and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And you're right, digital VFX work can be found in the most subtle of applications.

Lastly, and even more importantly, MANY VFX-heavy films tend to bloat budgets far exceeding their more "practical" counterparts. Sure, we have better modelers (many from videogame development backgrounds), better level designers (same origins) and better tools to work with. However the advantages haven't gotten any stronger and now we have films that both look more phony than they did yesteryear AND they're more expensive to boot.

Filmmakers and audiences alike enjoy practical effects more because they're more immersive. Barring the sci-fi and fantasy films that would require them of course---actually scratch that- JJ Abrams is even focusing MORE on practical effects for the latest Star Wars and now w/ digital cinema resolutions going nuts, using 360-degree projections for on-set background plates are better today.

As a side note, I expect Freddie Wong to champion digital effects work. His work absolutely depends on it (have you guys watched his stuff before? Yeesh.).

CG VFX work is awesome. But it's also over-saturated and usually unnecessary in the larger sense.

August 5, 2015 at 12:36PM, Edited August 5, 12:38PM

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Freddie makes a good point--one I hadn't put too much thought into when he talks about good CGI being "invisible". My perspective couldn't be more in-line with his conclusion as well--a good story can forgives all, including poor CGI.

August 6, 2015 at 1:41PM

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Tom Doherty
Filmmaker
190

Excellent video and article.

The point touched on in the vid (and raised by Charlie McDanger above) about physics differences between CGI and practical effects is sometimes applicable but other times not. For example, use of miniatures is a practical effect but miniature versions of life-sized objects do not behave in the same way as their full-scale counterparts when in movement. Other tricks are incorporated, such as shooting a mini explosion or falling building at fast fps for slo-mo, to account for the difference. Just like with CG, effects artists have gotten better with these techniques over time.

To a certain degree, however, we also just get more and more used to how a given type of effect looks and feels, and how that translates into what we accept as real. Animatronics, for example, often create a very particular look. And while it might be easy for us as modern audiences to pick it out, at the height of that technology's use (the video rightly highlights Jurassic Park which is also notable here) it was accepted as natural and realistic.

August 9, 2015 at 5:00PM

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Gabriel James Edwards
Filmmaker | Composer
95

I think David Fincher uses CGI very well. Always in service of the script, never to fill a narrative / directorial deficit.

The best CGI is always invisible. You react to the thing, not the effects that create the thing, or you don't notice it at all, merely taking the setting / action as read.

August 11, 2015 at 3:24AM, Edited August 11, 3:24AM

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Balthazar
English Cinephile
242

An Open Break Up Letter To CGI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8YcEtMGD2s

August 16, 2015 at 9:51AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33426

I agree with this article. I can't stand it when people blame CGI for everything. They act as if their lives are destroyed by CGI. You can heavily rely on in camera visual effects just as much and be lazy there too.

September 5, 2015 at 5:47PM

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Brent Walker
Screenwriter
74