Robert Eggers likes to make period movies where everything is real—and I like to watch them. His attention to detail is amazing and the level of care he unloads on every frame is legendary. This includes using actual film lenses from the 1920s and 30s for The Lighthouse to recreating an entire Viking ship for The Northman.
Recently, in an interview with Polygon, Eggers said he was upset he used CGI in The Northman. "I whip myself every night," he said. But I want him to know it's okay! He still delivered one of my favorite movies this year.
I know most of his CGI bemoaning is in jest, but I think there's a real struggle going on right now between tentpole movies shot entirely on green screen and with rear projection, versus the "little guys" like the $60+ million original idea The Northman which tried epically to keep things practical. It's a movie where the actors wore handmade costumes and the drying fish in the villages were real. We have some cool behind-the-scenes footage for you to check out if you want to go deeper.
To his credit, Eggers understands that modern cinema is going to incorporate at least some CG, because it's just safer than having Alexander Skarsgård try to catch a real spear.
Eggers said, “If you’re making a movie today at a certain scale, there’s no way you can do it without CG, just because of modern health and safety stuff, and the cost of labor, and unions and whatever. So you can’t have horse stunts like in old Westerns or Soviet movies. Nor should you. But that means at the very least, you’re erasing safety cables. And when the horses fall, there are mats hidden in the mud for them to fall on. We can’t actually get those that muddy, so they’re covered with mulch, and then we’re using CG to cover up the mulch with mud, so it looks consistent. That’s not sinful, it’s just practical.”
Moviemaking is different today than ever before. To ensure safety and continuity, we have to find ways to incorporate computer graphics into the field. But the one thing Eggers does that I wish more movies would do is to make sure he supplants that with real effects at times. Whether it's the raven from the film's opening, or the tree of ancestors, which was shot with smoke, plates, hanging dummies, and all sorts of other practical elements.
“I think for the most part, the CG in this film is pretty tasteful,” Eggers told Polygon. “There’s just no way someone could have done that spear trick. Just no way. If we’d been doing this in, like, 1972, there probably would have been some 2D animation painted onto the celluloid to get that effect. I think that as long as you’re using as many practical elements as you can, CG is a good tool. It’s just when it’s overused that it becomes something you can’t believe in.”
Belief is the key word—when you're worldbuilding with your images, you want to make sure the audience is never taken out of the movie by bad CG, or by a practical effect that just looks bad because you couldn't nail it. There's a line to walk, and Eggers seems to do it with the best of them.
Of course, he prefers practical effects, but there's no sin in using some great CG as well.
What are your thoughts?