The "Avatar" Problem
Before he created the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas said that “special effects are a means by which to tell a story”. With films, the filmmakers aim is to fully engross the audience into a world through story, characters, setting, costumes, and through usage of computer generated imagery (CGI) and Performance Capture animation. Usage of CGI in films has become so prevalent, it could be argued that with audiences being used to CGI, it takes away from the movie-going experience. This has led to what I call “the Avatar Problem”, that CGI is often placed on equal, or higher priority than the story, direction and characters, which affects the overall quality.
I’m not going to say CGI is bad for filmmaking. CGI has contributed to some of the most original, innovative and exhilarating films ever, and it’s an amazing, creative tool. Firstly, it allows for worlds that cannot easily be created using practical effects. It enables for filmmakers to expand their imagination, enabling for a larger scope in films that have never been seen before, which is engrossing for the audience. Additionally, it makes films easier to make; Peter Jackson, while creating The Hobbit, described CGI as making the filmmaking process much more efficient. Additionally, the animated film business has created ground-breaking technology and films, such as Shrek, the Toy Story franchise, The Incredibles, and the Disney animated films. But what happens when you see CGI in a film and you are not convinced by it? That is where this problem arises.
Yeah sure, you can have dodgy direction, dodgy plots and dodgy animation, that’s not the point. What the problem is to me is that in today’s cinema, there has become an overreliance on animation. To me, going to see a film is escapism, a chance to enter another world and put aside everyday life for a few hours. Sure, CGI creates amazing worlds, however if you notice something is not real, the magic is lost. Additionally, with CGI providing endless possibilities, if visual grandeur is placed over the storytelling, it doesn’t make the overall product better. I might even go so far to argue that actual plots and stories in films are much as less thought-through nowadays because of the desire of studios to put huge CGI-fests on screen as being the main aim of a film’s creation.
An example is James Cameron’s Avatar. When Avatar came out six years ago, praise was given towards the visual world of Pandora. However, critics complained about unimaginative characters and a plot that drew comparisons from Pocahontas, Fern Gully and Dances with Wolves. While I enjoyed Avatar, the lack of an imaginative story that Cameron can provide (e.g. Terminator 1 & 2 or Aliens) to match the visuals impacted me getting into the film. Avatar was a pivotal example of this problem (hence its usage in the name of this article), even though the problem has been occurring for many years; and despite success, Avatar is widely seen as being one of the most overrated movies, through social media websites such as Watchmojo.com and MoviePilot.com.
Let’s study the filmmaking process more closely; through comparing the Star Wars original trilogy with the prequel trilogy, to show how this problem is more prevalent today. Firstly, with the original trilogy, Lucas was often limited by budget and other constraints, and visual effects were limited by today’s comparison. For the best look, the solution was to film on location, with filming in Tunisia, Norway and Northern California for Tatooine, Hoth, and Endor respectively. They had to build small, personality-filled sets, and created a huge variety of aliens using practical effects, as well as creating miniatures for the scenes in space. They made the movie this way because it was the only way to create the film and make the world believable. It resultantly gave actors something to react to, which coupled with a fantastic interpretation of the story led to better performances, and a better film.
With the prequels, most of the films were entirely shot on sound studios using bluescreen to create the worlds. Aliens were made from CGI, so the actors had to pretend the alien was there, and coupled with uninspired direction and terrible scriptwriting, this led to atrocious acting performances (Hayden Christiansen, take a bow) and even the building of sets was often melded with bluescreen. This meant that the movies relied heavily on CGI; Rick McCullum, the producer, mentioned that “every shot is so dense. George wants to put as much as he can onscreen”. With a CGI extravaganza being seen as preferential, this was lazy direction; and it really shows. Similarly, when Tim Burton created his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, which was filmed almost entirely on green screen, he acknowledged that “Green screen doesn’t provide a positive vibe to work with”. When your entire world is made of CGI, and the audience can see that, then really it hasn’t achieved much.
You could argue, though, that when you look at older movies, you can see how they made, and that would make the experience less enjoyable for viewers today. But, for example, when Star Wars came out in 1977, people were blown away by it. Looking back, it still holds up remarkably well. Despite the age of the film we can still be drawn in by the plot and stakes. If we are not drawn in and made to believe the world through the story, then the movie failed at its job to entertain us. The entire point of CGI is that you have to not notice it in order for it to be successful.
So, if this is indeed a problem with films today, what can be done to ensure a better film for us the audience to enjoy? I’m no expert, but what I do think that firstly there has to be a change in attitude towards CGI. Director Gore Verbinski, who is responsible for The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean and Rango, goes under a rule that “CGI is not a verb”. If you can “just CG” something, it leads to lazy filmmaking the Star Wars prequels suffered from. By using CGI where really necessary, it enables a better usage of computer animation.
Secondly, I feel the best way to ensure the success of storytelling with CGI, is by incorporating practical effects. CGI does show a wonderful scope; but nothing beats seeing something that is actually there. I’m not talking about practical effects like explosions in almost every single Michael Bay film (even though explosions are awesome), I’m talking practical effects that actors interact with, that are integral in successful storytelling.
What films successfully do this? Jurassic Park, Inception, Django Unchained, The original Star Wars trilogy, The Aliens franchise, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight series, Indiana Jones (the first three), James Bond (such as doing stunts for real in Casino Royale), the classic “The Thing” (don’t watch the remake, the CGI is terrible in that too), The Terminator (first two) and even Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and I could go on. Obviously these films are purely contextual in what they use, integrate and include in terms of story, special effects and other genre aspects. But their success in terms of how they were received by audiences and critics was undeniable.
With films that require their filming to be completed on a sound studio, practical effects can still be brought into it. Two recent science-fiction films have been an example of this, being Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. With Gravity, space stations and Soyuz shuttles were built to exact space station specifications to ensure realism. Sandra Bullock, who played the main role, said “once you are in these sets you’re there for the day, and it does get very lonely; but it did a lot for the character”. Additionally, Interstellar used similar techniques, building a space station set on a hydraulic sound studio that would move with every scene, which created a sense of realism for the actors performing inside the set (see above). Nolan wanted to make it as believable as possible, and so instead of bluescreen he used projectors, similar to a flight simulator, which gave impressions that the actors were really controlling a spaceship. Resultantly, nearly all shots within the space station contained little to no CGI at all.
One thing I must stress is that this argument depends on what the film itself is structured like. If the film is surrealist, such as through the work of Lars von Trier or Terrence Malick, visual splendour may be the main purpose to satisfy deliberately surrealist plots. Obviously, this problem doesn’t apply to every single film in this case.
And I’m not saying that this one suggestion will fix rubbish like Transformers: Age of Extinction, but in a world where we get visual grandeur in spades, sometimes it’s not much to ask for the story to be equally impressive. To be a successful moviemaker, if you fool the audience with effects they don't even notice because they're so absorbed in the story, characters and world you've created, then that creates a truly rewarding cinematic experience that we love. And ultimately, isn’t that what going to the movies is all about?
CGI: the process of using computers to create pictures or characters in film and television. This creation can also include entire worlds, props and costumes.
Performance Capture: animation that is created through an actor’s movements being captured and recorded. Examples of this include Gollum and Smaug in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and King Kong in King Kong.
Sound Studio: A studio where films are recorded within a safe environment, or in an area that cannot be realistically created on location shooting. This large studios enable for the recording of sound, visuals and the creation of sets, depending on the studio size. Major Studio companies today include Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers.
Bluescreen & Greenscreen: used as a means of chroma key compositing, where the green or bluescreen is replaced and imposed with a different setting, whether it be computer generated or otherwise. Colour choice is dependent on the usage on the film, but mostly it ensure the human skin colour stands out, as well as working with costumes, props and sets. No part of the subject being filmed or photographed may duplicate a colour used in the background.