I know this is an odd time to publish this, given the recent passing of Stan Winston, one of the great practical effects artists, but…I love computer-generated imagery. And I’m tired of it getting a bad rap.

Part of this does stem from growing up in the CGI era. I was born in 1986, and while I was raised on Star Wars like any good American, I found the Special Editions, at the time anyway, to be vast improvements (I still hold Lucas made changes for the better of Empire). I have no nostalgic ties to the good old days when everything was strung together and made by hand, though I marvel at the accomplishments made in pre-Abyss/T2 special effects films, and continue to marvel and the work done on sets in modern filmmaking.

But much as I support CGI, I do acknowledge it’s also an overused, lazy way to create what could have been an amazing sequence if done practically. So to illustrate diametric views, I’ll use three recent examples – Speed Racer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Zodiac.

NOTE: This article contains minor spoilers for Speed Racer and major spoilers for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.



See, for me, it all depends on application and vision. I know Speed Racer is a tough example, because it wasn’t exactly the most beloved film this summer, but I hope at least to show how CGI allowed the Wachowskis to achieve their vision, even if their vision wasn’t to your liking. See, Speed Racer wouldn’t be the same movie – in fact, it’d be a pretty lame movie – without the use of computer animation. A lot of people complained that it looked like a cartoon, but…isn’t that the point?

(As an aside, I totally believe that its label as an empty piece of commerce wouldn’t be applied if it wasn’t based on an existing property. It’s interesting that the words “based on” are often the crux of many critical complaints, as in “it’s the latest in a string of comic book adaptations,” and yet so many classic films were based on material published in other mediums. I wouldn’t be surprised if, a few years down the line, the film sees the sort of critical revival Ang Lee’s Hulk is enjoying.)

    “To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style,        like the outside and the inside of the human body – both go together, they       can’t be separated.”
            -Jean-Luc Godard



Godard understood and practiced this principle better than maybe anybody else, indeed to almost insane degrees that it seems like he eventually got lost in his artistic pursuits, but the Wachowskis are certainly pursuing a similar vein. In discussing No Country for Old Men (stick with me; this will relate), Jim Emerson wrote:

Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert “craftsmanship” and their “technical” skills – as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of “impeccable technique” – you know, for “formalists.” And the cinematography is “beautiful.” Heck, it’s even “gorgeous.”

But what do those terms mean if they are plucked out of the movie like pickles from a cheeseburger? How is something “beautiful” apart from what it does in the film? (See uncomprehending, original-release reviews of Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven, for example, in which the “beautiful” was treated as something discrete from the movie itself.)

….

When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers’ application of “craft,” “technique,” and “style” (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we’re all in trouble.

I’m not out to say that Speed Racer is as dense or important a film as the aforementioned masterpieces by the Coen Brothers, Malick, or Kubrick (in fact, Days and Heaven and Barry Lyndon are two of my absolutely favorite films of all time, and I consider them two of the finest ever made); it’s not even as accomplished. But if you’re open to the idea of a live-action cartoon, the movie is a joy to watch. And by making a live-action cartoon instead of a photographed film aided by cartoon elements, the film is able to express this again and again. And it is beautiful, not just visually. When Speed zooms past the other racers to win the final race in a sequence that feels more like Bowman’s journey beyond the infinite than, well, a racing film, the visual design expresses not just the insane speed he’s traveling at, but the exhilaration he (and, hopefully by this point, we) feel.



This starts right from the opening of the film, one of the most fluid, flawless, and exciting applications and combinations of exposition and character introduction I’ve ever seen (the clip only begins to hint how this section of the film culminates, with Speed facing off against the memory of his brother). I wish the rest of the film has this level of self-assurance and daring, but for a film to flirt with it, even that briefly, is something worth appreciating.

None of this would be possible without computer animation. It wouldn’t have been nearly as kinetic or exciting. Not all of the film is as expressive or impressionistic, but it always supports the film’s construction as a piece of pop art, and as befits the subject, seems to constantly scream, “Go, Go, Go!”

In every way that CGI helps Speed Racer succeed, it helps Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fail. Indy 4 is a perfectly serviceable CGI blockbuster, but as a result of even aiming to be a CGI blockbuster, it undercuts what the film seems to be trying to feel like, which is an old-fashioned adventure movie.

There are some handy, natural uses of CGI – the atomic explosion and its visual counterpoint at the end, the UFO – but it seems to me that so much of the CGI was either to make what someone in the production thought was “fun” (I’m not going to blame Lucas for all the film’s faults; that’s just lazy and, without knowing production details, desperately in need of something more than gut instinct) or to make a difficult stunt easier. The “fun” includes stuff like prairie dogs, monkeys, etc. The difficult stunts…I’m thinking chiefly of the musical-chairs jeep chase through the jungle, but I’d also like to include the ants. In his review of The Incredible Hulk here at CHUD, Devin wrote that the Hulk might not look realistic, but at least he seems to have weight and presence, which is  enough to suspend his disbelief. And that’s the problem with the latter set pieces in Indy 4 – they feel like, weightless. And that removes the danger. There might not have been any other way to do these sequences, but if doing them this way destroys the tone of the film (and I submit that it does), then it’s time to come up with another set piece, because the film feels tired enough as it is.

The weird thing is that CGI doesn’t automatically work against the concept of an old-fashioned adventure film made in the modern era. Peter Jackson’s underrated, if bloated, King Kong achieved this admirably, even with the constant influx of CGI. The difference is that a) King Kong had better CGI, and b) the CGI elements never distracted from the momentum of the action, nor from the emotions of the characters. The CGI in Indy 4 does.

But wow, you want to talk about a film that never once calls attention to its CGI, never once has a distracting computer element in it…watch thee some Zodiac, friend. I mean, you should also watch it because it’s an amazing film, but it’s a great study in the increasing use of CGI as a way to build upon dramatic scenes, rather than to create spectacle. Only a few shots are created with CGI in the way Speed Racer is – a helicopter shot across the bay, an overhead shot of a taxi cab. But dozens, if not hundreds, of shots were touched up and accented by it. Backgrounds were created from it. But the point is that the CGI blends very seamlessly into the film. It helps that David Fincher shot on digital, and the film as a whole has a certain sheen to it, but nevertheless, the computer helped Fincher ground the film even more in the 1970s, rather than removing us from that era. If you haven’t already (and really, what’s stopping you?), go out and pick up the Director’s Cut DVD and devour the special features, especially the one on visual effects. It’s really pretty stunning, and makes you appreciate Fincher’s construction of the film all the more.

Discuss this HERE.