The Lord of The Rings looked and felt like an engaging fantasy world because the CGI effects were used to supplement a very real and tangible setting (they built The Shire!), not create it in it’s entirety. Almost all of the goblins, orcs and other antagonists in The Hobbit trilogy are CGI, leaving the viewer with an over-saturated, something-isn’t-quite-right feel. It’s an almost intangible feeling but one I’ve experienced quite a bit with recent films. Compare that with LOTR, where the orcs are by and large people decked out in makeup and prosthetics, and it’s like night and day.
At this point, CGI heavy films are a fact of life for the filmgoer who enjoys blockbuster movies. We sigh and tell ourselves it’s needed to convey a high concept story, kind of like how going to the dentist is needed for good oral hygiene. But while one of these is necessary, no matter how many times you try to convince Mom otherwise, the other isn’t.
There are exceptions to this rule of course. Gollum was rendered entirely with motion-capture, and is widely regarded as one of the great innovations of that first trilogy. He made sense for CGI as he is an impossibly skinny creature with an almost un-proportional head. But part of what made Gollum work so well is how tangible the world around him was, where many modern movies fail in this is by adding too many characters and environments rendered entirely in CGI. I think there’s an unknown point of saturation where our brains start rejecting it. I don’t know exactly where that line is, it’s probably a bit different for everyone, but I think a lot of us can agree that The Hobbit and many other modern blockbusters are past that threshold.
CGI is a tool, and a damn good one, but not a catch all for any cinematic hurdle. We ridicule movies for overusing techniques, like Battlefield Earth for it's insistence that every camera angle be 'dutched' (ok, Battlefield Earth had some larger issues) so why do we accept when blockbuster movies insist that every effects shot be realized with CGI? It’s a legitimate technique, but use it too much and you start to seem like you don't know what you're doing.
Even from an economic standpoint CGI is a head-scratcher. Blockbuster films are getting more and more expensive, and part of what’s driving up the cost is directors using CGI for things that just as easily could have been done with practical effects like set design, costuming and makeup. So why do studios do it? My guess, is that it’s easier. You don’t have to figure out exactly how something will look on set, just shoot the actors and hand it over to a VFX studio. That’s an attractive idea for any director looking for a bit less stress on set. The tradeoff, however, is that a movie has to bring in a ton of revenue before it even recoups its costs. If more films still relied on practical effects, thereby lowering costs, would hollywood be less risk-averse in it's storytelling? If it *only* takes $50 million to make the next blockbuster, would the studio be less terrified about not making back their investment, and perhaps go with a less conventional script? Unconventional, but high quality movies are often well received, but they’re still few and far between.
I think the moviegoing public is ready for a shift away from CGI towards more variety from our special effects. For that to happen there probably needs to be some sort of catalyst to shift the trend. Enter the new Star Wars movie.
My admittedly pie-in-the-sky idea is for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to dramatically shake up the visual effects game going forward. Wouldn't that be the perfect redemptive irony to the Star Wars saga? For the franchise whose last installment is synonymous with CGI overload, to suddenly promote a back-to-basics approach for blockbuster cinema is some poetic redemption.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below.