CGI and world building — why are filmmakers getting it so wrong?

Though it’s too early to judge Duncan Jones’ upcoming Warcraft film, the first official trailer doesn’t inspire much confidence. Overladen with special effects, including largely CGI Orcs, sets, and dizzying tracking shots, fans of Blizzard’s 25-year-old game franchise have right to be sceptical. From its beginning as a real-time strategy game that morphed into an even more popular massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), there likely isn’t a gaming world any more beloved than Warcraft’s Azeroth and Outland.

The Warcraft trailer is indicative of the endemic overuse of CGI in modern fantasy and science-fiction filmmaking, and further evidence that the advances in technology, which ostensibly enhance the screen worlds and cinematic experience, may in fact be detracting from it.

Look no further than Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy, films that are a far cry from the more grounded and practical effects rich The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The first LOTR still contained 540 effects shots, but was lauded for how those effects were used, namely eye-capturing establishing shots, or to insert grandiose structures into the frame — all to compliment rather than replace entirely, physical sets and practical effects.

But as Frodo’s journey to Mordor went on, so did the dependence on effects, with approximately 800 for The Two Towers, and a whopping 1488 come The Return of the King.

By the time Jackson made King Kong in 2005, the Kiwi director was working with 2000+ effects shots, a trend that continued with The Hobbit Trilogy, movies blasted by many for their at times absurd use of CGI, such as Legolas’ gravity defying run. Generally speaking too, there’s a plethora of characters and shots Jackson would have done practically a decade earlier, but relied heavily on CGI instead; managing to both butcher the story of The Hobbit and the world of Middle-earth simultaneously.

And now Warcraft looks frightfully like it’s Jackson at the helm, not Duncan Jones, the director who brought us the restrained science-fiction gem Moon.

Though Avatar (2009, 2,500 SFX shots) seemed like a watershed moment for the use of CGI, the truth is it’s been creeping up since Jurassic Park (1993) effectively revolutionised computer animation for live action film. It’s 50 VFX shots were ground breaking, and still hold up in the face of today’s VFX. To bring to life any disaster, comic, science fiction or fantasy film, CGI is arguably needed to create these worlds, with new technology utilised or in some cases even invented, to go bigger and better.

But rarely is it better. George Lucas’ 1997 Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition a notable example of how CGI can turn to the dark side. The special edition featured brand new CGI shots and scenes, as well as enhancements of existing shots (you can see a full breakdown below).

In hindsight it appeared to be shameless cash grab, as even by late 90s standards, the CGI looked cheap and unnecessary. Those hoping to be further immersed in a more ‘realised’ version of the Star Wars universe were greatly disappointed.

It’s not as if fantasy or sci-fi films could even be considered niche enough anymore to need gimmick or spectacle to get bums on seats; Star Wars has proved that beyond doubt for sci-fi, and the same has been made abundantly clear for fantasy with Lord of the Rings, and more recently HBO’s Game of Thrones.

One of the only things restrained about Game of Thrones is its use of CGI, employing it only when it can’t get away without using it. Green screens are often used to exaggerate structures and cities rather than rendering them from scratch, and much of its CGI is in the background rather than the foreground. Its limited VFX is most likely for budgetary reasons yes, but it’s one of the world’s most popular TV shows, and goes to show just because the technology is available, doesn’t mean you have to use it overtly.

True, television and film are very different kettles of fish, but Game of Thrones, and recently in the sci-fi realm, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, prove patronising audiences with overblown, in your face CGI isn’t necessary — if the story and world are engaging, people will keep coming back.

And, as many Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter fans would attest to, it’s the physical sets, art design, and subtle use of CGI in places like Hobbiton and Hogwarts that make them worlds people love to revisit and rewatch, not dizzying spectacle.

The dystopian desert in Mad Max: Fury Road and gothic maze in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth also manage to blend practical and computer generated effects, to the extent that the use of CGI in many moments, are indiscernible. Though the former is far more an action than sci-fi, there’s still an incredible amount of CGI used for world building, far more than first impressions might suggest. They’re not throwing CGI out the window, just using it wisely. Nowadays fantasy films are sadly synonymous with death defying and absurd escapes from humungous monsters, aliens, alien fish, dragons, dinosaurs; you name it — but it doesn’t need to be this way.

It might be too late for Duncan Jones and Warcraft, but hopefully more filmmakers and the studios that back these sci-fi and fantasy epics will take note and realise hardcore fans and general audiences can both be appeased by less CGI spectacle, and more world building.

So for the sake of us geeks, smarten up Hollywood.

Garry Westmore (@GarryWestmore)

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Originally published at www.acmi.net.au.

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