When Avengers: Endgame, a veritable smorgasbord of successful franchises, was released on April 26 of this year, it dominated the box office in both domestic and foreign markets. As the summer progressed, it finally dethroned James Cameron’s Avatar to be come the highest grossing film of all time. Upon hearing this news, I was curious what other cinematic treasures had reached the lofty heights of one of the highest grossing films of all time. According to Box Office Mojo, not adjusted for inflation, all of the top ten highest grossing films are digital effects heavy blockbusters: e.g. Star War: The Force Awakens. This fact brings me to my reason for this piece: I am tired of CGI.
For those of you who are unaware, CGI, or computer-generated imagery, is the use of digitally created graphics and effects within film. Now, reader, do not misconstrue my message. I am as much a fan of the M.C.U. and the Star Wars universe as any young nerd can be; however, the onslaught of computer-generated characters, sets and even costumes has begun to wear down even my avid obsession with these franchises.
The use of CGI has been a long-standing practice within cinema, first used in the film Westworld in 1973, but it did not begin to become ubiquitous in film until the close of the 20th century with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park in widely regarded as the first successful use of CGI to render lifelike digital creatures in a live action film. While Jurassic Park was lauded for its CGI, there are only 14 minutes of digitally rendered dinosaurs within the film’s over two hour run time. To the surprise of many, most of the time the dinosaurs are on the screen they are done so through the use of practical, or non-digital, effects. Many of Jurassic Park’s most iconic scenes, such as the claustrophobic velociraptor kitchen scene, were done mainly using animatronics and costumes.
Practical effects used to be a staple of filmmaking simply because digital effects were not viable for use. Despite this, filmmakers were able to use practical effects to achieve their goals. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and John Carpenter’s The Thing created awe and horror-inspiring films through their creative use of practical effects.
Practical effects, by nature of being corporeal creations, offer something that special effects simply cannot. The actors can directly interact with these creations, producing a sense of tangibility that often feels lacking in special-effects-driven films. In many cases, over-reliance on CGI can cause a film to feel hollow, even though the screen is filled with details. Concurrently, as CGI technology continues to advance, films that utilize early versions of CGI can feel dated upon modern viewings. Practical effect-driven films, on the other hand, circumvent this dating.
For fear of sounding like a cinematic luddite, I will offer up an olive branch to the world of computer-generated imagery. CGI does allow filmmakers to create set pieces and characters that simply would not be possible through practical effects. In these instances, the use of CGI is warranted; however, it should not be used as a crutch to bolster the world of filmmakers too lazy to build a set.
If a film does need CGI, it is important to blend these elements with practical effects to allow the world to feel grounded and tangible. The epitome of successfully blending both CGI and practical effects is director Christopher Nolan. Perhaps the greatest example of this blending comes from the film Inception. Inception features mind-blowing digital effects, but Nolan, likely taking inspiration from Kubrick, had a rotating hallway built for the iconic spinning hotel fight scene. In creating this set, Nolan allows his film, about entering people’s dreams, to feel somewhat grounded in reality.
As I begin to step off of my soapbox, I have some closing remarks. CGI has allowed filmmakers to create worlds and characters that could not have existed even 10 years ago. While this advancement is impressive, it should not overshadow the usefulness and importance of practical effects in film. In order for a film to stand the test of time, in my opinion, both practical and digital effects should be utilized to ground even the most fantastic of films.