Computer-generated imagery first came about in the 1970s and has been used liberally by Hollywood filmmakers ever since. In the past few decades, the industry has grown increasingly reliant on CGI to produce the big-budget, spectacle-driven franchise films that now dominate the film scene.
Just in the last five years, we’ve seen mind-boggling live action remakes that depend entirely on the use of CGI to work: “The Jungle Book,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin” are but a few examples. These films, while visually impressive, have seriously lowered the bar when it comes to the films Hollywood is choosing to produce. They are all but technologically advanced versions of the wonderful classic films we grew up with, without any of the heart.
It feels as though CGI is no longer used as a tool that can enhance a story, but rather an opportunity to say, “hey audience, look what we can do!” and neglect the most important aspect of filmmaking: the story. Instead of storytelling, Hollywood has been showboating, trying to woo audiences with their fancy graphics.
It’s not that “Avatar” wasn’t impressive – it was revolutionary – it took audiences to another world so life-like you would forget it wasn’t real. The problem is, we got so excited about it, we never stopped. Hollywood’s biggest-budget productions largely abandoned filmmaking with real sets and tangible props and costumes, replacing actual realism with a graphically-enhanced version.
But this isn’t what CGI was meant to do. CGI was meant to be used judiciously, as a way to embellish the storytelling, not replace it. Like everything else in life, we must use CGI in moderation.
Now let’s look at who did it right:
- “Inception” (2010). This may have been a predictable choice, but there’s a reason for that. Christopher Nolan’s reality-bending dream heist movie was at its core, a really cool and original idea, and Nolan’s vision required a little extra help to bring it to life. While CGI was employed when the protagonists fell into “limbo” towards the end of the film, many of the visuals were shot on-location in Japan, England, and France, using in-camera transitions to keep the film as real as possible. This minimalist use of CGI helped make “Inception” that much more memorable – the fact that the dream sequences were so real was what really blew me away as a viewer.
- “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004). The amount of CGI-fueled natural disaster films these days seems like too many to count, but only a few have managed to use CGI to their benefit. A star-studded climate change ‘popcorn thriller,’ “The Day After Tomorrow” makes up for its lack of depth and effective dialogue with its stunning visuals. The image of the larger-than-life Statue of Liberty buried in snow and ice up to her face is not easily forgotten. It may be ‘certified rotten’ by Rotten Tomatoes critics, but it remains a guilty pleasure for me, and one of my favorite disaster movies that I still get excited about every time.
- “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006). We come now to the franchises, which have used CGI more heavily with each new sequel, but there are some that deserve recognition. The first “Pirates of the Caribbean” was an exciting new adventure for audiences, leaving them hungry for more – back when a sequel was a good thing, because we assumed they would stop at some point. “Dead Man’s Chest,” the second film in the series, introduced us to the tentacle-faced Davy Jones and his loyal pet, the Kraken, both made possible by CGI.
- “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002). I know not everyone is a fan of the fantastical trilogy, but these three films are a masterclass in the collaborative art of filmmaking. The beautiful New Zealand locations, the intricate costumes, amazing ensemble cast, makeup and hair, and the cherry on top – CGI. “The Two Towers,” like “Dead Man’s Chest” introduced a new character with which to show off its special effects. Gollum – played by creature-actor legend Andy Serkis is brought to you by the magic of motion capture.
- “Jurassic Park” (1993). Who would I be if I didn’t include Steven Spielberg’s incredible summer blockbuster that brought dinosaurs to life? This film was a huge milestone for the world of CGI – apparently, the dinosaurs were so realistic that George Lucas was inspired to make the “Star Wars” prequels, as the technology had finally caught up with his vision for the sci-fi films.
In conclusion, the use of CGI in filmmaking should be like eating: just because you can eat the whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, doesn’t mean you should. Everything in moderation.