The use of computer generated imagery (CGI) in films has become so commonplace that audiences don’t marvel at it anymore—once-spectacular effects are now just an ordinary and expected part of seeing a movie.
Yet despite astonishing technological advances in CGI over the last few decades, lately it has become, frankly, a little boring. It’s a problem both of over-familiarity and a lack of real innovation at the same time.
Once Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the Matrix introduced a new and freaky way for the characters to move, scores of other movies followed suit with little adaptation or evolution.
Check out this summer’s Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter for a recent reincarnation of Crouching Tiger moves and the most ridiculous clouded, blurry CGI wreck of a horse stampede ever assembled (though I admit, it was novel when the vampire picked up a horse by its legs and threw it at Honest Abe).
Battles, monsters and aliens, chase scenes, underwater or outer space experiences, characters falling from great heights or flying through impossible landscapes, and fantasy sequences start to blend into one predictable visual with little differentiation from film to film. Parts of The Avengers are indistinguishable from The Amazing Spiderman or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol or Men In Black 3 or Independence Day. CGI has become the great homogenizer.
Just a few moments into yet another thrilling digitally-generated scene, often the viewer’s mind starts to wander. Too many multiple smokestacks smoking, things falling straight down surrounded by debris, monsters ricocheting around the frame, giant exploding fireballs, particles of glass exploding in every direction—didn’t we see this last week in another movie, too? The fast and furious action, the rapidly shifting camera angles, and the sense that you can’t really see anything clearly for more than a split second combine into a numbing sameness. Most onscreen battles seem entirely interchangeable, featuring identical legions of cut and pasted warriors who spend no more than a split second each on screen, surrounded by tremendous billowing clouds of dust and way too much stuff being hurled through the air.
Today’s digital movie monsters are much realer and more scary thanks to CGI—they’ve come a long way since King Kong and Godzilla were posable models photographed in stop-action and shot in black and white. Aliens, their worlds, and their space ships are now believable in a way that 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space’s flying saucer (that would be a pie pan suspended on a string) could never hope to achieve.
But even so, our movie monsters and aliens have similar skin textures and bulging muscles, roaring mouths dripping with slime, and identical ways of leaping around the screen and morphing into something else. Where’s the vision, the newness, the inventiveness?
Entirely computer-animated films (think: any one of the Toy Story or Ice Age movies, or The Incredibles) are different—they each create a unique world unlike any other, a consistent-feeling digitally-generated environment that obeys the laws of its own lighting and perspective.
And movies like Titanic or Alien that combine sound stage shots using life-sized models with additional computer effects added later provided a more interesting, nuanced reality for viewers to get lost in. Moviegoers have always been willing to suspend disbelief—just look at the audiences who sat through Plan 9 from Outer Space despite the silly pie-pan spaceship—but their patience should be rewarded with more innovation in CGI. Each battle should look unique; each alien should have its own distinct appearance. As for the nauseating flying-between-buildings point of view, we’ve already seen all of the Spiderman movies.
Angela Riechers is a writer and art director specializing in design, media, and visual culture. She is a recipient of the AOL Artists 25 for 25 grant for her interactive multimedia project, www.sitesofmemory.com. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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