Are visual effects ruining movies? Normally, we don’t find ourselves asking exactly how computer grafted images (CGI) contributes to a film on a level of storytelling as much as how they contribute to a film visually—even though this is essentially what separates the Michael Bays from the Christopher Nolans. Today the purists of older, more practical uses of special effects (such as puppetry & matte paintings) like to pick apart the impersonal, cold, intangible approach of computer-generated visuals; but despite these criticisms, filmmaking has always been an illusion. Whether the special effects are actors working with the antiquated front projection or today’s greenscreen, “realism” in visual effects ultimately becomes a moot point. Looking at it today, we don’t praise the Superman flying sequence for its realistic-looking effects, we praise it for its sweeping, fantastical narrative and romantic tone—so what makes the visual effects important?
“If computer-generated special effects have overpowered human-generated drama, Cameron seizes that dangerously cold technology and recasts it as dream and delirium, profoundly human in its sources and longings digital poetry, as personal as a sonnet.”
While this statement alone doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone’s opinion of Titanic (it certainly doesn’t reflect my opinion of it), it definitely begins to remind us about the reality of film-making as we see it today. What is considered one of the most moving moments in film history is in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, specifically the moment Sam Neill and Laura Dern first encounter the massive Brachiosaurus, a spectacle of CGI set against bright scenery, classic John Williams fanfare and the stunned, mesmerized reactions of the characters. How fitting that Spielberg, in introducing the characters to the achievement of genetic engineering, has synchronously introduced us to the achievement of special effects.
This scene is a staple of visual effects constructed with, as Kehr puts it “dangerously cold technology,” otherwise known as computer-generated imagery. If it wasn’t realized then, today that scene in Jurassic Park is something of a revelation. One that reveals that computer-generated special effects hasn’t overpowered human drama, as Kehr has surmised, but simply enhances it. Bringing it to depths that while not surpassing human drama, certainly alters it. CGI experiments how far we can manufacture human emotion and drama from simulated reality. Movies like District 9 have challenged this concept, generating pathos from the unappealing, almost frightening alien protagonists. And of course there is Titanic, its most iconic piece of dramatic storytelling not being the centralized romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, but the ship’s sinking, staged most prominently by greenscreen, miniatures and motion capture.
We have become so enamored by the effects of computer grafted imagery that it seems to have become in itself a selling point to mass audiences. Trailers and film previews can get away with not providing a good story as long as the images hint at something we think we want. This is normally why the previews of the Transformers movies are so appealing and why the movies aren’t nearly as well received. For all the “realism” the special effects can provide, we as an audience can see through its facade, the fake characters, the poor plotting and the inconsistent narrative. Unfortunately, due to the popularity of Michael Bay films, large-scale visual effects are almost always placed synonymously with juvenile caricatures, mediocre storytelling and pyromania.
In his scathing review of Transformers: Age of Extinction, Matt Singer describes the Chicago dogfight as “the most convincing illusion of high-elevation flight in movie history”. A bold statement, but one that’s hard to argue with. It’s a piece of illusory film-making that’s incredibly lifelike, but it’ll never be considered one of cinema’s great visual accomplishments—and this has nothing to do with the quality of the visuals itself but rather the quality of the film. What good are impressive visuals when everything else in the film is sub-par? We may be watching a skilled technician hone his craft, but without the artist’s humanistic expression we the audience are left in a state of disconnect by this dangerously cold technology.
Reiterating my initial question, are visual effects ruining movies? The answer is a lot more complicated than a yes or no. To think however that we’ve replaced human drama with CGI is ridiculous; the very notion would completely disregards the dramatic heights captured with some true classics such as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or the original Star Wars trilogy. And to this day, while visual effects are constantly being upgraded to be more realistic, the general principle behind them has and will likely always remain the same. Visual effects are a tool of storytelling, not a demo reel. With audiences becoming desensitized to the exposure of CGI and the line between visual spectacle and narrative having been blurred, it can be easy to see why some may conclude that today’s visual effects may be ruining movies. With that said however, it’s important to remember that CGI is still an effective tool, not only for creating illusions, but for completely altering and compounding the landscape of dramatic cinema.
Think of it this way, visual effects are like a superpower, in the right hands they can do wonders, placing spectators in a state of awe and emotional catharsis, but in the wrong hands, this power can be abused and corrupted, resulting in unintelligible and catastrophic consequences.