Oz the Great and Powerful

Walt Disney Pictures

We’re on the cusp of summer with all of its glistening promise of wide-eyed wonder, and the most pressing question is whether we’d even be able to recognize amazement if it slapped us in the face and called us Sally.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think summer is a wasteland for movies. Sincerely. Far from it. However, it’s easy to get discouraged about Blockbuster Season because the batting average isn’t good. Bad movies outweigh the amazing across all genres and styles, but blockbuster movies feel different because of the full-court advertising press and the sheer number of movies arriving within a short amount of time that typically look the same, feel the same and have the same basic story.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the explosive growth of Blockbuster Season has been an exhausting shift (I was hoping to evolve faster), but it’s also important to remember the wonderful, truly fantastic movies that have emerged from the noise. Holding that optimistic remembrance in mind, I read Drew McWeeny’s “Has Life in the Age of Casual Magic Made Moviegoers Numb to the Amazing?” with rapt attention. The kind you give to a comedian who keeps nailing exactly how you feel about air travel. He explores complexities beyond the headlining question, but at its heart lies a spot-on idea about how we’re spoiled by an all-powerful cinematic tool that’s being used ad nauseam for the same handful of simple tasks.

First of all, “casual magic” is the perfect phrase for what’s happening with CGI. Second of all, I’d like to offer two mental gaps that make sense of why this numbness is potentially happening.

The first and main mental gap is this:

  1. We know enough about the CGI situation to explainify almost everything in movies with “It was done with computers.”
  2. But we don’t know enough to appreciate the craftsmanship of what that means in a specific, meaningful way.

To continue the metaphor, movies are like watching a live magic show. If you don’t know how it’s done, a great magician can make you believe in the impossible.

When you know how the tricks work, it makes you appreciate a great card force or smooth French drop in a different way. Maybe not appreciating it “more,” because the illusory element is taken away, fundamentally altering the nature of what you’re seeing. But learning how something works can intensify appreciation for it because you’re enjoying the difficulty of the execution. You’re no longer in awe of the magic, but in awe of the challenge of the act of creating it. CGI is akin to wizardry, which makes its mechanics far more difficult to understand on that level, but we still have shorthand for how we explain what we’re seeing.

Of course, we shouldn’t have to know how something was done. Amazement is a raw emotional response, so we should be able to revert to our five-year-old selves, sitting in the grass at our birthday party watching a magician pull a rabbit from absolutely nowhere. For the most part, that’s not possible with CGI.

Here’s where we run into the second mental gap:

  1. CGI is good enough to do anything.
  2. But CGI is not good enough to be invisible (yet).

What I mean by CGI not being invisible is solely for how it’s used in blockbuster movies. Drew mentions the Only God Forgives FX reel and all of its excellent, invisible surprises in reference to CGI astounding like true magic. Zodiac is another strong example because David Fincher, Digital Domain and Matte World Digital did some insane things with CGI hidden in plain sight. Neighborhood streets, windows, every day items that were enhanced or created out of whole cloth from computers. Stuff that you’d never spot. Stuff that you don’t know you’re supposed to be amazed by until you’re told the trick.

But that’s not how blockbuster CGI works. It’s the sizzle, the thing that sells in the trailers, so filmmakers and studios are obliged to put something that can be more impressive behind the stage, front and center in the spotlight with the hope that the Biggest action with the Most explosions and the Slightly Confusing blur of CGI will be what audiences are clamoring about in the parking lot. It’s also easier to make a digital street lamp invisible than a digital monster punching a building.

It’s the modern day version of seeing your money up on the screen. No longer “a cast of thousands…”, the marquee should read “and a cast of thousand compositors and render coordinators!” Unfortunately, that’s the catch. CGI needs to be seen to be amazing, but being seen diminishes its power to be amazing. In practical terms, for 99% of blockbuster movies, the strings are showing.

Jurassic Park

Universal Pictures

One argument against what I’m saying is that the average moviegoer will no have no more practical appreciation of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park than they would of CGI, but there’s a mental gap present here as well.

Looking at the situation this way dictates that we’re almost all of us are howdy-do-dats (using the parlance of our times). But my mother can look at the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and think, “I’ve made puppets before, and that’s one insanely difficult-to-build, complex fucking puppet.” She’d never say that because she doesn’t curse, but she could think it.

She can’t say the same for computerized images. Neither can I. And I’ve made puppets. I have direct understanding at the most basic of levels what it’s like to make something that’s meant to represent something else. Even though I’ve used Photoshop, I can’t understand that most basic of levels of CGI creation. I have no compass. My explanation effectively boils down to “Because computers.”

I can’t help but wonder if that gulf between practical experience and magical appreciation injures our ability to be amazed.

However, there might be something simpler at work here: that our threshold for defining what’s “amazing” has changed and narrowed. CGI doesn’t look as bad as it did back when Harry Potter played his first game of Quidditch, but some of it is still rudimentary, and even the most expensive stuff can look wrong. Tricking us means being invisible, and being invisible means being perfect. CGI will get there, but it’s not there yet, and we’ve seen so much of it after two decades that we’re too familiar with the flawed final product. It’s why the hotel hallway sequence in Inception is so mind-boggling. It’s pristine, and after spending too long trying to figure out how CGI could look that good, it made sense that the scenes were done practically.

On the flip side, that’s also why Gravity is so impressive. We know it was built with CGI because it had to be, but it was so close to impeccable that it was easy to forget about the mechanics and focus on being tricked. When that level of artistry becomes the norm, Blockbuster Season is going to be truly astounding.

Maybe, then, it’s not that we’ve become numb to amazement, but that the bulk of what blockbuster movies is presenting really isn’t all that amazing in the first place. Oz the Great and Powerful had some gorgeous digital scenery, but The Wizard of Oz also had gorgeous matte scenery, and a pretty picture isn’t the whole ballgame anyway.

I don’t know all the psychological ins and outs of why I see Ludo from Labyrinth (seen above making a vital philosophical point) and think simultaneously “It’s a puppet” and “It’s a radical, super sweet monster guy who hates the Bog of Eternal Stench.” But for whatever reason, it doesn’t often transfer to CGI. I have trouble holding both thoughts in my head at once with CGI, and the magic is almost always shot down by seeing the strings. It’s also more often shot down by blurry work and confusingly edited shots.

The other problem compounding the numb feeling is monotony. I agree 100% with Matt Patches’ visual essay on comic book movies looking the same. Marvel is using similarities to show cohesion in their universe, sure, but they’re also dealing with the problems that uniformity creates. It’s why news of Marvel wanting to release four movies a year feels tiresome, but the potential for Guardians of the Galaxy to offer something different is energizing.

If variety is the spice of life, most blockbuster movies are serving up month-old boiled potatoes sitting in room temperature skim milk.

There are a ton of reasons for it, and a ton of aspects to the situation of studio blockbuster filmmaking turning inward and insular (Drew hits on them thoroughly), but it’s why I haven’t turned to summer blockbusters expecting to be impressed anymore. Not for a few years at least.

While many of my all-time favorites could be considered blockbusters (and many more are genre pics), we’ve reached a doldrums when it comes to the second most powerful tool filmmaking has ever seen (and make no doubt that it is) being used in aggravatingly limited ways.

But it’s also why I have hope for the most powerful filmmaking tool: storytelling.

Too often, CGI is meant as a crutch, a substitute for that ultimate force, and it isn’t up to the challenge. In order to sweep bad characters and plots under the rug, visuals have to be life-altering, and we’re too accustomed to seeing CGI (especially blockbuster CGI climaxes) to be fooled by what’s becoming commonplace.

The beauty there is two-fold. One, that studios and filmmakers capable of telling great stories with CGI will be able to shine. Two, that the CGI of the future will have to become a new brand of amazing in order to earn the price of admission. All of those new versions of amazement should be, well, you know.


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