The Lazy Backlash Against CGI Needs to End

By  · Published on July 16th, 2015

Almost immediately after it played at Comic-Con, a teaser scene from Duncan Jones’ Warcraft leaked online. Just like every other trailer shown at Comic-Con. After the leaks, some studios chose to release HD versions to combat the blurry, others are holding fast, but Warcraft had a different kind of crisis.

Not only did a terribly shot cell phone video of their teaser end up online, the first words you hear on it are from a Hall H audience member mocking it.

I’m already not interested. It’s all CGI. Looks like a cartoon. Like Avatar.

It’s an idiotic comment. Not because he’s slamming (after two whole seconds!) a teaser for a fantasy epic that won’t be released until a year from now. Not because, of course, a movie like that being made in 2015 is going to go heavy on the CGI. Not because comparing it to the highest grossing movie of all time is a strange way to complement his disinterest.

But because judging something because it’s entirely CGI is a bizarre and meaningless metric. Unfortunately, it’s a bizarre and meaningless metric that’s really popular. We hear it all the time, but imagine the same comment burbling up during a teaser for The Adventures of Tintin or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or literally any Pixar movie.

Inside Out? Ugh. 100% CGI? Totally not interested.

So, okay, I get the distinction. Those are “cartoons” and Warcraft is…something else. Or at least it’s supposed to be. A non-cartoon. A live-action movie. An epic adventure with people in it. Not an extended video game cinematic.

In the 1980s and into most of the 1990s, it would have been made, probably by Henson, with a mix of humans and intricate puppets with a healthy dose of practical effects and a dash of CGI. That’s not the way things are done anymore. It’s also pretty amazing that we’ll get to see a movie where humans aren’t the main stars, especially one that looks as incredibly, fantastically gorgeous as Warcraft.

Yet there’s a lingering sense that largely CGI movies should be the realm of online releases. That they’re technically cartoons. To a certain extent, I understand why.

For one, Avatar is the go-to example, and not only is it only 6 years old, but it’s also one of the only examples of its kind. We’re in the nascent stages of what full CGI can accomplish, and few filmmakers/studios have been interested in matching that particular element of James Cameron’s movie.

For two, there’s been a resurgence in championing practical effects lately. It’s a necessary resurgence because practical effects demand our respect, and there’s something profoundly sad about Rick Baker retiring. At the same time, there’s also some horrendous practical work out there because, like CGI, practical effects (broadly labeled) are tools that can be used brilliantly or poorly. If you aren’t slathered completely in nostalgia jelly, you know the horrendous practical stuff that we’ve endured. It’s just as bad as the bad CGI.

That’s why attacking something purely because it’s CGI is lazy. Crying “CGI!” at something that’s CGI is like crying “Movie!” at a movie theater. It tells us nothing about whether the CGI works or not, or why it works or not.

My other assumption is that the birth of the lazy version of CGI backlash came after the Star Wars prequels. Not only did those movies not live up to expectations, they also didn’t look like the movies that came before it. George Lucas had become enamored with an emerging technology, and he was vilified for it. (As if green screen were the main culprit and not bad writing.) This judgment call is so widely accepted and prevalent that it’s become a major (maybe even necessary) sales point for The Force Awakens. J. J. Abrams and company practically got a sore throat repeating, “real sets, real puppets, real sand, real aliens, real robots” in their Comic-Con pitch. Their message was clear:

“We didn’t let George Lucas near this thing, and we didn’t cover the set in green screen.”

No one liked the cartoon element of the prequels, they got the message, and they want everyone to know they got that message.

What one flippant Hall H attendee had to say shouldn’t really matter, but for some reason it really got to me. Maybe because the “Ugh, CGI?” complaint is one I see all too often these days without any qualifiers. As if the shorthand is enough for us to nod our heads in agreement. It’s easy, lazy and hollow. Especially so when you’re scoffing because a mythical being “doesn’t look realistic.”

At any rate, Warcraft isn’t even 100% CGI anyway. And maybe let’s all wait at least three seconds before going full Comic Book Guy on a trailer, eh?

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