What CGI Can’t Do

By  · Published on May 11th, 2015

Within the past two weeks, I’ve seen two large-scale, effects-driven adventure movies, and neither looked anything like the other. The first was Avengers: Age of Ultron, which looks like all Marvel movies do. The second was Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam’s time-tested cult fantasy that’s worthy of worship. You’d never mistake one for the other.

Not that you should. The two have little visually in common because they live in two different worlds. One is the universe of modern-day superheroes trying to save our world. The other is an era-spanning trek that takes an inquisitive young boy and the bandits through iconic periods of history (Greek, Napoleonic Wars) and a time of legends.

One features the clean sheen of CGI. The other looks like it was glued together using found objects in the world’s coolest garage. These two styles seem largely irreconcilable.

But watching Time Bandits after Age of Ultron really highlights the sameness we’ve grown accustomed to in the age of CGI. I’ve tried for years to straddle the line between criticism and appreciation of CGI because it’s young and it’s magic and we don’t know exactly what it can do. Still, it’s difficult to hear that we can “do anything” with CGI now while recognizing the similarities between images made from almost every effects house doing big-budget work today on blockbusters between the major studios. Phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space.

This is the sentiment Drew McWeeny shared in his essay on casual magic:

We are living in an age of casual magic, and it has numbed everyone on both ends of the equation. Filmmakers are so used to being able to just call someone and ask them to do the impossible that they take it for granted, and audiences have become so jaded about the effects they see that when things are anything less than flawless, they get angry about it. Never mind that we are frequently seeing people reinvent the entire process of how something is created onscreen, sometimes starting a movie not entirely sure how they’re going to accomplish everything they have in mind, and innovations seem to happen every year now. People expect flawlessness, and anything less is unacceptable.

The lack of limitation (except time and money) and a new dedication to verisimilitude lead to a tightening of the lines that CGI colors within. If you want a dragon for your project (be it Harry Potter or Game of Thrones) you’ll get a dragon that looks like other dragons. It’ll be technically impressive, but they’re all going to look virtually the same because technicians are attempting to ape what we generally think of when we imagine a dragon.

If Gilliam created a dragon, you can bet it wouldn’t look like anyone else’s.

Which is something to consider. It’s one thing to say that CGI has regressed to a mean, but it’s also important to note that putting up one of a dozen CGI battle spectacles against the mind of Terry Gilliam isn’t a fair fight. Modern action movies aren’t supposed to be bizarre, but even movies like Oz The Great and Powerful, which are meant to showcase vibrant imaginations, tend to showcase the boundaries of those imagined worlds instead. Everything in that movie is still polished and covered (arguably neutered) by the necessities of CGI.

Matt Singer also echoed this idea after seeing The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Even as a Spidey apologist, it was hard to argue. Amazing Spider-Man 2 might be the most beautiful Spider-Man, but it also stands a good chance of being completely forgotten, because it looks incredible, but not special. Even if it wasn’t the fifth major Spider-Man film in less than 15 years, it would still be the second massive superhero extravaganza in a month (after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which crashed a flying aircraft carrier into Washington D.C. ) and one of four coming this summer, including X-Men Days Of Future Past (starring mutant-hunting future robots) and Guardians Of The Galaxy (featuring talking raccoons and sentient trees). There are also blockbusters about giant fighting dinosaurs, a Greek demigod, mutant ninja turtles, and armies of apes. These days, once-in-a-lifetime visuals are more like once-a-week occurrences, and it seems like Hollywood produces more “extraordinary” movies than ordinary ones.

It’s not like there are a ton of Gilliams and Jim Hensons and Guillermo del Toros, but it feels more and more like the CGI rise in the 1990s hobbled the DIY, patchwork power of practical fantasy.

CGI is a tool, but it used to be a hollow buzz word like “classic” or “stylized.” The kind of word people used as shorthand to mean anything, but now it’s begun representing a limited scope. We have a more specific vision for what it means when we talk about “CGI Style.” Meanwhile, Gilliam made Time Bandits for an unthinkable $13m (inflation adjusted), but it’s exactly that fiscal tight spot that inspired some of the phenomenal imagery crafted by Gilliam, production designer Milly Burns and art director Norman Garwood. With pennies on the dollar, they built time holes, a kid’s bedroom that extended for miles, a giant with a ship on his head, a mountain-top castle behind a shattered reality, a raucous party in ancient Greece and a lot more. They split a roasted cow in half and let fruits of every color pour out. They stole a scrap heap of gold from the emperor of France.

That need to cobble things together doesn’t exist with CGI. With everything built from the void of digital space, artists can grab whatever they need from thin air (and build it through back-breaking, soul-aching effort). They don’t have to visit the junkyard and attempt to find the ingredients for a Minotaur head.

It’s impossible to know whether the Labyrinth-led popular of mixed media in film was a momentary fad or not, but it’s also not unfair to say that the implementation of CGI gave it a shorter shelf life. My personal hope is that we push beyond the normalized toddler phase of the technology, and that studio’s make room for the weird to stretch the current boundaries of perfection.

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