CGI has been used to do all the really hard stuff in film effects

A provocative theory about CGI and filmmaking; CGI has cleared the backlog of all the stuff that was hard to do with tradition effects, and Hollywood is still locked into making safe movies:
"Avatar" nailed "alien planet". "Harry Potter" nailed "magic". "Titanic" nailed "big disaster". "Lord of the Rings" nailed "fantasy epic war". "Batman" nailed "comic book hero". The backlog has been worked down. Audiences can no longer be impressed by doing any of those things.

It wasn't cheap. Movies once boasted "a cast of thousands". Now, major films do have a cast of thousands - of artists and animators. "Captain America"'s credits have about 850 people on the effects side alone. Anything can be put on screen, but it costs about $100 million.

That's the problem. The technology didn't make movies cheaper to make. Even if the whole thing is done in front of a green screen, it doesn't save much money. ("Sky Captain" was supposed to cost $20 million, but ended up costing $80 million.) We're not seeing good $20 million movies with high production values. Those economics lock Hollywood into what are considered sure wins.

I'm very suspicious of the argument that all the stuff we can imagine has been done (for one thing, there's a world of sui generis stories to be told about subjects that can only be approached with CGI -- also, there's probably not one canonical way of visually representing subjects like "magic"), but I really hear you about the cost structure of Hollywood driving an inherent conservatism in subjects and approaches.

Working down the backlog (via Hack the Planet)

(Image: American Idol Model, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from bobbekian's photostream)


  1. I think a lot the movies that still cost a lot are breaking new ground. District 9 didn’t cost that much and looks amazing. Donnie Darko and Monsters as well. These are movies that would have cost a LOT more to look as good as they do 20-30 years ago. 

    One of the things I hate about CG is that stunts are no longer impressive. If a car crashed down RIGHT next to an actor in an 80s movie, that actually happened. I’m sure it was done safely but there’s an excitement there. Now anytime a hero ducks at the last second as a Chrysler tumbles through the air inches from their head, it’s just not exciting because you know it didn’t actually happen. Am I alone in this?

    1. Not only are the CGI stunts no longer impressive, I think there’s an argument to be made that CG STILL hasn’t gotten good enough to suspend disbelief the way films used to. And so Hollywood’s completely abandoning live stunts in favor of computer-generated crap has really taken the wonder out of film for me since, ohh, maybe 1995. We were all amazed at Jurassic Park because we had never seen anything like it. Now, films like Avatar come out and it’s “oh, ho-hum that’s nice” until we put on the 3D glasses. And now even THAT isn’t enough.

      Try this: Go watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and tell me whether it looks more realistic and puts you on the edge of your seat during chases, fights, etc. than any of the crap action movies that have come out in the past 4 or 5 years.

      (I give a pass to movies like Inception which, frankly, have no other way of showing the viewer the producers’ intent. I’m complaining more about the movies that just default immediately to CGI for scenes that were once done well with much skill and planning decades ago.)

      1. Jurassic Park is actually a great point. The CGI, while not up to today’s standards, still looks great because it was used sparingly and in conjunction with brilliant practical effects and actual animatronics. While Avatar looks like a cartoon. 

        And dculberson, I’d put the Matrix up against EITHER of its two sequels as to which has the more realistic effects. 

        1. You’ll get no argument here!  The second and third Matrix movies were not a high point in movie making, that’s for sure.  The bad green screening is so obvious in so many scenes.

      2. As someone mentioned regarding Batman, Christopher Nolan apparently prefers to use physical effects whenever possible rather than CGI. In fact the most brilliant effects in Inception were the physical effects, not the CGI, though the CGI was used quite well – it’s a world builder, not a substitute for real action and story, and no film has embraced that as well (and as literally) as Inception.

        And never mind that Fred Astaire used the same effect fifty years ago – the way that the sets rotated to simulate shifting gravity was brilliantly done, and entirely physical which is why it wowed audiences in the way that CGI fests can’t.

        Plus it had a great story, and interesting characters portrayed by good actors. Just like Raiders, and the opposite of Indy 4 :)

    2. Personally, its not so much that I know it was “fake” for the actor, but rather, its too “fake” (as in preposterous) for me to find it enjoyable.  Its one thing to have a superhero with superpowers do something extraordinary, but these days, any ol’ joe is all of a sudden doing fifty flip dives off buildings.  There was a reason why Neo could do that Matrix affect.  He was special, it wasn’t the real world, etc.  Shortly thereafter the girls of Charlie’s Angels, totally normal non-superpower humans, could do it too. My suspension of disbelief can only take me so far.

      It hurts by ability to relate to characters.  Sure, the super-speed Jedi’s of the prequels were kinda neat at first, but I really felt more emotionally involved as a viewer watching Luke’s much simpler and slower fight with Vader in Empire because it seemed a lot more human.  What makes it a great fight is the emotion involved.  That’s a lot more thrilling than watching someone do fifty flips per second (especially with repeat viewings).Plus, each movie has to out do the last.  I feel like so many action sequences are now just giant blurs.  I literally can’t follow what is happening.  Its all sound and fury signifying nothing to me.  I just sort of tune out and wait for the swirls of colors and slap/pop noises to end.

      I think CGI should be like make up.  Its done best when you don’t even notice its being used.  For example, there is a ton of CGI in shows like Boardwalk Empire, but not once is it ever the focal point.  CGI is really great for creating worlds, but quite horrible when people try to use it as a substitute for characters, plots, and emotion.

  2. Can’t remember where I read about this… but it is apparently (and this is probably simplifying things) a program where you put in a screenplay on one end and an analysis (with suggestions for improving box office success) comes out the other end. 

    If they’ve boiled down the very concept of narrative to something that can be determined by an algorithm then I’m not surprised by the “inherent conservatism in subjects and approaches” we tend to see.

    Here’s the link:

  3. There will always be compelling new stories to tell, and fresh, relevant, engaging ways to tell those stories. 

    You’re right about “the cost structure of Hollywood driving an inherent conservatism in subjects and approaches,” which is why I’m not looking toward the big studios for this fresh material.  Fortunately, the “lo-fi” options for desktop editing and animation are pretty damned good, and fortunately there are distribution channels for new artists outside the traditional theaters.

  4. and everything that can be invented has been invented right?  Also, i would posit that the benefit of CGI is not in gigantic blockbuster films.  Correct, in those films you just redistribute the money, from extras and casting agents to CGI artists and producers.  However, the cost of creating a small work has been dramtically diminished.  How much would “Mecury Men” have cost to produce 10 or 20 years ago?  A damn sight more than $10k.

  5. One could make something like the original Toy Story today for a much lower budget, but it would look low-budget.  Kids might not care, so long as the story and characters are good, but Hollywood spends that much money on films, even if it’s for modeling, animating, rendering, because it’s in the habit of spending that much money on films, and films made with that much money set the standard.

  6. I think the  “doneness” of the genre spectacle pertains to how audience expectation is formed in terms of what they’ll accept in the next iteration as real or impressive.  It’s like the sharp smack of the fist against someone’s jaw – fists don’t really sound like that, but you can’t watch the most low-budget film without having a hyper-real sound effect.  We’re kind of stuck in a rut until the tools become cheap enough for the visionary weirdos to create the far-out.  I rave to friends about the blu-ray edition of the Dark Crystal being something they should get to watch with their kids, since there are less than ten (and maybe less than five) “special” effects.

  7. District 9 – $30 Million budget, great effects, fantastical story, $210 Million payday. Studios are only ankled by their own system.

  8. I dispute the fact that it needs to cost that much to inject decent special effects into film.  

    Looking at some of the amateur films uploaded to YouTube shows the power of cheap tools such as Adobe After Effects.  These things have come on leaps and bounds in the last 5 years and will only improve from here on in.  Massive cost reductions in all but the most cutting-edge animations and action films will almost certainly arrive at some point.

    I’m slightly surprised that the adult industry hasn’t started using these new ‘tools’ available to them, if you know what I mean.  Just imagine!

    1. The whole cheap-but-good-CG was the major selling point for the video toaster (you remember the toaster? It was intended for the independent-filmmaker crowd, not for the consumer, but it also wasn’t intended for Hollywood; both the X Files and Ghost in the Shell had large chunks put together on the toaster, and the X Files won awards for some of that). But, the toaster kind of lost popularity once machines that were neither Amigas nor Silicon Graphics workstations could do 3d rendering. In any case, the toaster was The People’s Video Editor: it only cost as much as a new car. All the hype about how it was going to revolutionize home video never materialized, though it allowed poor (by our standards) sfx at prices much cheaper than the same poor sfx would otherwise be, allowing low-budget cash-cows (basically the whole tv show market, as opposed to blockbuster movies) to avoid blowing up miniatures and doing stop-motion.

      Edit: And yes, the adult industry used toasters. I get the impression that some segments of the adult industry are STILL using twenty-year-old video toasters. The video toaster company is still around, making set top boxes and not getting any press.

    2. My opinion is that movies cost that much because the industry is trained that they should cost that much.  Movie producers head out to what is, to them, a giant black box of an office where whiz-bang comes out the other end and hand these folks money.  Some pretty crazy special effects can be had with a lot of talent and a few bucks.  Now, I’m not saying three guys could put out Tron 3.0 from their garage and have the same level of design savvy and creative wherewithal.  But you have to realize that the film industry has been inflating their production costs for 30 years.  Much like manufacturing, it’s all about looking at HOW your doing it more than how much it costs.


  9. The epic 2-hour Revenge of the Sith review by Plinkett has a long diatribe about how green screens are ruining movies, along with a very effective comparison of panicky scenes between Revenge of the Sith (green screen hell) and the 2009 Star Trek reboot (physical effects, in this scene).  Most of what he said holds true in all movies shot in front of a green screen – there won’t be enough movement for a given situation, and the actors will not and can not be as engaged with their surroundings as they will be with physical effects.

    There’s also a lot of refinement remaining in CGI.  For example, while the Matrix was amazing for its time, a lot of the CGI and green screen work just doesn’t hold up to current standards.  10 years from now, the same will be true of Avatar.  Even some of the Lord of the Rings CGI effects are starting to look dated.  The physical effects and on-location stuff is still amazing – but that’s a different discussion, debating whether CGI really improves most movies to begin with.

    Oh, the Plinkett review:

    if you have two hours to watch a review that is in every respect more enjoyable than the movie it is reviewing.

  10. Aside from disputing the idea that there aren’t $20 Million dollar films being made out there with “high production values”, as importantly:  The technology didn’t make the movies cheaper because they were never the major cost driver.

    Sky Captain, for example, was abysmally managed by inexperienced people, and locked into a release date first, so as the clocked ticked, all they could do is pour more people and companies onto the show, taking large parts away from the original group tasked to do it, in order to finish it at all, let alone try to make it good.  And that’s *assuming* the $20 Million figure had any basis in reality in the first place.

    The release date of a major Hollywood film comes before a finished script nowdays, and while studio dithering and indecision takes time out of the schedule, no time is ever put back in at the end.  Studios want giant effects driven tentpoles without deciding how they’re going to be shot or what they want it to look like until sometimes weeks before release.  *That’s* more of a cost driver than anything.

    1. Wow, the way you describe it, it sounds like… hmm, what other industry can I think of like that?

      1. Actually, what other industry are you thinking of in particular? Defense?  Video Games? Aerospace? Industries where deadlines and budgets are often poorly thought out fictions that need to be revised again and again are a dime a dozen.

  11. The mention of Batman is a bit of an odd one, seeing how Christopher Nolan prefers to use as little as CGI as possible and relies heavily on real stunts, real pyrotechnics, etc.

    Also, look at how many low budget, great looking films are produced but never receive the marketing budget required to draw the audience in. Moon is a great example!

  12. With Hollywood accounting can we really tell what it takes to make a movie or where the money really goes?  It seems that they can claim just about anything, making the true costs very hard to determine.

    That having been said, I’ve seen some pretty darned good effects in YouTube movies that were obviously put together for cheap, so I’ve got to assume the costs are coming down, and will continue to come down, while the effects continue to get better.

    All this really leaves only one barrier: human imagination.  It’s a thrilling time to be an audience member, if only Hollywood can step outside their comfort zone a bit.  If not, I’m sure the indies will soon be eating their lunch.

    1.  If not, I’m sure the indies will soon be eating their lunch.

      And drinking their milkshake, too.  It’s true that pretty astoundingly good effects can be had from near-consumer-level software these days, and one of the more important factors contributing to the success or failure of CGI is how imaginatively it’s applied given the limitations of the software.

      I’m not too worried.  The major studios will continue to throw loud, mindless, CGI-packed drivel at audiences for as long as it remains profitable to do so.  If people want to see things blow up and don’t really care what narrative flow brings the explosion about, then Hollywood can provide.

      If enough people want to see movies containing actual stories, then somebody, somewhere, will begin to supply that market.  The majors no longer possess a monopoly on the eyeballs of humanity, and people will continue to hand over their money only as long as the majors provide them with entertainment that they can’t get better and cheaper somewhere else (hence all the rampant piracy).  If indies and amateurs can get their fabulous ideas on a screen somehow (and the bar to entry is so low as to be nonexistent these days, to anyone who can borrow a cellphone camera and any kind of internet connection; some narratives don’t even require editing), then eventually people will see them, and some people might even agree to pay for the privilege.

      As for the high cost of Hollywood-level CGI, well, I really think it was always a case of the FX companies charging all the market would bear.  And as the technology advances, and the lower-cost software starts to produce effects that effectively are indistinguishable from reality, the studios will begin to look for other places to dump their buckets of cash.  It’s my not-very-well-informed opinion that the days of the several-hundred-million-dollar blockbuster are numbered, and not just because the studios won’t be able to afford them much longer.

    2. The indies will eat their lunch until they get bought out by the studios (see:  Miramax, New Line, Castle Rock, Pixar) as well as studios just making their own indie labels (Warner Independent, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classic) which they’ll disband when they stop making as much money.

      The fiscal wheel will turn around once again to more indies when there’s money to be made, I wouldn’t worry too much about the big studios missing out on a sandwich here and there, the six martinis they had with their prime rib buffet seem to be floating them along just fine since 3D came around and people decided they had to see a new Clash of the Titans (IN 3D!!1!!)  because Harryhousen wasn’t good enough for them in the first place.

  13. Cory, the truth of, “all the stuff we can imagine has been done”, depends on your perspective on story-telling.  Do you think that “stories” equal ” human relations?”  Thus making storytelling a reimaging of setting and detail? Or do you beleive that fundamental human relationships are changing and thus create “new” stories? 

    Critics have been have been arguing over this for a long time, and I am frankly surprised that you seem to have no opinion on a such matter like this, are human relationships the same throughout time or do they somehow change?     

  14. Think of it like books. You were never limited as a writer by anything but your imagination, yet people still write crappy books, and people still write great new original books. This is the age we are living in.

  15. Fantasy epic war? Like with 1963’s Lawrence of Arabia? That was a good movie, although Peter O’Toole could perhaps be accused of improperly engaged with his surroundings, lol.

    The scariest and bestest part of Episode III is the Vader mask coming down on Anakin’s head: simple prop shot, with light coming through the holes in the mask, best thing Lucas ever did, pure cinema, and probably cost like $10.

  16. I’m not saying Lord of the Rings didn’t have extensive digital effects, particularly with respect to the editing process, but a considerable share of how good it looked relative to the films it was released side by side with stems from the non-digital effects (makeup, miniatures, legions of extras at the front lines).  Additionally, its production budget was around $95 million a film, which isn’t cheap but compares favorably with, say, the $175 million needed to make G.I. Joe.

    My point is that CGI clearly has its place, and can be put to very good use at a reasonable cost as part of a menagerie of techniques.  The problem, it seems to me, is not “using CGI to solve all problem,” but rather “blockbuster” directors having no reasonable sense on when an effects shot is appropriate or helpful to the film, and insufficient constraints that would force them to make those kinds of decisions.

    1. My point is that CGI clearly has its place, and can be put to very good use at a reasonable cost as part of a menagerie of techniques.

      You’re absolutely right, and part of Jackson’s genius with regard to Lord of the Rings was his restraint when it came to CGI.  He only used it when he couldn’t accomplish the effect through more traditional in-camera techniques such as miniatures, puppets, or forced perspective.  He very wisely chose to use every trick in the toolbox to achieve his vision.

      Another good example of how to utilize great in-camera effects would be John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982.  It’s too old to contain any CGI any fancier than a computer chess game and Atari 2600-quality cellular mitosis animation, but that 22-year-old kid Rob Bottin made such spectacularly amazing and revoltingly realistic makeup effects that it’s hard to imagine CGI providing any advantage whatsoever to the effect.  There are a couple of shots containing stop-motion animation which would probably be greatly improved by the use of CGI (prop tentacles weren’t quite so deft at grabbing detonators back in the day), but all of the makeup effects hold up beautifully today.  Escape From New York from 1981 is woefully dated in its look and effects, but most of The Thing looks like it could have been shot last week.

  17. When I read Iain M Banks sci-fi I often wonder what a movie of a Culture novel would look like. There are some obvious “theatrical” sequences which would translate well onto a screen. But there’s also a lot of Minds (very advanced computer intelligences) talking to each other and sending messages. Characters’ private thoughts, explanations of physics, and other not obviously CGI-able stuff moves the plot forwards. It would be a fantastic mixture of tried-and-tested space opera CGI and something quite innovative required to push along the more literary and abstract concepts.

    1. I’m pretty sure I heard Banks saying once, that whilst he’d love there to be a Culture film he’s sure there’s no way they’d get the ships right.

    2. Hear hear!  It would be something to see the preface of “Consider Phlebas” on the big screen, or a warship hiding inside a solar flare, then have the camera zoom in on the name of the ship, “Standing Far Back When The Gravitas Was Handed Out”, LOL!

  18. CGI historical scenes still look far from believable–they take an incredible amount of research in image sources that have only begun to be digitized.

    1. Historical believability is perhaps last on the list of priorities for your average CGI-heavy Hollywood producer.  Look no further than 10,000 BC to see how much historical accuracy can be ignored.  Of course, it wasn’t exactly a huge hit, but that was probably due to overall stupidity rather than its manifold inaccuracies.  It’s my belief that had the movie been as historically accurate as possible, the mastodons and smilodons would have been smaller, the locations and architecture far less interesting, and the characters would probably have all died within the first act, none of which would have helped the box office receipts.

      I think the subjectivity of believability only helps the studios.  Most moviegoers have only a passing familiarity with historical details, so as long as something mostly resembles what they think it should look like, then they’re able to suspend their disbelief.  Dinosaurs are usually made to look like what we expect them to look like based upon fairly old scientific approximations.  If a movie used the latest findings and approximations, the dinosaurs might look less “realistic” than the audience expects.

      Personally, I wish more historical movies contained more historically-accurate teeth and skin conditions for the lead characters, but that’s usually expecting too much.

  19. Hollywood is just Wall Street for entertainment. All they are looking for is predictable ROI. So they know that with a factory approach and $80 million, they can get $200 million out. Of course they don’t want to take any risks with that kind of money. Its the same reason that all McMansions, outlet malls, and strip malls look the same. They have a design template that gives them predictable results, that is all the money men wan’t.

  20. The thing that CGI killed, for me, are “making of” documentaries. Movies used to be a little bit more like magic shows – half the fun was in trying to figure out how the illusion was created. When I was younger I’d love watching those documentaries on HBO, revealing the behind the scene with all the props and locations and pyrotechnics and whatnot.

    Now movies are basically just animation. Photorealistic animation to be sure, but there’s no magic there. You don’t wonder how Michael Bay managed to create Optimus Prime or how they did the thing where Wizards turned into smoke and flew away in Harry Potter, because in all cases the answer is the same. They rendered it.

    I’m sure they can still show me things on the screen that I haven’t seen before. But that doesn’t mean they’re interesting.

    As an aside, the $100 million thing is bunk. There’s no economic or technological reason Hollywood can’t make high production value effects-heavy blockbusters for $20-30 million. In fact, they have a couple of times: See District 9, Serenity. 

    1. District 9 and Serenity are actually $30-40 million. There are good, stunt laden action movies made for $20 million, but those are films like the Jean-Claude Van Damme direct-to-DVD movies. Ones such as “In Hell” or “Wake of Death” or “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” really do achieve the amazement that only desperately poor Eastern European stunt people without concern for their own safety can do. If you really appreciate old-fashioned action film making, then you should support medium budget films like the recent ones by JCVD, Wesley Snipes, and Dolph Lundgren, or the products of Hong Kong and other foreign producers. Complaining about the ludicrousness of main-stream fare but still watching them and turning your nose on direct-to-DVD movies isn’t exactly sending the right message.

    2. “Movies used to be a little bit more like magic shows – half the fun was in trying to figure out how the illusion was created. When I was younger I’d love watching those documentaries on HBO, revealing the behind the scene with all the props and locations and pyrotechnics and whatnot.”
      GREAT point. Someone mentioned The Thing below. Reading about just how they did the TITLE CARD is amazing. It was definitely a maker mentality, and while there is still a bit of that, it’s definitely going the way of the dodo.
      It seems like now the most realistic effects are done by the people with the best CG modelers and animators (which is cool, but REALLY boring) but back in the day the best effects were done by the most clever, jack-of-all-trades guys, who were on set and rolled up their sleeves and thought outside the box.  

      1. You just don’t see title sequences involving Hefty bags being set on fire anymore, more’s the pity.

        There are countless filmmakers around my age who got into the industry because of a childlike sense of wonder and excitement caused by Star Wars, all by itself.  My personal experience was typical, I think: I saw the movie and was so enthralled I bought every magazine and saw every behind-the-scenes feature I could find in order to see how such things were done.  I swiped my brother’s copies of Cinefantastique and Starlog and Fangoria… I even went out and hunted down Cinemagic, The Guide to Fantastic Filmmaking.  To this day I still have the special double-issue of CFQ on Star Wars, as well as the Cinemagics.

        Seeing how these ingeniously clever mechanics, welders, pyromaniacs, welders, carpenters, and riggers turned ordinary nuts and bolts and lumber and foam and paint into starships rocketing through the depths of space was astonishing.  I simply had to do that kind of stuff as well.  This was when Welles’ comment about a movie set being like an enormous electric train set for a director really hit home.  It all looked like stuff a reasonably clever kid with a decently-stocked tool shed could pull off in his back yard, if he was careful not to set the roof on fire.  I ended up working in Production and then eventually Post-Production, at some remove from the mechanical special effects I love so much.  But that love never went away.  I was a Theatre Arts major in college, just so I could play with the lighting effects and sets and props and makeup.  For ten years around the turn of the millennium I ran a haunted house at an elementary school near San Diego, just so I could use my own ingenuity to build clever and scary props and sets from scratch.

        CGI has never inspired me this way, and it’s hard to believe (though it must be true somehow) that it’s inspired anyone to get a computer and learn how to create and render fabulous, physically-impossible visual effects.

        Once again, I seem to have outlived the century in which I belong.  :^(

  21. If the industry assumes that product marketability is enhanced by the addition of special effects, then of course there will be an “arms race” of CGI. Too bad the same technology can’t be applied to scripts.

    1. Too bad the same technology can’t be applied to scripts.

      Once upon a time, it was.  The spec script market was booming pretty well about 20 years ago.

      Man, that sure didn’t last.  Alas.

  22. Cory, you’re suspicious of an argument that the piece doesn’t actually use. It says that the state of the art in CGI is such that everything imaginable can be done, not that it has been done.

  23. With any luck, we’ll see a CG-laden, big-budget remake of My Dinner With Andre.

    1. There would need to be action figures and a playset to make sure you capture every revenue stream, that’s for certain.

    2. As long as Wallace Shawn gets to reprise his role, I’m up for Michael Bay’s My Dinner With Andre.

      1. Unfortunately, he would be sitting opposite Shia Lebeouf, who would be talking about Megan Fox for the whole film.

        1. In that case, the obligatory Michael Bay explosion will be Wallace Shawn’s head.

  24. So the cost to make a movie isn’t going way *up* due to CGI effects, but the effects are getting consistently better? And consumer-level tools are getting better as well, not just professional ones?

    Well, that means (as some youtube browsing will confirm) anyone’s grandma can make effects on the cheap that are as good as the state-of-the-art from maybe 15 years ago. That’s pretty darn good.

  25. and yet, Blade Runner still (to me) looks better then Avatar, or any of the newer Star Wars. yeah, you know CGI is great for some things, and has made some things cheaper, but models are real, tangible things, and it’ll be awhile before they can truly replicate life, which is dirty and irregular.

  26. Experiment: Load up any of your favourite music videos from the 90’s. Chances are you can make the same clip at a tenth the price today. Cheap equipment + pirated software = video revolution. The reason it hasn’t translated into lower cost studio films, is that that most current hollywood films are over produced. Instead of making two or three really great CGI creatures essential to a story (District 9, LOR ect) Directors ask for hoards of thousands of them (Transformers). “City blows up” sequences are inferior compared to sequences where two characters the audience cares about, fight.

  27. I wonder how much of an effect “hollywood accounting” have on this. Also, how is the effects crew payed? By hour or by movie?

  28. I thought it might be interesting to give an insider perspective (I am one of those 850 credited for VFX on Captain America):

    The idea that VFX companies are inflating their prices is rather silly. I know of companies who struggle financially, because they can’t get studios to pay enough to cover their actual expenses. On top of that many of the more succesful ones only thrive because the dedicated people that work for them put in a lot of unpaid overtime. Especially in the last few weeks of production it’s quite usual for most people to stay in til late at night without getting paid for it. A lot can be said about how wrong this is and some companies are surely worse in their treatment of their employees than others, but I won’t go into that here. Safe to say at least that it’s not like we’re bathing in money without putting in the work to deserve it.

    The idea that most effects can be done much cheaper (“just look at the stuff on youtube!”), seems foreign to me as well. Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of talented people who have made amazing short films with limited resources, but that which they can do now is based on work that was done by whole teams of people who paved the way for them. A lot of research and development goes into making effects and especially on a big movie, there’s always plenty of things that still need to be invented and worked out. It’s indeed possible to make a stunning 2 minute film with existing tools and a limited budget, but that’s rarely the case for a big 2 hour movie.

    To the people who say that nowadays it’s basically just all animation and it’s sad to lose that innovation and out of the box thinking, I’d like to point out that making-of documentaries are seriousely lacking in explaining the actual process. If you think that creating a magic shield around Hogwarts, or a drgaon smashing through a glass dome is just ‘animation’ you really aren’t seeing the whole picture. Months of development go into these effects with people trying many different routes to achieve them. None of the tools we can use do these things for you, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on, most days we spent fighting the software limitations rather than working with it. I have yet to meet someone who is not completely frustrated with the amount of workarounds and cheats we have to use to force it to do what we need. All of this amazing technical innovation and ingenuity is completely lost in the documentaries, because it’s deemed too complicated and everything is watered down to being just ‘animation’.

    Finally, just for the record: I detest films that use CGI for every little effect. Most people in the industry would much prefer to work with someone like Nolan, who uses CGI as little as possible, than being stuck on a project where the director keeps saying: “We’ll fix that in post.”, which just leads to very bad CGI. To us, the best compliment is if the audience doesn’t notice the CGI at all, or only notices it because they know it can’t possibly be real. Really, I don’t know a single coworker that actually enjoyed Transformers. . .

  29. And all the while, CG artists are still treated like poop in some cases, many without decent health insurance/coverage and forced to do long hours on top of that.  Not so much different from the games industry at times.  Look at what’s happened at some studios in which subsequently went bust and artists were left without pay (I shall name no names!).

    Look what happened with the Green Lantern – WB gave a deadline and a dead on budget which was absolutely not possible to achieve realistically.  It ended up going above and beyond the budget and deadline as a consequence.  It’s also my experience that film studios are not very CG savvy and seem to think that post houses can produce VFX out their arses at a whim.

  30. Also: despite all the VFX work in films, the visual effects folk are still one of the last teams to be credited last and who have worked much longer on the film that those in the main crew who typically work several weeks.  VFX takes month and months and months if it’s a big film.

    Roll on VFX unionisation.

  31. One more point (I apologise!): VFX technology makes it far too easy for the likes of George Lucas and co. to “improve” their films long after competition.  How many versions of the Star Wars saga can we expect to be released because Lucas isn’t happy with the VFX technology 10-20 years later after the last “improved” version is released?

    And LucasFilm expects me to pay £80 for the Blu-Ray set of Star Wars.  I expect ILM will get another change to improve all the VFX again in 10 years and another £80 is demanded for the new set of Star Wars films.

    Technology.  A blessing and curse in equal measures.

  32. What filmmakers do with effects was much, much more interesting back when it would take hours, or days, to complete shots that would appear on screen for just seconds.  When effects were unprecedented and astronomically-expensive, directors really had to justify each extremely costly shot as it supported, pertained, or propelled the story.

    Now that effects are far more commonplace and far less costly, directors wield the digital paintbrush like little children.  They focus on the fluff – the eye candy – rather than the substance-the plot, story, characters.  You only have to look as far as Lucas’ own recent abominations to see how badly that has affected the film business.  Sure, CGI enables the Bruckheimers or Bays of the film-making world to make visually stunning stuff, but aside from the jaw-dropping visuals, their creations are brainless, uninspiring, unintelligible, steaming bags of poo.

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