How much CGI is too much CGI? Let’s take a look at ten issues I have with modern CGI.

It seems like “good” CGI, or at least audiences perceptions of good CGI, is in decline over the past few years. Sure, you have amazing anomalies like Gravity or Interstellar, but on a whole, CGI quality is trending downward. Is CGI getting worse? Or are audiences harder to please? Let’s take a closer look at the state of VFX industry in the following post.

1. CGI has transitioned from a complimentary dish to the main course.

CGI: King Kong

CGI had major limitations when first introduced. Because of this, is was used as a last resort. Even Steven Spielberg had this mindset until he introduced Shia Leboeuf going full-on Tarzan with CGI monkeys in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The CG Supervisor for that movie had this to say: “Viewers will hardly notice the 45 minutes of CGI in the film.” Really?

Jurassic Park is a great example of complimentary CGI. They couldn’t design the animatronics to walk around for the wide shots, so they used CGI to solve this problem. What you got were wide CGI shots offset with closeup live action animatronics. The CGI reinforced the idea that the dinos weren’t just static robots, and the robots reinforced the idea that they were really in the scene with the actors.

2. The physics are off.

After the success of movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, it became apparent that CGI was the best way to create realistic effects. One of the main reasons CGI outshined techniques like stop-motion was movement. It got the physics right.

Now, over 20 years later, Hollywood has lost the concept of realistic movement with CGI. Scenes from movies like Matrix Reloaded or Catwoman showcase stunts that are impossible to perform with an actual human. Movies have abandoned the concept of physics and with it goes the audience’s perceptions of reality.

Cracked.com took a look at some of the pitfalls of modern CGI. What made the top of their list? A complete disregard for gravity, friction and intertia:

There might be a time when CGI finally traverses the uncanny valley and becomes indistinguishable from the real world. Only none of that will matter as long as filmmakers continue to apply physics with a spongy fist…sometimes having that “sky’s the limit” freedom means knowing when to keep it grounded.

Hollywood is trying to rewrite the laws of motion…. Isaac Newton must be rolling over in his grave. “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction…unless the script says otherwise.”

3. CGI has put us in a state of denial.

CGI: Tomorrowland

CGI’s purpose should be to make a stunt or effect look more real. Whenever we see good CGI, we shouldn’t realize it’s good CGI. We shouldn’t even notice it at all. It should be so real and grounded that it pulls us into the story instead of distracting us. We’re in a state of denial where we keep telling ourselves ‘But it’s really good CGI! Look at how good that CGI is! Wow, I can’t imagine how many hours were spent rendering that! Every frame is so dense.’ If we have to discuss CGI, then the CGI didn’t do its job. CGI is getting worse because it’s trying to impress us rather than fool us.

4. The move to HD and 4K make CGI less convincing.

CGI is far from perfect. But when the delivery format was celluloid and SD, it masked the imperfections of CGI and made everything look more realistic. Filmmakers furthered the illusion by purposely compositing CGI into poorly lit scenes and behind elements like smoke and rain. Now with the stunning clarity of 2K and 4K (and even more so with HFR), we’re starting to see the cracks in the pavement. As resolution increases, CGI is becoming less convincing.

5. Stylized grades and CGI don’t mix.

The over-saturated color scheme blooming with every conceivable tone of orange and teal is ruining CGI. CGI needs all the help it can get when composited into a scene. When you splash a hyper-realistic grade over the top, it makes everything look fake including the CGI. This is why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park look incredibly real. They incorporated CGI into scenes that had realistic lighting and color.

The Cracked post also commented on the perils of the “Blockbuster” grade :

Movies like Transformers and The Hunger Games are so aggressively teal and orange that they look like big-budget adaptations of a Spencer Gifts blacklight poster. As we’ve explained before, the reason for this is that those two colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel, and as such are immediately pleasing to human eyes. Since human skin best resembles orange more than anything else on that wheel, color graders had an easy starting point to completely ruin every film they work on.

Case in point? The new Jurassic World looks like a super hero movie. I half expected Tony Stark to be training raptors with Chris Pratt. The oversaturated grade makes it look more like a fantasy where dinosaurs only exist on a computer screen.

6. There’s no restraint.

Christopher Nolan shows incredible restraint with CGI. If it’s too expensive or just not feasible to capture in camera, he’ll rely on CGI to recreate the effect realistically. Hollywood doesn’t know how to show restraint with CGI. Their mentality is ‘Because we can, we will’. They want it faster, bigger, brighter, more colorful, and 10X as epic as the last time.

However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. -Christopher Nolan

7. CGI-driven action is sequel-oriented.

CGI: Iron Man

The CGI in every sequel has a major goal: it has to be more impressive, complex, and crazier than its predecessor. The stakes have to be higher. Filmmakers try to create engagement with more explosions rather than letting story, plot, and character development produce interest.

Another huge issue is that in a world of endless sequels, we no longer have to worry about our main character’s well-being. We don’t need to be invested in the characters because there’s no chance they’ll die. They aren’t in any real peril. The actors have already signed up for two sequels! James Cameron is working on three Avatar sequels simultaneously! What’s happening now is that filmmakers are making scenes more and more extravagant to offset this sequel fatigue. They keep pushing the limits to keep us saying ‘well surely they can’t survive this’ until it gets utterly ridiculous.

8. CGI is dangerous.

CGI: Van Helsing

CGI is paralyzing the film industry. It’s taking over production time, budgets, story, and even replacing real characters. It’s making films worse. If we allocated the amount of resources we spend on CGI toward hiring better writers, creating cooler set designs, and minimizing post production, we’d have better cinema. Because of the damage done by CGI, Hollywood can only finance CGI-fest films with bloated budgets. The people demand CGI and the only way to keep the demand up is to increase the dose of CGI.

9. CGI encourages lazy filmmaking.

CGI has put filmmakers in the ‘we’ll fix it in post’ mindset. It has made them incredibly lazy. There’s no dedication to the craft when you can endlessly fix imperfections on a computer screen. Why go the extra mile to capture a stunt in-camera when you can hand it over to ILM to recreate? Take Jurassic World for instance. They recently released a raptor training scene. There are so many opportunities to use animatronics in this scene, but they didn’t. Even the closeup shots were CGI. Where’s the passion? Where’s the commitment to realism? It’s a shame, and it’s so lazy.

10. CGI has made us complacent.

CGI: Revenge of the Sith

CGI is like a drug. The more we keep exposing ourselves to it, the less effect it has on us. We’re chasing the dragon, so to speak. A collapsing practical indoor set isn’t cool anymore. You know what’s cool? An entire building collapsing! A chance encounter with Darth Vader on Cloud City? Lame. We need a 12 minute duel filled with over the top action on a volcanic planet costing 70,000 man hours to create.

What this has lead to is a complacency with traditional movie drama. It leaves us less impressed with real life situations and settings. It makes us yawn at authentic dramatic tension because it doesn’t contain a sweeping CGI destruction shot.

Need more anti-CG ammunition? Check out “6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy” over at Cracked.com.

Want to learn more about the VFX industry? Check out a few of the following posts:

  1. Life After ‘Life After Pi’: The VFX Industry One Year Later
  2. 25 Inspirational VFX Breakdowns from Hollywood
  3. The Evolution of VFX

What are your thoughts? Is CGI actually getting worse? Share your thoughts in the comments below.