Destroy All Monsters: The "It's Not CGI" Lie

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: The "It's Not CGI" Lie

Bless Tom Cruise for clambering up the outside of an escaping cargo plane in the breathless opening minutes of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Bless him, too, for taking to the internet a week or two ago to assure us that Yes, It's True, I Was Outside That Plane.

In the twenty-ish years since the first Mission: Impossible - wherein Cruise definitely did not clamber up the outside of an escaping bullet train, as the impressionistic digital chatter of his flapping white dress shirt convincingly assured us - we'd be forgiven for thinking that anything that looks nuts on a cinema screen was probably too nuts to have been shot for real. Once in a while, it's nice to have our illusions shattered, especially if those illusions are about illusions themselves.

Rogue Nation is one of two blockbusters this summer whose audience interest is being enhanced by an informal secondary marketing campaign along the lines of No Really, We Shot This. The first was Mad Max: Fury Road, where the Doof's guitar really did spit fire, and many a fine motor vehicle really did flip end over end in the Namibian desert.

Mad Max and Rogue Nation also presage the big No Really, We Shot This movie of 2015, JJ Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which takes place in a galaxy far, far away and yet has had its fan credibility pre-emptively bolstered by assurances along the lines of "we built literally everything and it all absolutely works*, no really, the prequels sucked cuz CGI."

(*citation needed)

It's all basically horseshit. The fact that a bunch of props, droids, and aliens were developed practically for The Force Awakens has as much to do with the total matrix of its production approach as the fact that a bunch of CGI techniques were piloted for The Phantom Menace.

The Phantom Menace was also one of the biggest practical effects movies of all time, using models and miniatures on a scale that was a powers-of-ten dwarfing of the original Star Wars; and guess what, there will be CGI in pretty much every single shot of The Force Awakens, too, just like there isn't one shot in Fury Road that hasn't been substantially digitally manipulated. This is the way we make movies now.

What's changed, and what interests me about it, is that the way we sell movies now seems to have finally arced back away from visual effects, after a long, elliptical orbit where the "cinema of attractions" was effects-driven for the better part of fifty years.

As recently as a decade ago, the fact that Gollum was giving such an identifiably interesting performance and was a special effect to boot was novel enough to be an equal fascination upon both of those lines; no one, though, wasted any column inches on consideration on Avengers 2's Ultron as a visual effect, in which category he was certainly a much better one than Gollum.

No, thankfully, we've arrived at the point where each element of these fantastical films can be considered sui generis, which in Ultron's case was simply: did we give a shit about him as a character? How was Spader's performance working? How was the writing? The sorts of things these filmmaking tools, theoretically, were always striving towards: not a visual invisibility, but a conceptual one.

This marks a major turning point.

I'm reading a great book right now by Julie Turnock called Plastic Reality, which looks at how the aesthetic of photorealism was developed for visual effects (with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as its primary examples). It was the first source that pointed out to me that photorealism is no more the "default" for how special effects can operate than it's the default for how, say, paintings are required to look; it's just a choice so overwhelmingly popular in the past four decades of cinema that it's essentially written the rulebook for how we, as viewers, interpret the images we see.

"Realistic" in special effects, in other words, is an achievement we only award if what we are looking at seems to be something that a camera might actually have photographed, even if that premise itself is utterly preposterous. Let's leave aside the fact that X-Wing fighters don't exist and could therefore never, ever be filmed; even more earthbound examples apply. No camera ever survived a 300-foot freefall with an active explosive, a la Pearl Harbour, and yet with the right amount of camera shake and lens flare we'll say that the shot looks "realistic."

But Turnock also argues that the effects of Star Wars and CE3K were simultaneously designed to be "realistic" while also being intentionally "spectacular," a value-add for the audience who would pay to see a movie whose visuals were eye-poppingly supernatural while still remaining, completely paradoxically, realistic.

This model was still in effect as recently as Avatar but may have finally bled itself dry over the course of this decade. Is it fair to say we no longer notice visual effects, unless they're bad? Has the spectacular finally been reduced to a normal, unspectacular part of any moviegoing experience?

This is what I find so funny about films like Rogue Nation and Mad Max who go so far out of their way to market themselves on the "reality" of their content, even if the claims are patently false. There's something charming about the fact that we finally hit the top of the scale on improbable visuals and had to come back down to probable ones. No, Ultron ain't interesting... but dangling a moviestar on the outside of a cargo plane? That's just crazy enough to work.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

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Mad Max: Fury RoadMission ImpossibleStar WarsChristopher McQuarrieDrew PearceBruce GellerTom CruiseJeremy RennerSimon PeggRebecca FergusonActionAdventureThriller

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billydakingAugust 5, 2015 12:15 PM

The story with Mad Max is that the stunt work was done all in camera, without CGI assistance, not that there wasn't any CGI in the film (which everyone could see with the sandstorm featured in every trailer). Yes, backgrounds were enhanced with CGI, the sky was replaced in almost every shot, and digital composting was done throughout....but when they blew up a truck, they took it out to the desert and blew it up. When you saw a guy fly through the air and hit the ground hard, it was a stuntman and not a CGI-created human. And it was obvious.

The key difference is that in Mad Max, and possibly Mission Impossible and The Force Awakens, CGI is not as prominent and in-your-face as it has been for the past decade. The CGI is being used the same way it was used in the original Lord of the Rings films--as an excellent tool in the visual toolbox, but not the only one. In those films, some digital composting was used to put the hobbits in the same frame as humans, but most of that was done with older techniques--forced perspective, scale doubles, etc. The later Hobbit films relied more on digital effects, since they had supposedly advanced so much in the intervening years. But the end result was underwhelming. Because films are not meant to be just paintings; they're meant to be stories told visually. And when you mash real, live people and environments together with digitally created ones, it throws you out of the story and draws your focus to something that is simply meant to assist.

Ultron wasn't interesting because he, at too many times, came off as a cartoon character in the middle of a live-action film. He didn't feel part of the same movie as Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and the other characters played by humans. A friend of mine recently told me that the last Marvel villain who had any weight for him was Loki. Why? "Because he was real."

This is not marketing. This is a different approach to filmmaking. And cinema is better for it.

GarthDAugust 5, 2015 12:45 PM

You've said everything I was planning on saying, and you said it more eloquently than I would've.

In short, nobody is saying that there's no CGI in MI5, Fury Road or SWII, they're saying that the stunts and sets were practical and CGI was only used as an enhancement. ie. wires were erased digitally as opposed to the Star Wars prequels in which entire environments were created digitally.

To say that the claims are "patently false" is willfully ignorant, bordering on trolling.

I would also add the recent incarnations of the Fast & the Furious movies to this list.

chuckAugust 5, 2015 1:03 PM

Couldn't have said it better myself Billy. CGI should be a tool, not the ONLY tool in SFX work.

Franky PlataAugust 5, 2015 1:24 PM

I see the whole "Look it's practical effects now!" backlash as the result of something that we dare not discuss in the way movies are made now: VFX artists have struggled to have creative input, due to a pipeline that has become very tangled. A big part of that is that there's no connection between the VFX crew on set and the one actually doing the final product in a lot of cases.

Unlike the SFX and make up artists, stop motion animators and stuntmen, the VFX artists are never given a chance to develop a signature. Realism is the only goal, and in the best of cases, it's the brand that gets the credit, like ILM or Weta Workshop.

In the new way of making movies, the VFX contracts for movies go for the lowest bidders, as in a lot of small ones, doing different aspects of a shot, with a CG Supervisor juggling the several small studios worldwide doing FX and comp work and doing rescue work from a lot of bad habits developed by feature directors with a "fix it in post" attitude, that's prevalent due to filmmakers not catching up to increasing technology, which results in footage with different aspect ratios, grain quality, bad framing and blurriness.

Which in the end means that most VFX heavy movies are burdened with being no-one's responsibility and also no-one's art. Which is a damn shame, given that there are plenty of amazing artists working on these movies.

Matte ObjectAugust 5, 2015 3:21 PM

The way the industry is going, the quality is only going to get worse.

Contrary to popular belief (among the suits at the movie studios), the computer doesn't do all the work, you can just stick someone with a pulse in front of a computer running Maya or Houdini, have them press a few buttons and get Life of Pi quality out.

Right now, the movie studios are demanding that all of the work be done in Canada because Quebec & British Columbia taxpayers will cover 50+% of artist salaries (and salaries are the overwhelming majority of the cost of visual effects).

Consequently, the overriding qualification for VFX artists now isn't an artistic eye or technical chops, it's whether or not they can work in Canada. You don't have to be any good to get a job up there right now, you just need a Canadian passport.

Most of the experienced guys I know have decided to pack it in and go into VFX adjacent industries like games & VR, leaving only the mid level and junior guys who are getting promoted into lead & supervisor positions that they are woefully underqualified for. This increases the workload on the handful of experienced guys at those studios to fix all the problems caused by the junior artists, burning them out faster and leading to more terrible CGI.

Couple that with the practices you mention like the half assed approach of "fix it in post" and shopping FX out to dozens of tiny studios with no track record and you end up with tons of last minute crunches that result in CGI that looks terrible with inconsistent quality.

BLADE57HRCAugust 5, 2015 8:13 PM

I'm sorry but you're completely wrong and just perpetuating a false narrative based on ignorance...

The sets in the Prequels were also practical (models or full scale) and CGI was again only used as an enhancement.
Want proof? Check this:
https://www (DOT) facebook (DOT) com/pages/Star-Wars-Prequels-Behind-the-scenes/1422594424724742?sk=photos_stream&tab=photos_albums

Keep in mind that blue/greenscreen doesn't equate CGI but digital compositing (of mostly miniatures/models/matte paintings).
People interpreted R.McCallum's ''every shot has a digital effect'' as all shots have cgi, which isn't the case. They all (not all really) included digital composition.

Quite frankly, i'd be very surprised if MI5, Fury Road or SW:TFA had 1/10 of the practical effects work used for the Prequels.

rnlolAugust 5, 2015 8:36 PM

That's really interesting. Is there any book or in-depth article you could recommend that goes further into this?

billydakingAugust 5, 2015 10:50 PM

If you're equating "digital composting" with practical effects, then, no...a large chunk of Fury Road's visual effects work was actually digital composting, up to and including the steering wheel flying toward the screen after the final crash.

Also...the Phantom Menace reportedly had 1,950 digital effect shots, compared to Fury Road's a bit more than 2,000 effect shots.The difference is that Phantom Menace was made in the late 1990s and Fury Road was made more than a decade later. Fellowship of the Ring, meanwhile, had about 540 effect shots. Lucas overreached himself with his CGI--he used it too much beyond the capability of technology at the time and attempted to create entire characters completely out of CGI, including a featured one that wasn't helped by bad conception and writing. That's not enhancement.

pinoypower1234August 6, 2015 5:45 AM

yeah, i llg give it that..Still a shitty star wars film though and The Force Awakens will best it many times over. Revenge of The Sith, now that was actually half decent

omnisemantic1August 6, 2015 6:32 AM

I didn't hate the prequels at the time, nor did I find Ep.3 to be the best out of the bunch, but I would really advise you not to heighten your expectations based on a short (though admittedly well done) trailer and studio hype ;)

omnisemantic1August 6, 2015 6:43 AM

OK I do agree with you on pretty much everything, but not being a comic book fan myself, I don't exactly understand the issue with Ultron "not being real". Aren't the Marvel movies supposed to be cartoons through and through? Let's not kid ourselves - they hire actors, because it's cheaper to film them (and ofc since the names have box office draw) than to animate the whole thing a la "Spirits Within". I mean, with all due respect to your friend, but Loki had ZERO weight as a villain. I guess what makes him more watchable than Ultron for some is the relationship he has with his brother and all the comedy that comes from that.

pinoypower1234August 6, 2015 6:57 AM

Im not hyped by studio trailer and hype..I liked JJ Abrams Star Trek films, his Mission Impossible film and Super 8..Loved the energy and pacing those films brought to the table...Where they great Star Trek films? well, to be honest, the best stories of Star Trek come from the television series.but I felt they were damn good space adventure films... I rewatched the prequels, and I was very listless when watching The Phantom Menace, the plot absolutely went from trade federation, to pod racing and then Darth Maul. Attack of The Clones was cringe worthy with an absolutely creepy Anakin that had little to no chemistry with Padme, though I admit, Kenobi's private eye investigation of the clone army in Kamino was the best part which holds it from being the worst. At least Episode 3 had an emotionally charged ending, and the fall of anakin was okay, could have been better.Phantom Menace did however, had one of the better lightsaber duels. Also, that was a terrible BTS video to show of The Phantom Menace, no one looked like they had fun and everything seemed uncomfortable during production.

pinoypower1234August 6, 2015 6:58 AM

Don't worry though I take that advice to heart..Looper was an absolute disappointment, and had an ending you could see over 9000 miles away..It brought nothing new..and like I said, the bar was set low for me simply because I wanted see how overhyped the film was, and overhyped was an understatement.

pinoypower1234August 6, 2015 7:10 AM

Ultron wasn't really that good of a villain to begin with. I thought Ultron was going to do this system wide hack on the world and start wrecking havoc. Instead he just wants to drop a giant rock from the sky..but hey, I still liked the film and Ultron had that charming personaltiy of his MCU creator.

pinoypower1234August 6, 2015 7:19 AM

I agree with this..nothing to add on really other than the fact that MCU is pretty much crazy as it is..

GarthDAugust 6, 2015 8:56 AM

Ah, so some of the sets were partly practical. You don't think that actually proves anything, do you?

Digital compositing are still digital effects. Period.

Abrams has said that you could watch and enjoy and "get" his movie without an digital effects. That is absolutely, 100% not something that can be said about the prequels. At all. There are large parts of the prequels that, without digital effects, would be characters standing on blue floors, surrounded by blue walls, interacting with tennis balls on grip stands.

Just because not every shot in the prequels was 100% digitally processed doesn't mean that the movie itself was heavily, heavily processed and enabled by digital effects.

There is a world of difference between erasing the wires that allowed Tom Cruise to hang from the outside of a physical plane that actually took off and digitally replacing EVERYTHING IN FRAME except Obi-Wan as he is hanging from a small robot flying through a city.

Nami RikaAugust 6, 2015 11:57 AM

Agreed, to me Ultron was the best villain of the MCU. Loki was just another guy's puppet, pretty much like all other villains so far in the MCU, apart from Ultron.

Nami RikaAugust 6, 2015 12:05 PM

You seem to miss the point. He isn't saying that Mad Max or MI5 have less shots with digital effects than Star Wars Ep1. All he is saying is that these films used CGI only as an enhancement for actual, real stunts, whereas Ep1 used CGI to create entire scenes or entire stunts. His comparison of Tom Cruise dangling from a plane while Ewan McGregor posed in front of a green screen says it all.

BLADE57HRCAugust 6, 2015 7:09 PM

I see you have already made up your mind...
Not only that, but you seem to think that your (most probably uneducated & based on edited based lying crap like Plinkett's ''reviews'') opinion on the film(s) is somehow a fact...

BLADE57HRCAugust 6, 2015 7:23 PM

I am not equating it. That's what R.McCallum meant.
And those 1950 VFX shots were mostly digital compositing of actual models & matte paintings. Computer generated images in the Prequels were nowhere near the amount recent films have.
Were exactly is this ''too much'' you mention?

The difference between MM:FR and SW:TPM is one takes place on earth and is basically a 2 hour car chase whilst the other shows fantastic planets in a fantastic GFFA. If you can't handle fantasy in fantasy films, don't watch them.

FYI, he didn't ''attempt'' to create CGI/motion captured characters. He did it with great technical success. The thing is people like you don't have a problem realizing something is a puppet (which can barely move) but show an immense prejudice against anything CGI.

LOTR had 540 VFX shots?
Well that's less VFX shots than what TESB (605) had in 1980 & ROTJ (900 in 1983. What's your point then?
Did Lucas not overreached himself back then?
SW VFX by ILM were ALWAYS at the limits of what was technologicaly possible.

''bad conception and writing''? LOL.I see we have another delusional person thinking his opinion is somehow a fact, yet again...

BLADE57HRCAugust 6, 2015 7:37 PM

>Ah, so some of the sets were partly practical. You don't think that actually proves anything, do you?
^^^^^^^^^^
Should i prove your ignorance on the matter?

>Digital compositing are still digital effects. Period.
^^^^^^^^^^
And digital compositing is used by ILM since T2:Judgement Day to composite its VFX. You really think they'll use optical compositing in 2015?LMAO.

>Abrams has said that you could watch and enjoy and "get" his movie without an digital effects.
^^^^^^^^^^
Yes, Abrams is renowned for spewing utter BS...And Lucas detractors are renowned for believing any BS that fits their ignorant narrative...

That is absolutely, 100% not something that can be
said about the prequels. At all. There are large parts of the prequels
that, without digital effects, would be characters standing on blue
floors, surrounded by blue walls, interacting with tennis balls on grip
stands.
^^^^^^^^^^
May i ask what these ''large parts'' were?
And more importantly, how can you compare them to a movie that you haven't even watched?

>Just because not every shot in the prequels was 100%
digitally processed doesn't mean that the movie itself was heavily,
heavily processed and enabled by digital effects.
^^^^^^^^^^
Dude, you don't even know the correct terms of things, much less use them...
Almost ALL major movies today are digitally processed! TFA will be 100% digitally processed!

>There is a world of difference between erasing the wires that allowed Tom Cruise to hang from the outside of a physical plane that actually took off and digitally replacing EVERYTHING IN FRAME except Obi-Wan as he is hanging from a small robot flying through a city.
^^^^^^^^^^
Yes there is.
One is hanging from a plane that actually exists, while the other is travelling through a city that DOESN'T actually exist. It only exists in a fantastical GFFA.
If you can't handle fantasy in fantasy films, don't watch them!
And btw, a large part of that city were actually miniatures. Coruscant can't be built full size. Is that what you wanted? LMAO...

BLADE57HRCAugust 6, 2015 8:07 PM

>All he is saying is that these films used CGI only as an enhancement for
actual, real stunts, whereas Ep1 used CGI to create entire scenes or
entire stunts.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
May i ask for an example? And may i ask how they could do it otherwise?
Because last time i checked, cars do exist in the real world. Podracers don't, except in a GFFA (and those were mostly practical models anyway composited on CGI geometry with real world photography ''applied'' to it. It helps if you listen to people like J.Knoll who actually did it, instead of ignorant comment section ''know-it-alls''...)

GarthDAugust 7, 2015 1:41 PM

"Coruscant can't be built full size. Is that what you wanted?"

Isn't it weird that Tattooine doesn't actually exist yet they were able to use real sets? And Endor? And the fucking cloud city of Bespin?

We're not talking about a galaxy that was built out of nothing and only ever existed as CGI, we're talking about the fact that the way the prequel trilogy was made was FUNDAMENTALLY different from the way the original trilogy was made.

And sorry, but characters did not interact with tennis balls in the original trilogy. They interacted with people in rubber suits or physical puppets. It wasn't until Lucas decided that he needed to re-purpose a deleted scene from ANH that the equivalent of people interacting with a tennis ball happened.

pinoypower1234August 7, 2015 6:12 PM

Here is my point..no amount of vxf trickery and movie making magic will fix a shitty script and screenplay..So what if Phantom Menace used alot of model work, shot on film etc etc, none of that saved it from being an awful film. Of course, phantom menace is now where near as bad as Attack of The Clones

BLADE57HRCAugust 7, 2015 7:22 PM

>Isn't it weird that Tattooine doesn't actually exist yet they were
able to use real sets? And Endor? And the fucking cloud city of Bespin?
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
They used real sets for Coruscant too.
Jedi temple?SET!
Palpatine's office? SET!
Padme's apartment? SET!
Landing platforms?SETS!
Bar in AOTC?SET!
Chase scene in AOTC? Miniatures?

>We're not talking about a galaxy that was built out of
nothing and only ever existed as CGI,
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
It didn't only ever exist as CGI.
Sets & miniatures were built.
Do you want pictures? I've got more than 900 BTS pictures from the PT showing models, sets & mianitures used...moron!
Quit showing your complete ignorance!

>we're talking about the fact that
the way the prequel trilogy was made was FUNDAMENTALLY different from
the way the original trilogy was made.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Yes, it was made decades later and had more tools at their disposal! The same tools every other blockbuster is using, including TFA.

>And sorry, but characters
did not interact with tennis balls in the original trilogy.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Oh really? Should i show you an old interview of Fischer complaining about the fact there was nothing there to act off?

>They
interacted with people in rubber suits or physical puppets.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Should i show you BTS footage of Hamill acting against NOTHING for the Rancor scene?

>It wasn't until Lucas decided that he needed to re-purpose a deleted scene from
ANH that the equivalent of people interacting with a tennis ball
happened.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
You're ignorant. The voice actors of the CG characters (ex. for JarJar, Dexter, Lama Su, were ON SET to film the scenes. This BS ''interacting with a tennis ball'' happene in the old days of the OT when they couldn't CGI-out the voice actors.

BLADE57HRCAugust 7, 2015 7:40 PM

And my point is...
Your opinion on the screenplay & script (for which you have no arguement anyway) is not a fact so stop asserting it as such!
You don't like the movies? Good! Stop watching them and more importantly stop bitching & whining about them! It's been more than 10 years already!