On the digital void that is modern cinema
I recently rewatched The Thing. Its practical effects are, of course, astounding, but they do show that even practical effects have their limits. Yes, it feels like the actors are really there, but it sometimes has the B-movie feel of the actors really being there around an unconvincing prop. Like with CGI, the effect is more convincing the less clearly we see it: the puppets / animatronics scurrying around in the dark and/or on fire are wonderful, but the autopsied Thing, just lying about on the table, is clearly a sculpture. But I share your preference: better the feeling that the characters are really actors on a stage manipulating props, than the even worse disenchantment that the actors are wandering around a soundstage.
As an addition bit of speculation, I wonder if part of the explanation has to do with scheduling. As Hollywood is wedded to the Blockbuster model, big budgets need big name actors, big name actors have busy schedules and are very expensive. So its simply more practical to work around their schedule by driving them out to a soundstage than to make more demands of their time by flying them out to location and having them potentially wait around for the practical effects to be assembled and placed.
It's true. Another thing is that mattes used to be painted in oil, and I think that medium is still the absolute high watermark in terms of capturing reality across sci-fi and fantasy. The people painting 70's star wars backgrounds just understood light and could replicate it better than modern CG artists.
CGI also frees the camera from physical space, which can definitely feel “off” and break immersion when overused. I was re watching Jurassic Park, and while the effects are stunning, what really sells the dinos for me is that they’re shot from the ground, from about the height of a human being. It feels like someone had to be in the room with them to get the shot. They clearly planned the scenes around what could be accomplished in a physical spaces.
In movies with conspicuous CGI, the camera is often just “floating” in space. This lets directors storyboard whatever they want, but it’s easy to make a scene that feels like you’re no-clipping around in a video game. Super heroes fighting each other in the sky always feels flat to me for that reason.
I just produced a short film last week shot entirely on a virtual stage, we were the first film to do this in NYC. It's the future of filmmaking – no physical sets, just virtual worlds on an LED screen which render in real time and move with the camera. The background actors will be metahumans created using the Unreal Engine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXuVqfasT90
I personally prefer old-school things but it is amazing to be able to create any physical environment and have the actors be able to see it in real time, unlike greenscreen. Mandalorian was the first production to shoot this way. We'll see if it's a step up from CGI!
Forced visual fantasy repulses me
Nice piece! I do think the laziness aspect is the true bit here. But there's an additional piece of context. I looked at one of the top special effects cos, and one of the interesting things that stands out is their ability to produce life-realistic productions have vastly increased. Not just in sci-fi, but say in Fast & Furious, there are places where the actors are CGI and its not noticeable at all. So its not technique that's been lost/ misused.
In most cases, including Tarzan, Jurassic World, most of Marvel, most of the reality we see seems hyper-realistic. And some of what seems reality is actually computer generated. So while I'd agree over-reliance on the same things (London blowing up, alien portals raining fire) has gotten formulaic, its lazy storytelling and not CGI. Constraints are helpful, and making scenes unconstrained can also make them boring.
synthetic landscapes may not only be a threat to movies but actual reality -- good piece!
Erlebnis - das Erlebnis - is the German word you are looking for. I wrote a longer answer, but then the system crashed. erlebbar would be a possible adverb in the movie-context. Not the same as "experience" as that would be "Erfahrung". An Erlebnis touches you, you feel alive (lebendig) when you are having one. If a movie was not an Erlebnis it might have been a "cultural experience" - but who gives a f.rt for those?! Read "Erlebnisgesellschaft"
"Consider Peter Jackson’s decline from The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit trilogy. "
Uhh hey, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, along with the Star Wars prequels released contemporaneously, were *the* seminal catalysts of the very problem you're analyzing! They just look good compared to the Hobbit movies because the CGI overuse problem was so much worse by the time the Hobbit was made (not to impersonalize this too much given that we're looking at different parts of the same director's oeuvre but you catch my drift).
I had to say that because the LoTR movies being bad and a bad influence on film is one of my hobbyhorses, otherwise I agree with every word of this post and am a bit surprised by how many people are pushing back against your argument in the comments.
Thoughts on the Lucasfilm studio used in Mandalorian? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ufp8weYYDE8
If you can bring the CGI into the real world before filming, it may bridge the acting and effects until movies look like something closer to the benefits you describe with practical effects era
I think the word you're looking for about that natural feel, of irreducible freshness, is "aura." The German thinker Walter Benjamin wrote about it in an essay yours reflects: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I don't know why I'm telling you this bcos from your essay, I think you must have read Walter's essay.
Is this the "Uncanny Valley" applied to film? In a way, the skeletons of the old "Sinbad" movies were far less objectionable.
Funny you should mention the year 2000, because 2001’s A. I. has the most seamless FX made since. I don’t think the reason is laziness. Directors just don’t fully direct anymore. Movies like Disney don’t have distinctive vision and are a committee product where CGI artists have too much power. And yes, that includes auteurs like Villeneuve whose voice was lost in the latter parts of Dune.
Agree. Just because you have a capability doesn’t mean that you have to use it.
This is true.
I can die happy knowing someone agrees
zeuge des Seins german word for witnessing being.