When CGI Works


I revisited Life of Pi (2012) the other day and focused on the magical realism offered by Computer Generated Imagery like the algae-glowing dream sequence when the young Pi peers down into the depths of the ocean. It became a launching point that represented a step in his spiritual journey; CGI became the eyes of the older Pi remembering his experience. Down we go, swimming with the whale, circling the creatures, encountering his holy mother, and acknowledging the truth that his family was dead, entombed in the gray ship on the ocean’s floor. The realities of life are harsh and the world dim. Magical parables and mysticism found in most religions help humans connect to a positive power. CGI functions as the visual wand expressing various religious dogmas, and in this film, CGI works. Do you have two minutes? I found The Daily (November 26, 2012) video explaining the making of this film interesting.

Generally speaking, movie buffs tend to either embrace CGI’s evolution in the past forty years, valuing the technological advances as mind-blowing fun, or they hate how the overuse of CGI has substituted style over substance giving us films with alternate realities that have come to ignore the wonders and beauty of real settings. For example, compare Avatar with Dances with Wolves.  It’s the same story. Which one is better? DWW, hand’s down. Also, there is a danger with hyped up, over-the-top, fantastical worlds. Young film goers who know nothing else but CGI accept it as the reality. They prefer the fantasy world over the real world. It is stimulating and entertaining living in a bubble. Real life is a drag in comparison.

Found on the Project Gutenberg Self Press site HERE,  from the timeline of CGI in film, here are evolutionary highlights about CGI:

1960s -1970s:  2D raster graphics and 3D computer graphics for animated hands, wire-frame graphics. (Westworld, Futureworld, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Alien)

1980s:  extensive use 3D CG, animated films, shaded CGI, music video, scanner and morphing. (Tron, Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing”, The Abyss, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

1990s: digital puppetry, fire, fur, digital animated film (Toy Story); detailed facial deformation (Fight Club, The Matrix); digital flowing water (Titanic); (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) first film to use CG extensively for thousands of shots, including backgrounds, environmental effects, vehicles, and crowds. Several CG characters stood along real actors in dozens of shots, making them the first CG “supporting” cast members.

2000s: Artificial Intelligence for digital actors, 3D motion-captured, computer animated films (The Lord of the Rings, The Polar Express, Chicken Little, Beowulf). The use of performance-capture to create photo-realistic 3D characters and to feature a fully CG 3D photo-realistic world, Avatar

What was the first CGI film to gross more than 1 billion dollars? Toy Story 3 in 2010. 

For better or worse, I acknowledge there’s no turning back when it comes to CGI. I assume the next step is 4D? Can you imagine going to the movies and being in them? What will the cinema experience be like twenty years from now? What CGI films worked for you?

53 thoughts on “When CGI Works

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  1. I received this film as a gift last Christmas, and I still haven’t watched it. I don’t mind CGI when it is offering the impossible, as in The Abyss, or Tron. I don’t watch much animation either, so could care less about Toy Story, or Polar Express. However, it gets to me when it is very obvious, particularly in historical dramas like Gladiator, and Troy, and it spoils the films overall for me. So, I stay in the group of film lovers who prefer their films not to rely on it, though like you, I realise that it is something of a lost cause now.

    (I watched the short film. I doubt they will even need real actors soon.)

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Hi Pete! I appreciate your candor–I’m not surprised by your answer and I am in the camp that a little CGI goes a long way. I would say for a film with religious overtones or mystical realism in general, CGI can play an effective role.

  2. Funny. None of the CGI films you listed really worked for me. I sort of liked Pi but hoped I’d feel more.

    Despite Dances With Wolves fantastical revisionist history I LOVED the cinematography, the music, the mood and the basic story. I cringed all the way through Avatar as a pathetic rip-off completely lacking in nuance. I always think it’s interesting to watch films decrying white man’s guilt when western civ invented the modern novel and film. It’s a rare film (like Glory for instance) that captures the complexity of human relations, is beautiful to look at and has a great soundtrack.

    1. Hi Adrienne, thank you for your powerful words. Have you read ‘The Son’ by Philipp Meyer? It’s an outstanding, fair depiction of taming the West–the cowboys and Indians were complicated, vicious, virtuous–both sides. I can’t stress enough how much I feel a great score elevates a film. Glory, as you have mentioned, is a great film depicting complicated relationships–humans are far from black and white. I love scripts that feature dynamic characters.

  3. Fabulous article Cindy. CGI truly is a tricky thing. Its inception was pretty dynamic even if it was rough around the edges. Now it’s everywhere and the key difference lies between filmmakers who depend on it and filmmakers who employ it to serve the story. Often times a dependence can really kill a movie. But I love it when a movie skillfully uses CGI in interesting and new ways.

    1. Hi Keith, I think you and I stand in the middle of the discussion. I can attest as each new film “first” came along, I was wowed (The first Matrix blew my socks off)and I also think it’s incredible to see special effects teams coming up with new tricks. Like you say, dependency and serving the story is the key. Thank you for commenting 🙂

  4. I don’t think musicals (& musical numbers) in film were actually so culturally relevant after the roaring 20’s as much as they were a reaction to sound becoming prevalent in film in the 30’s, which became habit by the 40’s, before dissipating out of its compulsory status into its current niche.

    Surely the same will be said for CGI: that it went from prevalent market reaction, to annoying habit (where we currently are), to some future reasonable niche. Eventually B&W stopped with the obligatory song & dance so someday, hopefully, it’ll happen with our chronic abuses of CGI.

    crosses fingers

  5. I also recently revisited The Life of Pi and enjoyed the computer generated images. The movie struck me as a 2001 with the ocean instead of outer space as the canvass. Usually I hate GCI, but if the whole scheme of the movie is other worldly, there is a chance I will be able to watch it without hurling. I will almost always prefer the work of the human hand though. Only inspired artists could have created the painted vistas of Black Narcissus. finally, I agree with Pete that he worst offenders are those movies like Gladiator, where CGI replaces real backdrops and even people with no imagination whatsoever. As for the future, I look forward to seeing the next Marlon Brando movie, but it probably wont be very good.

    1. Howdy, Bill. A gracious response to a topic I am aware how you feel strongly about. I am in your camp when it comes to hand artistry trumping CGI. One of my favorite scenes is from Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ when he incorporates Salvador Dali surrealism in the production design. Fritz Lang’s artistic team, especially Erich Kettelhut, are brilliant.
      I just watched ‘On the Waterfront’ this afternoon. Sigh. Marlon, Marlon, Marlon. I miss you.

      1. i just revisited a streetcar named desire after seeing the disappointing but essential “listen to me marlon.” its always a thrill to see off-screen brando footage, no matter how mendacious the content. as for streetcar, i still think brando completely misunderstood his character, but was brilliant nonetheless. the bad side of this is that the world may never see on stage or screen a stanley kowalski as williams wrote him.

          1. if you read it not the many occasions stanley shows himself asuperior man, witha fine intelligenceand concern with legal matters, as well as being the alpha male of his group. i would liked to have seen what jeremy irons circa 1981 would have done with the part.

          2. I’ve been watching a lot of Jeremy Irons lately. That’s a big visual stretch–bony skinny Irons next to beefy Marlon. I think about Stella and Blanche’s primal reaction to the alpha male and can’t see them reacting in the same way to Irons. As far as Stanley’s legal mind goes, Irons would nail it. I like the division of brawn and brain. Both could do one or the either perfectly.

          3. stanley’s brawny primate nature is all in blanche’s neurotic head. brando play’s blanche’s idea of stanley, but not stella’s.. when stella starts seeing him from blanche’s perspective, the marriage starts to disintegrate. and stanley makes it clear that things were’ never like this before blanche’s arrival. and believe me, women c.go wilder over a skinny intellectual’s sexual presence than that of a brute.

          4. he knows, although i question his taste. but look at jeremy irons himself! while she is no exceptional beauty, she is every bit as lovely as kim hunter,who played stella across from brando.

  6. Another quality post Cindy. Well, I guess that’s not a surprise. 😉

    I think my feelings about CGI vary from film to film. This bit here best sums up how I feel in general: “Young film goers who know nothing else but CGI accept it as the reality. They prefer the fantasy world over the real world. It is stimulating and entertaining living in a bubble. Real life is a drag in comparison.”

    I think this also brilliantly applies to violence in video games (and also movies). The desensitization to it, anyway. I’m part of it as well. It’s alarming some of the films I have seen and not been overly bothered by the graphic content. That said, 12 Years a Slave made me sick. It all comes down to the application of that thing, it’s context. If CGI is used sparingly it can work to great effect. Someone needs to tell Michael Bay that when he’s filming his next explosion-fest.

    1. Hi Tom, wow, you said a lot! I see students’ desensitization of violence in films that were once scandalous for viewing. Have you noticed how lenient the PG-13 and R rating in films have changed in the last 20 years? Unfortunately, it seems there are few markers for kids these days–ouch, I sound old! And you are right about the video games. You give a great example about 12 Years a Slave. The grasshoppers screaming throughout the film matched the horror of the story. I was sickened, too. Used sparingly, as you say, I think CGI achieves its potential.

  7. I’m definitely on the less CG, more substance side of the argument, but there’s no denying the impact good digital effects can have. The Toy Story trilogy, for example, is stunning in both look and narrative. Some of my favourite films rely on a healthy combination of real sets and special effects, such as The Lord of the Rings. I do think we sometimes forget the amount of graft digital illustrators put in, but when all a film has going for it is its CG, you don’t feel like prescribing much praise.

    1. Welcome Adam. I’m right with you. When you think about the purpose of going to the movies is to escape, to visit new worlds, walk alongside characters, visit the past, etcetera, CGI delivers. It is very entertaining and watching how a film is made using it, I think is fascinating. It takes a lot of brains to apply CGI and pull it off. I think a balance is necessary. Keith mentioned above that CGI should serve the story and not the other way around, and I like that phrasing. Nothing beats a great script with dialogue and complex characters. I quickly become bored if a film lacks those components.

  8. Awesome post Cindy! Hope you had a great Thanksgiving girl.

    Life of Pie does have a stunning CGI, I think Avatar was fantastic in terms of CGI, despite the weak story. I owned the 3D bluray of Avatar and the visuals are still amazing IMHO. I also think the use of CGI to create a realistic space experience in Gravity is astounding.

      1. Indeed, just like most things in life 🙂 Hope you have a chance to check out my latest post btw, thought I’d do a recap of what I watched during my hiatus.

  9. Kids will always be looking for fantasy anyway 🙂 We didn’t have such movies, but we had books. No one confused the books with the reality though, at least on a big scale.
    Love the video, amazed with the CGI. I have read the book first, and was excited to learn that they were shooting the movie. Great movie, by the way, i just missed the Carnivorous island 🙂

    1. All those Meerkats would turn my stomach! It’s the only part of the parallel story I didn’t get–what the carnivorous island was supposed to represent, if the other animals in the boat were representing humans on the ship. In other words, the carnivorous island seemed out of place. I loved the book, too. 🙂

  10. Interesting post Cindy, coming from my model making background i prefer a balance between reality and some fantasy to create those on-screen worlds. You can rely too much on one technique. Audiences have grown more aware, but like you say younger viewers don’t know any different. There’s a real charm in crappy special effects, you can see the film-makers trying their best and falling slight short. As they have become more sophisticated you just cant tell what is real at times. I guess that is the power of cinema if you are lost in the story you just don’t notice it, which is what you want. I think I’ll always prefer the human touch

  11. how spoiled we are … like trying to catch a tsunami in a bucket.

    ok i got 2 more for my perfect film list: Ben Hur and Field of Dreams.
    I don’t know if there can be a Perfect Movie?
    But some can definitely be Spiritually inspired.

  12. I agree with you on the old style movies which relied on environment and style, so not always embracing CGI.
    I liked “Where Dreams May Lie” ( I think this is Robin Williams movie, dreams about afterlife) I am not good on cell phone looking up things and sometimes come back and comments I started aren’t there still. I also embrace Sherlock Holmes (CGI) fantasy mixed with history in the two movies with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as his Dr. Watson. 🙂

    1. Ah, I liked the first Sherlock film. I really liked the afterlife in What Dreams May Come. How cool his heaven was a painting and he was in a gooey mess. GOSH what a beautiful film, albeit depressing!

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