How C.G.I. Killed Sci-Fi

... well, sci-fi movies, at any rate. I remember when C.G.I. was making it's first appearances (I think around the time of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park) I was rather excited, thinking that there would be a lot more science fiction movies produced because it would be cheaper/easier to do so, and that this would be great for fans like me. Well, I suppose I wasn't completely wrong, but when I look at all the dreck out there these days, I certainly wasn't right.

Even today, 20+ years after the first "photorealistic" C.G.I. creatures of Jurassic Park and Babylon 5's space station, C.G.I. still, largely, looks totally fake and stupid. My children have been watching Empire Strikes Back over and over and over lately, and the ships in that (1980) film, or how about the Aries 1B Earth-Moon Shuttle from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968!) look far more convincing than, say, the ship in Avatar (2009) that transports Sam Worthington to Pandora.

This also applies to scenery and human battlescenes -- consider the future war scene from Terminator 2 which unlike the T1000 was all models, Animatronics, and "practical effects" (they actually flip the truck, for example). By 2003 with Termintor 3 we got a whole platoon of risible cartoons walking stiffly down a hill. Or even the battlescenes in the Lord of the Rings films, which was probably some of the best C.G.I. I've seen -- it still looks fake because it is.

(Youtube won't allow an embet of the T2 battlescene, but here it is: http://youtu.be/N9YU0hQEZ5M?hd=1)

The battlescene in T3 starts at about 2:55 of the clip below:

And don't even get me started on puppets vs. C.G.I....

And the list goes on -- guys in rubber suits (Alien in '79/Aliens in '86) make for way scarier xenomorphs than the C.G.I. nonsense in Alien Versus Predator.

The thing is, if I had the wherewithal to make a film, all I'd have to do is wander down to the local gaming store and hire all my fellow Warhammer geeks to build and paint-up a whole mess of scenery and vehicles. With less than the cost of one scene of C.G.I., they could whip-up a while galaxy worth of stuff. Now, maybe there are some union issues or something, but C.G.I. just strikes me as the lazy film-maker's way out and it has led to poorer filmmaking. In the old days they had to actually use their heads and get creative, not they just use computers.


Sophia's Favorite said...

Heh. Oh yes, you could make the puppets for a movie—but you'd have to make them fully articulated armatures, and you'd want to be able to manipulate them in real-time, stop motion takes forever. My sister made a stop motion short, in film school, with paper cutouts, not even rubber armatures—and she had to take an entire extra year to do it. And she still had to go so sleep-deprived that she hallucinated (if you've never been in film school or med school, you don't know what "sleep deprivation" means—unless you've been interrogated by an intelligence service or had a nervous breakdown, anyway).

All of that, for 10 minutes of movie.

I don't disagree, though, about CGI. Personally, I think digital compositing, to improve the interactions between models and people, but using actual rubber-and-wire puppets (one advantage of our tech is that you could digitally remove wires or marionette-strings) is the way to go. That, or just full-CGI (I myself lean toward that, since I tend to favor a stylized visual style)—watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, the movie sequel to the game, to see it done in a non-cartoony style.

The problem with CGI objects and characters in otherwise full-motion video, is that it is very hard to simulate the rendered object's interactions with the physical environment around it; the traditional animation term is "squash and stretch", from the subtle distortions in an object's shape, caused by their interaction with gravity and surfaces. The reason most CGI, even now, looks fake and cheap, is that the objects seem to be just slightly skewed, and also too rigid for their environment. The reason Jurassic Park looked so good, and still holds up even today, is their creature effects were done by a stop-motion expert.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Yes, the animation is load more work but still a better result IMO. But as for scenery and spaceships, it seems to me that it isn't quite so bad as what you've described and looks way better.

As for sleep deprivation, I've never gone to film or med school, but I have done the Canadian Army's Basic Infantry Officer's Course which involves lots of sleep deprivation. I only hallucinated once, myself, after four or five days of no sleep (can't really remember -- it all blends together after about 48 hours without sleep). I thought I saw a dragon swooping down to attack my platoon. I know lots of my comrades were hallucinating more.

The longest stint was on a two-week field exercise. Over the course of ten days we were allowed about 12 hours sleep total. That was brutal. I could handle everything else about the training, but the sleep deprivation was the worst and the only thing I would not willingly do over again.

Sophia's Favorite said...

I stand corrected—though, by the time my sister finished that film, about half her hair was gone, from the stress. See, she was pulling roughly that same sleep schedule...for about four months.

Yes, film school is technically a human-rights violation. Who knew?

My own experience with sleep deprivation comes from the nervous breakdown I mentioned—have you ever been afraid to sleep? Because I have. And what's really funny (in hindsight...with therapy...) is that clinical anxiety disorder, the culprit here, is caused by a deficiency in a neurotransmitter that gets depleted if you go without sleep. So things just went from bad to worse in a big hurry.

I quite agree about models, though—give me a good plastic spaceship over a CGI one any day. Especially since digital compositing can add them seamlessly to backgrounds, and you can add in rocket-burns and the like in post-production.

Though (as you know) I am a finicky hard-SF guy, so I worry about whether a miniature model could have piping thin enough, for the structural elements realistic spaceships would use (i.e. "metal lattice framework"—real spaceships would have large sections that basically look like radio towers, since they have to keep the engines far away from the crew while keeping mass to a minimum). Perhaps dental floss might do the trick, or fishing line.

There was a show (Space 1999, I think?) that had utter nonsense science (if it was Space 1999, the moon gets knocked so severely out of its orbit that it basically becomes a comet...without being destroyed—and all this due to nuclear waste being stored in a crater). But it's beloved by hard s-f fans (who presumably watch it with the sound off), purely because the spaceship designs are actually realistic, with most of their length being empty space.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Well, I suppose it depends on how big the models are. If you made your space ship the size of, say, a car, you would not have to use something as thin as dental floss/fishing line.

On that vein, is it not the case that such large spaces between the crew and the engines are only necessary in the case of engines that produce radiation? Like antimatter engines, for example? But if you had an engine that doesn't produce radiation (something as-yet undiscovered) the distance would not be required.

I have to say, for aesthetic reasons alone I'm inclined to stick with my fantasy stuff!

Although I suppose realistic ships as you describe have their own aesthetic appeal, just a totally different style. It might be interesting to try to make that work with a space opera/adventure plot.

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