The last six months have been dominated, at least financially, by one film; Avatar. Mine and many others first foray into the world of 3D film, it was not only an economic success, but a stunning visual experience. We are reaching the point where filmmakers with enough imagination and money can have anything they want on the screen. But personally, I much prefer any kind of real effect to CGI, and feel that they are ultimately always superior. Is an over dependence on CGI really going to make cinema more magical, or eventually more stale?
Cinema has always been a medium of the spectacular, even if we go as far back as magic lantern shows or the early silent shorts. It is not surprising that the surrealists soon got involved, with Salvador Dali and Man Ray making some truly magnificent work. Mankindâs imagination has never been the problem when it comes to creating movies. The problem will always come down to budget and practicality, without a doubt the biggest problems with cinema as an art form.
That said, money has always been available, and this is where I come to my first problem with CGI. It has not only made us think the spectacular is a recent occurrence, but also in a lot of way has trivialised special effects. We expect absolute top notch special effects in the same way we expect the sound to be crystal clear. What this means is that it becomes harder and harder to create a classic, with only rare exceptions actually becoming cinema history. For when special effects are no longer remarkable, it becomes all too easy for a film to fade into obscurity. Matrix Reloaded and Revolution were sold on their special effects, and six years on it really shows.
Yet when a film shows something tangible, that if you were on set you could touch, there is something intrinsically more magical about it, even if it ends up looking tacky later on. Because it is real, there will always bee an element of mystery about how it was achieved. The original King Kong used a giant head and arm to do some of the shots- they still look impressive. 2001: Space Odyssey is just gorgeous. Even something as old as A Trip to the Moon can still entrance a modern audience. Whereas when CGI dates, it looks sterile and hollow rather than charming. Regardless of its plot, the sets and boats in Waterworld look great, until Kevin Costner swims down into green screen hell.
This is perhaps a little patronising to CGI artists. A lot of their job involves blending in an effect, and I am sure if I had to pick out the digital from the real explosions in an average Hollywood film I would face a difficult task. Also, it is clearly a matter of cost and practicality. If Peter Jackson had been able to shoot the Lord of the Rings trilogy without digital effects I am sure he would of, and to his credit certainly tried.
Yet it isnât just action and fantasy films that use CGI. Richard Linklaterâs 'A Scanner Darkly' used visual effects to really undermine the characters and the audiencesâ view of reality. Carmina, (an underrated recent Spanish movie that I highly recommend) uses computer effects that enhance and expand the narrative. CGI is certainly not an absolute curse to cinema, and can very easily enrich the art of any film.
For me, Avatar was visually spectacular, and I am fascinated to see where 3D will go next. Yet I am also being completely honest when I say I found the scenes without any effects visual effects vastly more impressive. We are getting closer, but are still not at the level of achieving absolute realism with computer generated images. Until then, charm rather than authenticity should be our watchword.