Friday, May 30, 2008

Is The End Nigh For CGI?

Very interesting article from The Guardian about how film makers are turning there back on digital effects
Gil Taylor was the cinematographer on the first Star Wars back in 1977. In fact, he's the man who made the lightsaber glow. "It was very do-it-yourself," he says. "The lightsabers were just triangular bits of wood which were covered in reflective material that I projected a spotlight on to. They've gone over to digital now, which I never used and I don't believe in. Personally, I'm incredibly bored with those effects; they've taken over everything."

Christopher Nolan, the director behind Batman Begins and its eagerly anticipated sequel, The Dark Knight (out on July 25), told one interviewer that he thinks modern blockbusters are "more and more like animation films or video games". He has very publicly returned to using mostly props, models of sets, camera movements, pyrotechnics and plain old stuntmen to give his films their bang. JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost, has also gone so far as to reassure worried fans that the new Star Trek film he's directing won't rely too much on the power of silicon chips. Even those behind the digital effects sometimes balk at what appears on the big screen. "You can use CG too much," says Dafydd Morris, a computer animator who recently worked on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. "There's no need to green-screen everything."

One telling factor in the attitudes of Nolan and Abrams could be their ages: Nolan is 37, Abrams 41. "They grew up watching films of the 80s or the 'golden age' of creature effects like Terminator, Aliens or The Thing, and miss the tactile reality they had," suggests Oscar-nominated effects artist Alec Gillis. "These directors want audiences to have a lifelike experience, not a video-game sensory assault. They want stuntmen daring to risk their lives, full-scale buildings being blown up, totally convincing miniatures rocketing through the sky. CG often gives a physics-defying, over-nuanced, pristine-ness that defies our primal knowledge of reality. Christopher Nolan wants us to believe." Gillis is feeling the benefits of those attitudes - his skills are back in demand and he's working on X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the prequel to the X-Men series.

For Star Trek, Abrams hired Rob Burman, whose family has been in the effects business since his grandfather helped create Wolfman in 1931. "CGI had become more than just a tool over the past few years," Burman says, "but now everyone is getting used to the toy and beginning to see the limitations of it. It takes you out of the grounding of the film. If you watch the Spider-Man movies, it's great swinging through the city from his point of view, but you don't have the thrill of knowing it's a real guy doing these things. It can look utterly believable, but if what you're watching is beyond possibility, it's hard to suspend your disbelief. You want people to go to the movie and get lost in it. If you start thinking, 'Oh, that was fake,' then you're automatically back in a seat in a theatre."

He thinks that the kind of puppets and creatures he provides are better on set as well as in the cinema. "Having something practical there helps everyone involved,"he says. "Actors don't have to focus on a green tennis ball on a stick and pretend it's this big monster or character." Which perhaps explains why otherwise good actors such as Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson often looked perplexed and wooden in the entirely green-screen Star Wars prequels. "It even helps the editing and it helps the framing of the shot to have a literal 3D object in front of the camera," adds Burman. "Everything is much simpler."