Is That a Movie or a Video Game?
This post is a response to an opinion item in the New York Times: “Is That a Movie or a Video Game?” The issue at hand is the CGI-ification of cinema. NYT presented four points of view.
1. Cinema is about Humanity, not Fireballs
Armond White took the traditionalist perspective. CGI takes the audience away from the core truth of cinema. Movies are about and for people, us. He puts his position succinctly by stating, “[h]ow many zooming overhead shots of fantasy landscapes and 360-degree panoramas can we stomach before we get dizzy?” Between the hyper-reality of Avatar or the 48-frames per second of The Hobbit, some viewers report a queasy motion-sickness sensation while watching some CGI heavy films. Where is the limit?
2. Did Color and Sound Ruin Movies?
Mark Hughes saw the many technical advances in the history of cinema as part and parcel with the improvement of cinema since its invention. “Technical advances improve the overall quality of cinema. Even bad films today are crafted more skillfully than bad films of yesterday.” While blunt, he does have a point.
3. Beware the Uncanny Valley
Natalie Wolchohover was interested in the psychological impact of digital silver screen heroes. There is a psychological phenomena that viewers experience where a bit of cognitive dissonance puts us ill at ease watching digital humans. “Computer-animated characters can seem both human and alien, causing cognitive dissonance that settles into a feeling of fear or repulsion.”
I had a few rhetorical questions I wanted to pose here:
- What about when computer graphics can generate an image, a video, a digital actor that we cannot distinguish from reality? Will this “uncanny valley” phenomena drop away to become a footnote in cinema history?
- Does everyone experience this phenomena? I’m not sure I have. Sometimes the characters are not believable to me, but I don’t experience the “fear or repulsion” that psychologists suggest. Is there a psychological or physiological threshold for experiencing the “uncanny valley”?
4. A New Era of Filmmaking
Woody Schultz, an actor, was interested in the acting opportunities that CGI and, more specifically, motion capture offer to actors. Normally actors are restricted to roles that fit his/her “look.” With CGI and motion capture an actor can play any character that can be dreamed up and created in the computer. “For the actor, C.G.I. allows us to explore and inhabit the souls of characters, human or otherwise, previously inaccessible.”
My Thoughts in Response
CGI is a filmmaker’s tool. With it filmmakers can create worlds that would have been prohibitively expensive just a generation ago. CGI is not inherently bad, but whenever filmmakers availed themselves of the new technologies of sound, color, widescreen format, 3D, and many other filmmaking technologies there are missteps and overindulgence.
Take one minor technology for example: slit-scan photography. Originally created to achieve a measure of distortion or deformity in an image(or shot), slit-scan is a relatively complicated process. However, in the simplest terms it is a process where “a movable slide, into which a slit has been cut, is inserted between the camera and the subject to be photographed.”
Take a look the intro sequence to the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who. Here the slit-scan method is used to create the “tunnel” effect seen at the very beginning around the police box and again later for the circular tunnel. It also can be seen in the 8-point star pattern seen in the actor’s face at about 16 seconds. Then it is used again for the diamond pattern for the main title “Doctor Who” at about 20 seconds.
Still slit-scan has primarily gimmick or a rudimentary technique taught to in art school animation classes and not serious filmmaking technique.
Yet for all the terrible or experimental uses of slit-scan, some filmmakers have found storytelling circumstances that benefited from this cinematic technique. The most notable of these is Stanley Kubrick who used slit-scan in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Late in the film a character has an experience which is beyond space and time(as a title card famously tells the audience) known as the “Star Gate sequence.” The confusing nature of the experience for the character suits the confusing nature of the experience for the audience. The slit-scan begins about 30 seconds into the video below.
Here’s an interview with Doug Trumbull the effects genius behind this stunning sequence.
So what is my point in this discussion of a specialized filmmaking technique? The issue is not the tools, but the workmen. Outstanding CGI will never overcome poor filmmaking. And bad CGI can doom good storytelling. And then there’s films like the one below where everything goes wrong… bad CGI, bad acting, implausible story… and it all become unintentional comedy.