Heresy of the Week – We need to get over our CGI fixation

pilot farscape

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

CGI has made incredible leaps and bounds over the past few decades, resulting in incredible visuals. But the film industry’s headlong rush down the computer-generated highway, it is fast attaining a singular dominance, in danger of eclipsing not only other effects techniques, but plot and character development too.

I’ve been rewatching Farscape lately. Netflix have added the entire series (well, baring The Peacekeeper Wars), and I’m now reliving my SF-viewing youth in glorious on-demand. It’s worse than heroin, and if you’ve never seen it then you really should give it a go.

But it has me thinking. This under-appreciated titan of a show comes courtesy of the Jim Henson Company, so naturally uses a lot of puppetry. The result is some of the most imaginative creature designs I’ve seen in a relatively low-budget TV show. From the multiple-armed Pilot (pictured above) to frog-inspired emperor Rigel, and even the eerily imaginative Halosians.

Compare it to the blockbuster films and TV of today. The computer-generated branch of visual effects seems to have won out, culminating in CGI-layered festivals which grace screens today. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is famous for its lens-flare obsession, but it also uses CGI a lot in its rendering of aliens — though arguably even the original Star Trek never got more creative than rubber and body paint when it came to that.

No, I’m going to have to do it again. Resorting to hating on Avatar.

James Cameron’s “sci-fi epic” pretty much exemplifies everything I’m talking about. It’s a smorgesboard of bright digital colours, the vast majority of which didn’t include a real life object. This isn‘t effects augmenting cinematography. This is effects replacing cinematography. Cameron reckons that his Avatar sequel will be:

“…a family saga like The Godfather.”

It won’t, of course. It will be a Smurf-esque, CGI-ed monstrosity.

For a comparison, look at Jurassic Park. Granted, it’s twenty years old, but it still gives an excellent lesson of how to use CGI. Because the dinosaurs are computer generated, but primarily only the wide shots. When the camera gets up close and personal with a T-Rex, it’s all animatronics, baby! Which does sound slightly retrograde nowadays, but the fusion works well.

Jurassic Park still looks realistic twenty years on, whereas Avatar looked like a migraine on a screen the day it was released.

CGI isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, as it becomes cheaper to do, I think we‘ll see more imaginative use of it in lower budget films. But dependence on it to the exclusion of all else is leading major films to think that colours and fancy images can not only serve the visual role, but plug character and plot roles too. Innovation comes from experimentation, from diversity and adversity. CGI as a crutch stimies that innovation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have Farscape to watch.

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