- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Alex Lynchehaun
Almost as long as there have been films, there have been special effects, evolving through rockets in the Moon’s eye and a giant ape climbing landmarks to lightsabers, dinosaurs, and Michael Bay. They made the impossible filmable; they created some of the most iconic moments in cinema. With computers, we can go further than ever, the only limit – as the cliché goes – is the filmmaker’s imagination. It is fantastic to trace the medium’s development in just over a century, and wonderful how images can transform how we see the world.
However, like all innovations, there is the darker downside. Computers may have given us Andy Serkis’ Gollum, the world of Pandora, the existential dilemmas of Toy Story; they also produced Transformers, the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones. Special effects used to be matters of innovation – the 1933 King Kong utilised stop-motion, greenscreen, and much more, while Star Wars inspired a revolution – while today it is almost too easy; which in turn affects other aspects of the film-making process, such as writing.
One criticism (amongst many) of The Phantom Menace was its ratio of CG to credible story. This is a growing trend: the film which prioritises style over substance. Some have levelled the same accusation at Avatar, and certainly without computers the Transformers franchise would have crumbled long ago – nay, might have never existed. Try comparing and contrasting the two versions of ghost story The Haunting: one based on atmosphere, the other on painful 1990s CG. Computers are not single-handedly responsible for killing the art of cinematic story-telling – it’s an extreme argument, and at most they are just one factor – but they are tempting for supporting a film.
Moreover, CG means innovation is less necessary. Without this, do you really need to worry about how something will look; with no limits on possibility, should anything be rejected? Speed and ease removes an aspect of the creative process – practicality versus innovation – where ideas had to fit the possible. Editing is just as important for story. Alongside pioneers such as Pixar – who combine visuals with fantastic storytelling – there lies a growing tendency to blind audiences with pretty effects.
With giant budgets and the limitless potential of CG, has a key influence on story been removed? Have we lost something by way of clever cinematography? Are movies increasingly about spectacle rather than story? For the most part, yes. The impact of 3D, the possibilities of enough money, easy animation pushing out live-action acting: they are the unpleasant reality. It is easier to get terrible stories with enough money to animate anything, from effects to the entire film. No longer do poor films mean poor visuals. However, this is not the whole story. Studios may love CG, and things are slightly worse, but innovations continue, and good films are still made, with or without them. It is simply a shame how CG has come to dominate the industry, potentially distancing it. Hopefully the writing will catch up soon.