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CGI and the lack of illusion.


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#1 Alex Lindblom

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Posted 27 October 2008 - 04:37 AM

CGI -- Three small words that changed everything. The only question is, what the hell where they thinking? It all began about a hundred years ago, the art of the moving picture and with it came the special effects now known as VFX.

Well come to think about it. The whole notion of cinema is built on VFX. The simple but yet brilliant principle that 24 still frames a second show in succession behind a shutter, creates the illusion of movement, it is brilliant idea -- almost magic.

The whole foundation of cinema is built on deception, but it's important to remember that we use that deception to show a deeper truth, for whatever reason we chose to -- comical, tragically or just good old entertainment, it doesn't matter but good cinema always tells the "truth" at some deeper universal level.

But to tell a story any story, we have to create the illusion, and an illusion is only works as long as you believe in it.

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Terminator, a low budget production a think was under 2 million at time. If you look at that movie today it still holds up for most of the production you believe that Arnold is the Terminator. There is basically only two scenes in this movie where it do not work...

1. The full head shot on the eye operation scene.

2. The full stop motion endoskeleton.

And yes the front projection scenes aren't perfect. But for the most part you buy it, the illusion.

Yesterday I watched The incredible Hulk, a film i really like and respect I have to say, lush anamorphic cinematography and good attitude, but...

There is not one single shot in this movie where I believe that the Hulk actually exists, not a single shot. I repeat not a single shot. And this is of course not good for the illusion and in it's extension, the story that's been told.

Now I am not singling out Hulk, this problem applies to almost every VFX movie out there these days, and it's just that I can not get my head around it.

I mean the money is there -- the talent is there -- the technology is there.

But still our screens are filled not with magic dreams -- but with broken illusions...

I just don't get it.
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#2 Will Earl

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Posted 27 October 2008 - 06:10 AM

I just don't get it.


That's probably part of it, as I think the Incredible Hulk as a character was very well done and despite any misgivings I had about the film itself, I had no problem believing that the character existed within the frame.

That's not to completely disagree with what your saying, there is a bunch of substandard work out there, but I also think there is a bunch of great work out there. I don't think the problem is CGI, I think it's how VFX are utilised these days by productions, and I think for the most part they're not given the time, resources or budget that they need - I'm currently working to a schedule which is probably a 1/5th of what it should be for the amount and complexity of the shots required.
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#3 Alex Lindblom

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Posted 27 October 2008 - 08:19 AM

Just to be clear I have nothing against CGI a good VFX is good no matter how it's achieved and and the same goes for a bad one, I also agree that there are some great work out there.

When you say "I don't think the problem is CGI, I think it's how VFX are utilised these days by productions." I think that you are on to something.

For me it seems like there has been shift in mindset, since VFX has become more of a "commodity" then it was before.

It seems like productions now know, that they have too little money for certain shots, but instead of working around them or cutting them out they seem to say "it's good enough, the kids don't care."

I don't know if this is true or not. It's just a felling I have.

This is also a production issue and not an issue for VFX house as I understand that you guys do the best you can with the recourses you are given.

But coming from a producing stand point I can not see the point of budgeting a shot that everybody knows is gone be impossible to do on a budget and therefor is going to be compromised.

And that's the part I don't get.

Why not make the things that you can afford right and work around the rest? There is always compromises in film making and there is no such thing as a perfect film, but the ambition should always be I believe, to make as good as film as you can, not just "good enough for the kids."

And that's what I feel a lot of film these days ask you to do, to suspend your disbelieve a bit too much. Because when it's all said and done it's just a PG-13 you know -- just for the kids...
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#4 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 28 October 2008 - 12:22 AM

The main problem I had with The Hulk in BOTH recent movies is that they made him TOO big. He was what 12-14ft tall. I think that destroyed the illusion for me. They pushed it TOO far.
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#5 Michael Waite

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Posted 28 October 2008 - 02:18 AM

I agree with the OP. I don't go to see many recent movies because they are generally so offensive to my intelligence & humanity. However I did watch 'I Am Legend' (Soy Legenda) at the cinema when I was in Mexico City in January. It starts with him driving fast through the city with his dog. The city is abandoned with weeds growing from cracks in the road. A herd of deer is running alongside the car. It should have been an exciting & visceral entry to the story. Instead, I sat there rolling my eyes & thinking how obviously fake the deer looked. No way did they look like they were running along that road. They looked cut & pasted & the fakeness of it took me right out of the story.
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#6 Tim Sibley

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Posted 28 October 2008 - 04:45 PM

CGI is a tool just like any other - I think what you're getting at is what's described as the "Flying Purple Elephant" problem. If you try to stick something into a scene that isn't believable, it will seem "fake" regardless of how well it's rendered - eg. no matter how much time and money you could spend trying to insert a flying purple elephant into a shot, you will never accept it as real because as a viewer you have an intrinsic sense of what exists in the natural world. While the Hulk's CGI may not have been flawless, I don't think there's any way you can put a 15-foot tall beast man that moves at 50 km/h on screen without it looking "fake". A child watching that movie would be able to suspend their disbelief and accept it as belonging in frame, but any more intelligent viewer immediately realizes that it's an unreal element.

One thing to remember with CG - it's the director that chooses how it's used, not the artists. If you include a scene in your film where the camera magically flies around actors and sets in a physically impossible manner, the odds are it will look fake regardless of how competently it's executed. On the flip side, I guarantee 80% of VFX shots in films today slip by completely unnoticed by audiences, because they're integrated in a manner that reflects something that fits believably within the film's world. The amount of set extensions, editing/makeup fixes and greenscreen comps that are included in the average film is considerable, and are for the most part completely invisible. Consider 'Dark Knight' - there were over 700 digital VFX shots (think about that) in that film, including a lot of digital character and environment work - and in fact there were several shots that were completely digital (the waterline and ferries in the climactic sequence were completely digital, for example). I'd guarantee 99% of audience members accept all of those shots, because the 'purple elephant' flag isn't raised. However, when it comes to the Harvey Two-Face digital makeup, I'm betting most people (knowingly or not) decided that such impossibly grotesque wounds cannot be real, and must be VFX. This isn't the fault of the artists, I'd call that a "fault" of the director, for pushing thing too far. If, for instance, the VFX artists created a scaled back version of the effect that looked like it could have been achieved with practical makeup (no exposed tendons, etc.), I'm betting nobody would have raised a Spockian eyebrow when those shots appeared. The same argument can be applied to car commercials, where CG cars are becoming rather ubiquitous, and when rendered properly in a non-stylized fashion, are accepted as real immediately, as we're not asking our brains to accept anything preposterous.

In my mind, the most important thing to consider is where to place the line between reality and fantasy for a given film - I'd look at VFX heavy films like 'Dark Knight' and 'Children of Men' as examples of movies that found a great balance between the two.

Edited by Tim Sibley, 28 October 2008 - 04:49 PM.

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#7 Tim Sibley

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Posted 28 October 2008 - 04:46 PM

bah, double post.

Edited by Tim Sibley, 28 October 2008 - 04:48 PM.

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#8 Jim Keller

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Posted 28 October 2008 - 05:07 PM

I'm curious if those who think CGI doesn't look real have the same response when looking at a Muppet. Some (such as Yoda) have been done very realistically, but others (such as Kermit) are clearly puppets, with visible stitching and control rods. And yet audiences reacted to Kermit, Fozzie, and Piggie as if they were real characters. If the Muppet can convince you that it's real within the context of the story, is the problem that these CGI characters are not yet well enough acted to be convincing?
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#9 Alex Lindblom

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Posted 29 October 2008 - 05:14 AM

Tim makes some very good points here, and I concur in every thing he says except....

"I don't think there's any way you can put a 15-foot tall beast man that moves at 50 km/h on screen without it looking "fake". "

I believe you can do anything with cinema if done right. And I think the above example actual was pulled off, to a pretty good effect 21 years ago.

In 1987 a film that's not much mention anymore came out -- Harry and the Hendersons. This is for all sense an purposes the same movie as the Hulk. ( At least for this discussion)

You know a big guy, one of them is green and scary and the other one is brown and hairy. Both have their heart in the right place but manage to smash things up due to their size. We have two comic book villains in Blonsky and David Suchet as La Fleur who is also very comic bookish in his manners. And both these movies takes place in some sort of "real reality."

Now granted we all know that there are no Bigfoots, well at least not one that's a member of SAG anyway. So therefore on a intellectual level we know that it has to be a FX just like the Hulk.

But and this is the big but that also connects to what Jim is saying, for some reason the brain buys the guy in a suit trick, even though we know it's a just a guy in a suit. The same way we just seem to accept Kermit.

Granted this seems to work better in entertainment movies, I mean nobody is scared of the creature from the black lagoon. Sure it works in Alien but there they have gone to great lengths to work around the guy in a suit problem. It's not like in Harry or Hulk where they are both shown in full frame in full daylight. You can see that on behind the scenes from Alien and there it just looks like a guy in a suit.

So what is my point? Well to be honest I don't know. But to me it seems like when a digital effect is pulled of right, set extension wire removal and so on, it's absolutely flawless and you buy it. But if it's done just a tiny bit wrong there seems to be no leeway there, it's just pulls you straight out of the movie.

With an FX which is done in camera there just seems to be more leverage there, even if the effect isn't pulled off perfect, say the visible rods with puppets, the acceptances just seem higher for some reason.

Edited by Alex Lindblom, 29 October 2008 - 05:15 AM.

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#10 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 29 October 2008 - 06:36 AM

I always, for what it's worth, notice CGI for color and it's interplay with light-- perhaps why a puppet is often more accepted because we see, without question, that it is really there in the frame. Mess up the shading on CGI; at all, and out eyes--- seeking differences in what we see--- will track on that?
just a thought.
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#11 Jim Keller

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Posted 29 October 2008 - 05:11 PM

I always, for what it's worth, notice CGI for color and it's interplay with light-- perhaps why a puppet is often more accepted because we see, without question, that it is really there in the frame. Mess up the shading on CGI; at all, and out eyes--- seeking differences in what we see--- will track on that?
just a thought.


I think that's part of it, except that we've been using matte paintings (first physical, then digital) for years with lighting that doesn't match. I've found it typically knocks me out of the moment, but when my mom watches the scene I have to spend 20 minutes explaining to her what the problem is...
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