After watching recently The Expendables 2 (2012) and consequently reading a stomach-wrenching making-of piece regarding its VFX production (hat tip to @osulop), I think I’m finally starting to be done with CGI (i.e. non-real-time computer graphics) as a certain kind of ubiquitous, uninspired visual filling that’s found in contemporary mainstream live-action cinema.
For me, it’s particularly sad since the most exhilarating moments I’ve had watching movies involve CGI in one way or another, Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993) being probably the most profound examples of that. Especially Jurassic Park completely altered the paradigm in my head what cinema can do, and to see for the first time a credible living, breathing dinosaur on the screen was something that unlikely will ever be topped. To me, the experience must have been in the same ballpark than of those who saw moving images for the first time, or at least it felt like it.
Both Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were at their core not only about telling a compelling story, but more importantly pushing the boundaries, showing the unshowable. Of course, the CGI sequences in, say, Terminator 2 do look dated now and stick out like hell, but nevertheless, the effects still resonate ambition and pure will to make an impact to the medium, what they undeniably ended up doing, to say the least.
However, the cost of producing decent CGI has dramatically fallen from the days of aforementioned films, consequently the quality has not being able to keep up with the ever-increasing quantity. What’s worse, to come back to The Expendables 2, CGI is now being (mis)used to cut costs (say that to an ILM worker of 1992) and salvage ill-conceived live-action sequences. And that’s the use of CGI that frustrates me the most: something ordinary made with CGI only since it’s more convenient that way, not because it would be otherwise impossible.
Conversely, if we look at the very high-end of the modern CGI spectrum, we do see ambition, medium pushing and other traits historically associated with CGI, but there’s not so many players left playing that game. Indeed, it’s almost poetic that James Cameron who started the mainstream CGI revolution with movies like The Abyss (1989) is the one who has been keeping that frontier spirit alive in the recent past.
That being said, I think the grand story of blockbuster CGI is coming to an end little by little, and I believe it was indeed Cameron’s Avatar (2009) that made it ultimately difficult to break genuinely new technological ground within the realm of commercial CGI. I do acknowledge that it’s always dangerous to say such a thing about a field that involves so heavily technology, but like David Cohen wrote on his Variety article, the demise of mainstream CGI in terms of artistic integrity and innovation is already evident and in full effect, and, I might add, most interesting CGI can be now found from small budget students projects all over on Vimeo.
But I’m okay with that. I’ll continue to follow the non-real-time side of computer graphics but I’m no longer excited about it per se or where it’s heading. Indeed, if I could have a sneak peek into the future of any human endeavor, it would be real-time imagery, no question about it, especially now that we are at the brink of the new hardware generation.
I can’t wait for the next gen Gran Turismo, but I can live without Avatar 2.