However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. -Christopher Nolan
1. CGI has transitioned from a complimentary dish to the main course.
CGI had major limitations when first introduced. Because of this, is was used as a last resort. Even Steven Spielberg had this mindset until he introduced Shia Leboeuf going full-on Tarzan with CGI monkeys in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The CG Supervisor for that movie had this to say: “Viewers will hardly notice the 45 minutes of CGI in the film.” Really?
Jurassic Park is a great example of complimentary CGI. They couldn’t design the animatronics to walk around for the wide shots, so they used CGI to solve this problem. What you got were wide CGI shots offset with closeup live action animatronics. The CGI reinforced the idea that the dinos weren’t just static robots, and the robots reinforced the idea that they were really in the scene with the actors.
2. The physics are off.
After the success of movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, it became apparent that CGI was the best way to create realistic effects. One of the main reasons CGI outshined techniques like stop-motion was movement. It got the physics right. Now, over 20 years later, Hollywood has lost the concept of realistic movement with CGI. Scenes from movies like Matrix Reloaded or Catwoman showcase stunts that are impossible to perform with an actual human. Movies have abandoned the concept of physics and with it goes the audience’s perceptions of reality.
Hollywood is trying to rewrite the laws of motion…. Isaac Newton must be rolling over in his grave. “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction…unless the script says otherwise.”
3. CGI has put us in a state of denial.
CGI’s purpose should be to make a stunt or effect look more real. Whenever we see good CGI, we shouldn’t realize it’s good CGI. We shouldn’t even notice it at all. It should be so real and grounded that it pulls us into the story instead of distracting us. We’re in a state of denial where we keep telling ourselves ‘But it’s really good CGI! Look at how good that CGI is! Wow, I can’t imagine how many hours were spent rendering that! Every frame is so dense.’ If we have to discuss CGI, then the CGI didn’t do its job. CGI is getting worse because it’s trying to impress us rather than fool us.
4. The move to HD and 4K make CGI less convincing.
CGI is far from perfect. But when the delivery format was celluloid and SD, it masked the imperfections of CGI and made everything look more realistic. Filmmakers furthered the illusion by purposely compositing CGI into poorly lit scenes and behind elements like smoke and rain. Now with the stunning clarity of 2K and 4K (and even more so with HFR), we’re starting to see the cracks in the pavement. As resolution increases, CGI is becoming less convincing.
5. There’s no restraint.
Christopher Nolan shows incredible restraint with CGI. If it’s too expensive or just not feasible to capture in camera, he’ll rely on CGI to recreate the effect realistically. Hollywood doesn’t know how to show restraint with CGI. Their mentality is ‘Because we can, we will’. They want it faster, bigger, brighter, more colorful, and 10X as epic as the last time.