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June 06
2024

ISSUE

Summer 2024

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, NO CGI?

By: Trevor Hogg

Top Gun: Maverick had 2,400 visual effects shots, including re-skinning jet planes, something the filmmakers and studio did not want to highlight. (Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Maverick had 2,400 visual effects shots, including re-skinning jet planes, something the filmmakers and studio did not want to highlight. (Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Top Gun: Maverick had 2,400 visual effects shots, including re-skinning jet planes, something the filmmakers and studio did not want to highlight. (Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

ILM was responsible for over 1,100 visual effects shots in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, which supported the extraordinary stuntwork of Tom Cruise.  (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

ILM was responsible for over 1,100 visual effects shots in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which supported the extraordinary stunt work of Tom Cruise.  (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures))

As long as there has been CGI in films and television, debates have raged about its artificial nature; however, what is different now is that the photorealism of the technology has evolved so much that it is no longer distinguishable from reality.

Central to the public awareness of a movie is that the cast and the studios do not want to risk dimming the star wattage – especially when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. “If you pay a lot of money for the talent that is also supposed to market your movie, you don’t want to cannibalize the actors’ marketing power by suggesting their performance wasn’t entirely real,” remarks Florian Gellinger, Owner and Executive VFX Producer at RISE. “That aspect is being pushed to the extreme when an actor actually does something crazy in the making of a movie – like jumping with a motorcycle off a cliff, and everybody is afraid that doubt might start to materialize if there is visual effects-related behind-the-scenes material available. All that, plus visual effects being a black box that is hard to understand for most audiences, make the studios’ choice to market films this way abundantly clear.”

“It’s become a status thing to make movies with minimal or no CGI,” notes Peter Howell, Movie Critic at The Toronto Star who agrees with the idea that media coverage favors a negative point of view towards CGI. “Yes, because I think critics want to be seen as champions of old-school cinema: big screens, practical effects, celluloid film. Just as rock critics are champions of live shows, genuine musicianship and vinyl LPs.” Audiences are not as biased. Howell adds, “Moviegoers admire CGI if it’s done well and hate it if it’s done poorly. There’s no in-between.” A particular cinematic universe is not helping matters. “CGI is overused and is increasingly messy and boring. Most ‘multi-verse’ movies – I’m looking at you, Marvel – look like a cake with too much icing.”

What is the definition for successful CGI? “It depends on the movie,” Gellinger notes. “CGI can be heavily stylized and artificial if that’s the concept of a film. But having something artificial-looking in a naturalistic picture would need to be justified by the story. Successful CGI has to have a reason why it looks a certain way, and that reason can be many things. In the end, when something doesn’t look right, it’s everyone’s fault to a certain extent – at least most of the time.”

Photographic elements were combined through digital compositing to create the visual effects in Oppenheimer, which stirred a debate as to whether there was actually CGI in the movie. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“We’re in a weird time right now where CG is getting a lot of bashing in the press, and it’s not a fair criticism of what is being pulled apart because the reality is if you don’t like the CG in the shot, what you’re really saying is you don’t like the production design, set design and framing,” remarks Jay Cooper, VFX Supervisor at ILM. “There are a million different places where the CG is one component of what is being created, and what we’re seeing now is a knee-jerk reaction to artifice, and the thing that is the easiest to hang that criticism on is CG when it’s really a number of things. I debate whether those criticisms are appropriate. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.”

Studios and directors need to be held accountable when CGI does not work out. “First and foremost, the studios and the directors have to make the right projects with the right teams,” states Allen Maris, Head of Visual Effects at Regency Productions. “The story needs to be there. Adding more visual effects will definitely not fix a third-act problem. Having more finals and less temps will not double your audience scores. Cutting the visual effects budget in half will also not help. Lack of planning will also hurt the process, as will not having enough time after turnover. The most problematic shots I’ve been involved with are ones that changed at the last minute, the production didn’t follow advice or the vendor wasn’t given enough time to work through the shot properly because of late turnovers.”

Photographic elements were combined through digital compositing to create the visual effects in Oppenheimer, which stirred a debate as to whether there was actually CGI in the movie. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Photographic elements were combined through digital compositing to create the visual effects in Oppenheimer, which stirred a debate as to whether there was actually CGI in the movie. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Photographic elements were combined through digital compositing to create the visual effects in Oppenheimer, which stirred a debate as to whether there was actually CGI in the movie. (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Christopher Nolan often finds himself in the center of the ‘No CGI” controversy, something he acknowledged back in 2011 when receiving the inaugural VES Visionary Award by stating, “It’s a great honor to be getting an award from the VES Society. I feel a little guilty receiving it from you guys as somebody who often appears in the press talking about my use of CG like an actress talking about her use of Botox. And I’m as dependent on visual effects, probably more so, than any other filmmaker out there.” In truth, his Oscar Best Picture-winning Oppenheimer represents a gray area of visual effects work. “Chris wants to have shots that he can cut into the film,” notes Andrew Jackson, VFX Supervisor for Oppenheimer. “I always keep that in mind when I’m shooting stuff, to frame it in a way that it can work without any [VFX] work at all. It’s great when that happens. A whole lot of shots got cut straight into film. Chris came out early on and said there is ‘No CG.’ To clarify, that means there were no computer-generated elements going into the compositing work. There were visual effects, in that a lot of those shots were a complex layering of multiple elements, but all of the input was photographic.”

Ender’s Game was an example of visual effects company Digital Domain taking on the role of a production company. (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)Director James Mangold is a strong believer in capturing

Ender’s Game was an example of visual effects company Digital Domain taking on the role of a production company. (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)
Director James Mangold is a strong believer in capturing

Director James Mangold is a strong believer in capturing as much in-camera and utilizing visual effects to expand the cinematic scope, as he did with Ford v Ferrari. (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox/Disney)

Director James Mangold is a strong believer in capturing as much in-camera and utilizing visual effects to expand the cinematic scope, as he did with Ford v Ferrari. (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox/Disney)

James Cameron views visual effects as part of the fabric that makes him a filmmaker. (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

James Cameron views visual effects as part of the fabric that makes him a filmmaker. (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Combating all of the misinformation and confusion in an educative and sharp-witted manner is the four-part video series “No CGI Is Really Just Invisible CGI,” which can be found on the YouTube channel The Movie Rabbit Hole. “I’ve dedicated this movie series to tell how much of this is actually CG, but do audience members even need to know? That’s a tricky question because they don’t [need to know],” remarks Jonas Ussing, VFX Supervisor at Space Office VFX. Ussing co-hosted a VES panel discussion with VES Executive Director Nancy Ward and VES Board Chair Kim Davidson at the 2024 FMX Conference named after his series where he debuted the final fourth video. Continues Ussing, “I didn’t work on Top Gun: Maverick, but it’s my understanding that the people who made those CG jets would be perfectly fine if the audience assumed that it was all practical. The same way a stuntman’s finest achievement is that the audience does not even notice or think about when the director cuts between an actor and him. It’s just James Bond. The problem comes when the studio shoves one kind of film artist under the bus [in response to harsh criticism of the VFX in some films]. And what do the studios gain from it? There is an enormous publicity value in saying how practical the films are. Just read any Reddit, Twitter and YouTube comment section. People go crazy when they realize that this is real filmmaking and [believe] no CGI was used on Barbie [which Ussing points out in his series actually had 1,300 visual effects shots and 20 of them were fully CG].”

“Some filmmakers are coveting what they see as a ‘badge of honor’ in downplaying or disregarding the vital role of visual effects in bringing their stories to life, and the VES is steadfast in proclaiming that VFX must be brought into the light,’’ says VES Board Chair Davidson. “VFX is an instrumental part of the creative process that works in service to story, and VFX bring stories to life that were once impossible. VFX artists and innovators deserve to be respected and recognized as agents of cinematic storytelling, in the same breath as other creative collaborators, and not cast aside as if they are detractors dispelling an illusion of ‘pure’ filmmaking. Speaking in one voice for our more than 5,000 members in 45+ countries worldwide, visual effects artists are proud partners in the creative process, and they need to be uplifted and given proper credit for their enormous contributions.”

For better or worse, the computer has become the central tool in creating visual effects. “It’s a double-edged sword,” admits John Dykstra, a visual effects pioneer who had to come up with optical rather than digital solutions because the latter did not exist. “The really good aspect of it is you can build an image a pixel at a time and include enough accuracy in the construction to make it indistinguishable from the real one. The negative part of that is you also have to be selective about what you create. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean that you should. The idea that everything is done on one tool to a certain extent has also taken some of the fun out of it. We used to put together some crazy rigs to mount cameras on airplanes, hot air balloons, motorcycles and cars, and a lot of that invention has been replaced because you can create anything within a box.”

“I’m consistently amazed that the response to telling someone I work in visual effects” is ‘Oh! You work on computers!’ as if the editors are still hand-splicing film or the art department avoids using Photoshop because it’s impure,” notes Jake Morrison, VFX Supervisor at Marvel Studios. “As a vinyl lover, I appreciate the analog process, but I won’t bash an album that was mastered using ProTools if the music is good.”

Not only does the quality of CGI need to be taken in consideration, but how the scenes are photographed. “There is a look and feel to modern visual effects films that audiences have gotten quite used to,” director James Mangold observes. “Some of it is the way the effects are rendered and some is the way that they’re shot. There is a certain kind of style of shooting that erupts from the shooting on stages and in large greenscreen areas which is often swinging an [crane] arm around the lot; there are less cuts and more ridiculous oners that are only possible because there are so many elements that you can bring all of these pieces together in one shot or one take because it’s a cheat. We tried to avoid that on [Ford v Ferrari]. We tried to shoot the movie even when visual effects were involved so that the film felt physically like we were shooting real cars. On top of that, our goal was always to shoot real cars whenever possible.”

Holding back information on how a movie or television show is actually made hinders aspiring filmmakers who, in turn, become the leaders in their professions. “I was big fan of the movies, especially when you were looking at something that they couldn’t have gone out and shot somewhere, like a spaceship flying or an alien planet,” recalls John Knoll, CCO at ILM. “This was all being crafted by artisans. I was fascinated by how that was done. This was before the Internet, so there weren’t loads of sources of information about this stuff. For me, one of them was American Cinematographer. There were some behind-the-scenes articles that covered visual effects, and at the University of Michigan where my dad taught, the Art and Architecture library had a subscription. I had access to the library. I would go there and read some of the old back issues and look things up. Learning how the stuff was done and starting to experiment with trying to do it myself was one of those things that I played with as a kid.”

“Some filmmakers are coveting what they see as a ‘badge of honor’ in downplaying or disregarding the vital role of visual effects in bringing their stories to life, and the VES is steadfast in proclaiming that VFX must be brought into the light. VFX artists and innovators deserve to be respected and recognized as agents of cinematic storytelling, in the same breath as other creative collaborators, and not cast aside as if they are detractors dispelling an illusion of ‘pure’ filmmaking.”

—Kim Davidson, VES Board Chair

Warner Bros. attracted attention by removing bluescreens from behind-the-scenes imagery of groundbreaking Barbie. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Warner Bros. attracted attention by removing bluescreens from behind-the-scenes imagery of groundbreaking Barbie. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Comments by Ridley Scott were taken out of context in the media, which had him declaring that there were no visual effects in Napoleon when there were 1,046 shots that required digital augmentation for soldiers, architecture and natural elements. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony)

Comments by Ridley Scott were taken out of context in the media, which had him declaring that there were no visual effects in Napoleon when there were 1,046 shots that required digital augmentation for soldiers, architecture and natural elements. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony)

Visual effects are woven into the fabric of what makes James Cameron a filmmaker. “Avatar: The Way of Water is three hours long,” Cameron remarks. “There is not one second of that three hours that is not a visual effect. Not one second. It more plays by the rules of an animated film, like Pixar, except the end result doesn’t look like the same. It looks like photography and has its own unique process. We used to call it special effects because they were special. When they’re not special anymore, what do you call them? To me, they’re not visual effects anymore, but the image-making process.”



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