If you’re old enough to remember the original Star Wars (1977), or you’ve dusted off Dad’s old VHS of it, you are probably still struck by one of the classic battle sequences in that film: the famous “trench run” sequence in the climactic Battle of Yavin.
In brief, the Rebels had determined the best way to destroy the Death Star was to make a raid through the Meridian Trench with their X-wing fighters and fire a proton torpedo into a small exhaust port of the Death Star, exploding it for good.
It is no scoop to say that this was an animated sequence and not a real one. What you may not know, however, is this was the first animated 3D “wireframe” graphic ever used in film.
Translated, it ushered us all into the love/hate world of computerized graphic images, better known as CGI.
Some 12 years later, we were introduced to the first digital 3D water effect with the wet alien creature who turned out to be more of a friend than the Navy SEALS had expected. This creature was the first use of digitally-animated, CGI water and was the first computer generated 3D character, according to the digital marketing agency, Stikky Media.
In 1989 science fiction film The Abyss used the first digital 3D water effect. The watery alien creature was the first example of digitally-animated, CGI water and was the first computer generated 3D character.
Since then, CGI has become a standard part of most Hollywood films, especially the blockbusters, It’s hard to imagine ilms like The Terminator, Toy Story, and Lord of the Rings series without CGI, and the technology added to the realism of films like Titanic, The Matrix series, Polar Express, Avatar, etc., etc.
As much as we have been fascinated by CGI, however, haven’t we all — at one time or another — longed for movies that focused mostly on good characterization and nicely woven plots? Isn’t it refreshing to see a film with live actors, on-location scenes, and real dialogue?
Movies from nowhere?
Edward Jay Epstein, author of the classic book News from Nowhere about television and the news, wrote recently for Slate.com that the debate goes on about the value of CGI, some four decades after its first use in films. Although it took three months to make the 90-second trench run sequence in 1977, computer animation is done in a matter of hours or days today.
“The uneasy marriage between Hollywood and the computer has come a long way since George Lucas made the original Star Wars in 1977 … But with the doubling of computer power every 18 months, the cost of CGI came down so rapidly that by 1995 it was possible for Pixar Animation Studios to profitably make an entire CGI animated feature, Toy Story,” Epstein writes.
“Nowadays, CGI is commonly used to create most, if not all, of the big action sequences in Hollywood movies.”
Films using CGI are a kind of schizoid production, Epstein notes, because the movie is divided into two different productions that must come together as one by the end of the project. Part of the movie may be shot on location, but the other part is done by computers. And during the film segments featuring live action, actors usually work on a so-called “limbo set,” where the star may be in an empty room, usually wearing a green spandex jumpsuit, and mouthing lines of dialogue, which will later be filled in at a looping session.
Meanwhile, the actor will be holding imaginary objects and reacting to imaginary dangers. The computers will paint in those dangers and the real objects the actors are holding, as well as the actual costumes the actors are wearing. Also painted in will be the background for the scenes.
It’s not a new process.
Cue the cat
A scene from the 1997 film, Wag the Dog, shows this process in action. Film producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) directs a bewildered starlet (Kirsten Dunst) on a green set as she runs, clutching a bag of Doritos, wondering what she is doing. Paint in the background of a burning village, punch in a cat for the chips, and add in some explosions, however, and you have her fleeing a violent civil war.
I remember the first time I saw this technique used. It was in a 1993 Clint Eastwood film called In the Line of Fire. Eastwood, a Secret Service agent guarding the president, was standing in front of a huge throng of spectators lining the presidential parade route.
But that background was all computer generated on a green screen. Each time I watch that film, I am distracted by the knowledge that the backdrop is not real.
And therein is my point — or at least my question: How distracting is CGI in films for the audience? Are we sitting there wondering if what we are seeing on the screen was generated by a computer, or are there real actors, wearing real clothes, holding real objects, and standing in front of real backdrops?
An interesting point, since I used an Eastwood film as an example: Years later, Eastwood’s film Gran Torino was up for Academic Awards against a Lord of the Rings sequel. during that Oscar race, Eastwood stated he felt moviegoers were hungry for real characters rather than more CGI technology.
CGI and profits
So does CGI make films more profitable for the movie studios? Epstein writes:
“Hollywood studios would like to believe that digital effects are worth the cost, if only because they hold the prospect of a licensing cornucopia for toys and video games. But, alas, the studios also confront the less happy reality that even state-of-the-art CGI, if it gets out of synch with the story, does not create an audience either at the movie houses or on DVD.
“Sony learned this lesson recently with the $133 million sci-fi bomb Stealth, as did DreamWorks with its $120 million sci-fi bomb, The Island. Despite massive CGI and marketing expenses, neither studio earned back $18 million from the U.S. box office on these films.”
Like most of today’s advances in media technology, it is unlikely that the arms of the clock will be turned back to yesteryear. Perhaps what may occur, however, is that filmmakers will realize that a balance must be struck between the real and the virtual unknown.