It’s clear that we have moved into a society where a parasocial relationship with the media we consume is a given. Living in a digital world, maybe this is to be expected, but it’s been surprising seeing the degree to which these massive Goliathan corporations have been bending over backwards to please their core fanbases—a group of people which, up until very recently, were probably the last ones to be consulted about any major film or TV enterprise concerning their character of choice.
This was for one very easily understood reason; pre-existing fans of an intellectual property were the ones most likely to go and pay to watch the end product, even when it turned out the end product was total shit. This entire model has been turned on its head recently. With media becoming more atomized than ever, it has become essential to please the core fanbase above any casual consumer of these products in order to turn a profit. The most obvious example of this I can think of is probably the original Sonic movie, back in 2020. They changed the entirety of the design of Sonic the Hedgehog himself, needing to change every aspect of him in the scenes he was already modeled in, for a two-hour movie. While this quite frankly saved what I feel like would’ve been a nightmare-inducing fate had the original design been kept, it does bring up an interesting point. Audiences have more power than ever before, influencing the films and shows which they then end up watching. This means that criticism of those properties come with some inherent risks wherein the blowback and criticism can be much more meaningful than the sort the industry has gotten in the past. I’d like to focus on one of these common complaints today; namely, the overuse of CGI, or computer-generated imagery.
When it comes to the modern entertainment industry, there’s nothing which I hear railed against more than the constant overuse of CGI. This is a somewhat fair criticism. Certainly I can agree with the overall sentiment; lazy filmmaking is to movies what salt is to slugs. Directors and creatives of all types have a responsibility to try and push the medium forward, whether that be through storytelling, music and yes, imagery. When we accept bad CGI as just being “normal,” we’re sentencing ourselves to have a more mediocre experience as audience-goers. I preface this also by saying I am definitely the type to have my experience compromised when I see bad CGI in my movies, which is why I feel more confident in saying that we should be giving editors and other computer imagery artists more credit when they succeed in making good products.
One thing that computers have learned to simulate extremely well has actually been objects—or at least things which are not humans. From explosions and water, to smoke and even things like cars, computers are now able to render these sorts of inanimate objects extremely well. It’s so ubiquitous to the extent that most of the time, it’s probably hard to even recognize it as being made by a computer. Seriously, nearly all multi-car crashes in TV shows these days have at least some degree of CGI involved in their creation.
And this is a good thing! Well, it is as long as you actually like the prospect of stuff actually getting made. It cannot be denied, the #1 reason why anyone would choose to use computer effects rather than practical is simply the cost. Practical effects cost way more and cause way more problems than CGI could ever hope to, and this has made its widespread adoption more and more of an eventuality. The ease of use of many of these tools has also made it much easier to justify the cost of many new productions, leading to many more projects getting the go-ahead.
Perhaps some of the negative reactions can also be inferred from the recent examples of computers trying to emulate the human form. I think about Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) here, and the sometimes odd-looking de-ageing effects which they implemented on much of their cast. However, I feel much more uncomfortable with the experiments undertaken by the Star Wars franchise, and their attempt to resurrect now-deceased star Peter Cushing in “Rogue One” (2016). While both of these films were generally well-regarded, there was certainly a feeling I got while talking to people about these films that there were times where it felt a little off-putting about the way CGI was used in them.
This is understandable, and I think that it would be advisable if the entertainment industry would keep its distance from trying to recreate real humans when it came to acting, at least for the near future. People can just instinctively feel when a part of a person they’re looking at isn’t real. This was demonstrated when Warner Bros. tried the relatively simple fix of trying to remove Henry Cavill’s mustache for “Justice League” (2017), and the internet collectively flipped their shit (for good reason, it was horrendous).
Something I think we should also bring up now is animation. I was actually inspired to write this article after reading through a long list of complaints online from people deriding the Netflix original anime “Kengan Ashura” and its art style, which primarily uses 3D models which are stylized to look 2D. I actually am a big proponent of the show, as well as its art style. It effectively accomplishes the Herculean task of animating the movement and feeling of a story about martial arts, and if CG was the lynchpin which got the show greenlit, I think that it’s well worth it. Personally, while I do prefer two-dimensional animation, I think that examples of 3D animation have been particularly strong coming out of the Japanese anime industry in the last few years. I would certainly hate to see this burgeoning artistic movement get thrown away because people simply couldn’t handle living with an extra dimension (AKA, they’re weaklings).
I’m not going to end this article with saying that CGI is the savior of modern cinema, far from it. It is simply a tool, one that can be wielded properly to enhance a piece of media, or improperly to its detriment. Is this all leading to a Dali-esque hellscape where it’s impossible to distinguish a CapitalOne product placement from an AI-generated model of Ryan Gosling’s face deducting your social credit points when you decide to litter? Possibly. More likely, it’s going to be used as another prop in the toolbelt of politicians attempting to disguise our society’s descent into gerontocracy by rapidly de-ageing themselves during live TV press conferences, or for Super Mario Movie 2, where Mario is suddenly teleported to modern-day Queens. We will have to wait and see.
Happy holidays, everyone!