Recently I had an interesting thought... Can CGI look too real?
For those of your unsavy in film lingo, CGI stands for Computer Generated Imagery and it's in everything these days. It's been around for a relatively short time, but it's incredible power has made it an industry standard for filmmaking.
But as I was watching Jurassic World for the third time I just thought, these dinosaurs looks too real. I mean, they move and breath smoothly like real animals. Every price of them is soft and fleshy, living and moving, but I still don't buy it. I mean, I don't want to belittle the animators because they did a phenomenal job. Beyond perfect, but something just didn't work for me. And don't get me wrong, I liked Jurassic World. The dinosaurs by no means ruined the movie for me, but still...
And I think the root of the problems is two things, the pervasiveness of CG and how much it changes the norm of filmmaking.
CG is kind of a double edged sword, in that the more fantastic feats we achieve with it the more normalized it becomes in our minds. We've seen computer animated dinosaurs before so it's hard for our brains to accept them as anything but CG. You can blend them as perfectly as possible, but if your brains know it's all CG the illusion is broken. It's like how a magic act is ruined if we know how all the tricks are done, it just unravels the image the performer is attempting to create.
And you might say, "Ben, why can't you just enjoy the movie? Who cares?" Well, to that I say it's a subconscious thing. It doesn't matter if you're trying, you'll always recognize that the GC is always CG.
Look at the first Jurassic Park. It's 25 years old and the effects still hold up, expressly because they mixed CG and Animatronics so your mind never primarily recognized one technique, it just recognizes dinosaurs. If you watch it enough, and lord knows I have, you can begin to tell which shots are CG and which are practical but even then it doesn't really matter. Your subconscious is still tricked enough that you'll buy into the illusion. Going back to the magic trick analogy, you'd know a tricks a trick and that doesn't ruin it for you. You don't have to believe in it, you need to merely be able to suspend your disbelief enough to allow yourself to get lost in the trick. This is why I'm not anti-CGI, it's an amazing tool if used effectively.
And Jurassic Park brings me perfectly into another point, the motion of modern CG.
The motion of Jurassic Park's Animated dinosaurs was largely achieved by using stop motion artists and approximating based on reference videos. Though good, these techniques are by no means perfect. Motion capture, like what was used in Jurassic World is pretty near perfect and gives us incredibly smooth movement, lifelike even. But that means modern CG has an obvious tell, whenever we see something impossibly smooth or physically infeasible we automatically know it's computer and the illusion is broken.
And I kind of brings me to my second main idea: history and expectations.
In American Cinema, over the 20th century we've gotten a recognizable look and feel. We're used to monsters being rubber or latex so when the raptor's skin in Jurassic World diffuses light like real translucent skin it looks odd to us. Even though this is more realistic, it's less compatible with our expectations of how raptors should look (actually, it'd be more realistic to give them feathers but that's a discussion for a different day.)
Now, CGI works perfectly in characters like Rocket Racoon, Golem, or the Aliens from Avatar because those are things we've never seen before on film. We have no expectations, so why shouldn't they be CG puppets? But as CGI replaces traditionally practical effects it creates an image subtly too realistic to what we're used to.
Here we have an interesting case because the illusion isn't broken per se, but not even sold at all on account of a bizarre overselling. We know raptors don't exist today and because of that if our raptor effects to too realistic we call BS immediately. This is as opposed to King Kong (the original,) who we all know is a stop motion model but don't care because that's what we expect King Kong and all giant monsters to look like. It could be argued that we as a public are being retrained to think of our monsters as hyper-realistic CG but obviously we're not there yet.
So, personally, I think the best approach for effects is a mixed one, using animatronics, claymations, miniatures, 2D paintings, and even CGI in tandem to create the most exciting and convincing illusions we can offer.
Years of development have offered us an expansive and diverse toolbox for creating illusions on film and to simply resign ourselves to one is robbing audiences of a much more complete and fulfilling experience.