I do understand the stick that CGI gets. I really do. Many films rely far too heavily on their computers to impress us, often with disastrous results. Despite that, computer effects have brought us many wonders that we could only have dreamed of just a mere decade ago. So join me as we spotlight some of the best examples of Computer Generated Imagery, and what it is that they did right.
Mad Max: Fury Road
There are a million things which make Fury Road such a masterpiece. One of the subtle things it does is seamlessly blend practical and computer generated effects to the point where it's impossible to tell which is which. That is, unless you employ a team of expert wizards, or ask the guys who made the film. Even then you'd probably still get a lot of it wrong. The latest Mad Max pulls off insane real life stunts and deliberately limits the computer graphics to backgrounds so that they don't distract from the fact that a car just flipped over another car in front of an actual explosion while a guy played a flamethrower guitar. Another masterful use of digital effects here is that it isn't afraid to make the images more beautiful in subtle ways like manipulating colour. Fury Road basically writes a textbook on how to incorporate special effects of any kind into your film.
Lesson To Learn: CGI should work in tandem with practical effects.
Godzilla (The Only American One)
2014's Godzilla reboot comes from a different school from our previous entry. See, while none of the CGI is deliberately blended with the real world, it still works perfectly. There's a debate to be had over the general quality of the film, but in my opinion (the most valid one in the world) the climactic Godzilla battle at the end makes the whole endeavor more than worth it. Giant monsters like those which appear in Godzilla are so fantastical, and so much larger than life, that if you simply inject enough creativity into their rendering then it works. Thanks to the fact that no-one has any reference point for a real-life giant lizard monster, there's nothing that's going to make my brain doubt its validity. If computers cook up something completely imaginary and superimpose it onto the real world, then there's nothing to question about it.
Lesson To Learn: Larger than life sometimes means more lifelike.
Despite graduating from a similar college as Godzilla, Pacific Rim still has much to teach us about computer effects. The film's many action scenes are almost completely animated digitally, yet there's enough vibrancy, fun design, and awesome ideas on screen at all times that none of it feels especially realistic. This film is basically an anime brought to life, and it wears that proudly. Pacific Rim doesn't try to convince you of how real everything looks, it just presents things in the best visual style it can muster. I love the hell out of this film, and I really think this is one of its strongest points. None of the spectacle has to be gritty or fully believable, just exciting enough for me to suspend my disbelief, and when I saw this movie, it took my disbelief out back and crushed it with a giant robot.
Lesson To Learn: Color and visual flare often trump realism.
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Christopher Nolan has always had a very conservative approach to CGI. In all of his films it's used incredibly sparingly, yet with this trilogy, and in particular The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan needed to somehow incorporate spectacular action while keeping it confined within the grounded world of this Batman. The way he achieved it was to simply use it as little as possible, and instead focus on wowing the audience through practical effects and imaginative action. Still, the use of CGI to show Batman in flight, the Gotham bridges falling, and many other memorable scenes show how to use computer effects as an enhancement of an already striking image.
Lesson To Learn: If you're going gritty, use CGI only if you have to.
Lord Of The Rings
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably my favorite example of computer effects in history. Why? Because it uses almost every single trick in the book. Combining scale models with sets and sweeping CGI shots, they created Minas Tirith (that big castle thingummy above). Gollum was brought to life in a never-before-seen fashion with motion capture technology. The films even had to constantly struggle around the height differences between hobbits, dwarves and humans, yet it never faltered for an instant.
What I find most clever about its effects though, is how Mr. Jackson shows armies. For all three films, there are battles featuring thousands of warriors lining up to face each other. All of these numbers are shown through CGI, but we're all tricked into not noticing. The films achieve this by always showing close-ups for a handful of the warriors on both sides, before revealing the full extent of the army in a sweeping wide shot. What this achieves it to give our minds something that we can subconsciously project upon the CGI avatars lined up on-screen, causing us to assume that all of the little computer people are just as real as the ones we have just been shown. It's actually one of the major differences between The Hobbit and Rings; with less time to make the former, meaning there wasn't enough opportunity to show the grunts of the big armies.
Lesson To Learn: You can go all out with CGI, if you're Peter Jackson.
There's a lot to be learned about CGI, and in a movie industry that lays it on so heavily, I think it's helpful to remind everyone of what does and doesn't work about it. I hope that reading this, you maybe learned something about how computers can elevate film to whole new levels.
If so, why not let me know in the comments what your favorite use of CGI in film is, whether it's something I've mentioned already, a different film, or even one specific effect.