See Gee Eye

This morning, I had the rather irksome experience of reading this Cracked article Todd Vaziri tweeted about. You need not trouble yourself with reading it (their site is a garbage fire).

David Christopher Bell starts with this minor concession:

And, to be fair, some movies have great CGI! However, even when the CGI is good (see the new Star Wars, Mad Max, or any graffiti-ridden Neill Blomkamp film), it still has to be used right.

He goes on to make all sorts of claims that seem at odds with this reasonable statement, so I’m not sure why he bothered to lead off with that.

David is objecting to “trends” from 2014. Which is kind of silly, on the face of it, since nothing in movies really trends within a year, with the exception of marketing.

Right off the bat, David objects to the use of fake blood. He cites The Expendables 3 (he says 2, but that’s a typo because 2 was in 2012, and thus not a 2014 trend) and provides a little gif of a head exploding into chunky goop. Then he refers to the excessive blood in the sequel to 300. (David, unfortunately, forgets that the first movie was also full of this stuff in 2006.)

This isn’t a trend, and it isn’t the medium that causes this to happen. These are conceptual flaws. A director thought this would be great, more blood, really focus on it, high-five, bros!

You can easily strap excessive squibs to someone in any movie. Remember 1988’s Die Hard when a guy’s legs exploded in blood because of gunfire? That didn’t look real, and it was, I would argue, excessive. Blood in movies has always been controversial, and oftentimes excessive, and unrealistic. Computers are not the cause of bad taste.

The next item on David’s list of trends is “Replacing Real Car and Plane Stunts With CGI”. This, again, is not a trend of 2014, it was not the style of 2014. He focuses on set extensions, instead of vehicles. Set extensions have been going on forever. Really, a set extension is the same principle as a matte painting, only it can move. Great set extensions look great. Bad set extensions look bad. Again, not a trend, not computer graphics. There are some truly egregious matte paintings in films that predate computers. Remember Ghostbusters? There’s a transparent gargoyle painting that doesn’t track with the background. That doesn’t mean all matte paintings are inherently bad.

Set extensions are in film and television projects of all varieties and genres, and often featured in ways that are totally invisible to the audience. That is the great tragedy of photo-real VFX work. If it looks real, then no one ever knows, and you just get someone bellyaching about unsuccessful ones.

Here’s an example that’s kind of mixed: the Times Square sequence from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Watch the VFX breakdown. Sure, you’d watch this and point out a lot of “fake” stuff, but did you know absolutely none of it was real? (Whether or not you like the movie is separate from that.)

I hope that clearly demonstrates that it’s not just the medium. It’s conceptual, and technical. Just like everything else in a film, and just like any practical effect. Use it effectively. Just because Sylvester Stallone has poor taste, doesn’t mean that goes for everyone by default, and for the medium as a whole.

Computer generated vehicles, or vehicles augmented with some kind of post processing, are very common in films, but that doesn’t make them bad, and it’s certainly not a “trend” of 2014. Car commercials are where you will most often see fake cars, because it allows for pixel perfect art direction (pixel fucking). Some are done better than others.

The cars that David points to in Lucy suffer from some technical problems. Conceptually, it would be impossible to put this many stunt drivers into action, all at once. You can make a case for staging a different shot that is achievable, but I would argue that this is still a shot that works relatively well for what it is, it just needs some adjustment, in my opinion. Highlights are too bright, and too crisp. Same goes for the shadows. Since they’re all cars, and all made of close to the same materials, the highlights and shadows should match to the practical cars very closely.

The examples David cites from Furious 7 (a 2015 movie, which is still, not a 2014 trend. Whatever.) Is egregious because it’s such a bad idea. This is a bad idea if you wrote it, let alone actually tried to shoot it. That’s not the fault of a computer, or a computer graphics artist. That’s the directors, writers, and producers thinking this is a good idea.

Even without computers, you can make terrible things. I recently watched Real Genius again. The plane in this movie is utterly ridiculous, even by 1980s standards. No computers were used at all for this:

His second-to-last point (make sure you click over to page two! Page views! Page views! Page views!) is “Completely Ignoring Horrific CGI Murder” [sic]. He makes good points about how terrible it is to lay waste to a bunch of extras. That it becomes numbing, pointless violence on a grotesque scale. The only problem with his logic is that he’s blaming that on computer graphics. As if no one was ever needlessly killed in a movie prior to digital doubles.

A digital double (also digi-double) is a computer model of a person that can be used in impossible, or dangerous situations. Early uses of digital doubles don’t hold up very well. A notable example is the Neo and Agent Smith(s) fight from The Matrix Reloaded. It’s pretty cartoony now. It also featured a lot of stunt men that had their faces digitally replaced. It’s happened a lot in film, on varying scales, including several occasions before this.

Now that I’ve explained digital doubles, let’s delve into the problem with David’s logic. Animatronic puppets have been murdered, dummy stand-ins have blown up, stop-motion people have fallen great distances, squibs have exploded all over the place. Heck, you could look at the body count of just Paul Verhoven’s work and be appalled if you really cared about it cheapening death, or violence against humans. That has nothing to do with computers though. Don’t pin that on technique.

Finally, David ends with his least important point, at least I assume that’s how this list is ordered because “Movie People Are Turning Into Rubber” [sic] is silly. To reiterate this once more: This does not qualify as a 2014 trend. It’s not even something new to 2014. Violence, of this sort, leaving the hero of a picture unscathed has basically been around as long as film. How many gunfights have you seen where there’s statistically no way the protagonist would be unscathed? Again, go back to the computer-room fight in Die Hard where automatic weapons annihilate everything, except John McClane, he steps on some glass. Remember Total Recall when the animatronic heads were going to explode, but then everything was totes fine?

The idea that this is the fault of computers, or of recent filmmaking practices involving computers, is misguided. You don’t want to see this stuff in films then you’re going to have to change the decades of filmmaking that existed without computers. There’s goofy shit all over the damn place.

David’s last example of this is Gandalf vs. the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings movies, and Gandalf in The Hobbit movies. Stupid example, because they’re both CG. Unless he thinks the Balrog was a hand puppet, or a small dog in a costume. Maybe he believes that Peter Jackson’s crew built all of Moria. Perhaps he believes it was all wirework dropping Gandalf, and the practical Balrog, in the totally real, giant cavern in the second film.

Gandalf highlights my counter argument perfectly, it’s not about the medium, or the tools.

In my next post, I’ll argue about disturbing trends of cherrypicking a few things you don’t like and applying it to an entire industry. It’s about how we should stop using computers to write, and Cracked articles should be distributed on paper so they actually have to think about wasting ink.

2015-01-17 14:23:42

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