revenge of the nerds

An obsession with computer generated imagery for its own sake is ruining films for the rest of us

by Jonathan Westwood

When first commissioned by the Webmaster (approximately eighteen years ago, I'm not good with deadlines unless a pay cheque relies on them) this opinion piece was originally intended to rail against the evils of CGI. When I initially mentioned writing it, I was full of righteous indignation: I suspect I had just fallen asleep during Spider-Man, Troy or some other equally execrable, vapid piece of digitised nonsense. CGI, I felt, was the movie world's equivalent of a bad, street-corner Find The Lady conman, bellowing "Look over there! Look at that!" before switching the cards in his favour while his punter's back is turned. By diverting the movie-going public's attention from the gaping hole where, in an analogue world, the script, acting, direction and photography would be, towards the latest computer-generated visual effect that will make them gasp and swoon, the CGI-reliant director can get away with murder.

Forget Toy Story: CGI really came into its own with Titanic (left). Even the most extravagant Hollywood studio could not afford to build an exact replica of the ill-fated liner, run it into a real iceberg off the coast of Canada and sink it into the north Atlantic waters - although doing so was almost certainly discussed in development meetings. James Cameron showed that such little local difficulties should not stand in the way of prising loads and loads of cold, hard cash from the pockets of Dr Pepper-swilling, nacho-chomping, Bush-voting yokels in the mid-West. Pretty boy, pretty-ish girl who doesn't mind taking her clothes off, big swimming pool, blue screen. Bang. Sorted. We'll worry about everything else in post-production. Hear those cash registers ring, fellas!

After Titanic the - ahem - floodgates opened. The Star Wars prequels, Gladiator, Hairy Porter, The Lord Of The Rings (below), The Matrix, Spider-Man, The Day After Tomorrow, Troy CGI and digital movie-making had taken over Hollywood and the prospects were not looking good. I'm an intelligent, literate moviegoer with half-an-inch of brain: get me out of here!

I even had the stats to back my theory up. The four biggest-grossing movies in the US in each of 2001, 2002 and 2003 were all reliant on CGI, taking between them $3.75bn (rather more than the GDP of many African nations)*. Almost uniformly, each was pants on a scale not seen since Buster Gonad tried to find something to house his Unfeasibly Large Testicles. Meanwhile, my favourite movies in each of those three years (Mulholland Dr., Donnie Darko and Lost In Translation (below)) grossed just $52m between them, 85% of which was down to Lost In Translation alone. Each of those movies relied on good, old-fashioned quality scriptwriting and acting, with barely a CGI effect between them.

Furthermore, there remained the harsh, brutal fact that CGI, well, just doesn't look very good, to be honest. "Oh, but Jonathan, hundreds of computer geeks spent thousands of hours over each strand of hair in Final Fantasy." Yeah, well, it looks like they rushed it.

*The four biggest-grossing movies at the US box office in 2001 were Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Shrek and Monsters Inc. A year later, the list read Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In 2003 the top four were The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Carribean and The Matrix: Reloaded

So there we had it in rather less than 500 words: digital bad; old-fashioned film-making good. If charging around like a headless chicken trying to direct a crowd scene involving 3,000 extras was good enough for D. W. Griffith and Dahling Dickie Attenborough, it should be good enough for everyone. Then, belatedly, I caught the DVD of 28 Days Later. And soon after I saw Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (below). 28 Days Later is no milestone in cinematic history: it is simply a reasonably watchable, reasonably effective, low-budget British horror movie. It was, however, shot entirely on digital stock - the first British feature film to have done so and secure a full theatrical release. As part of the DVD extras, director Danny Boyle explained why he had taken this shooting decision: essentially, it boiled down to the fact that it was cheaper to chuck a digital camcorder off a bridge (thereby writing it off) to gain a shot than it was to do the same with a traditional film camera. Try as you might you can't argue with logic like that because, frankly, anything that reduces the average cost of film-making without compromising quality in an era when the average studio movie routinely costs more to make and market than hospitals cost to build has got to be A Good Thing.

Meanwhile, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, my favourite movie of 2004 at the time of writing, although the Bridget Jones sequel could still easily steal that crown, [how much had you had to drink when you wrote this? - Ed] continues the Jonze/Kaufman stable's tradition of making movies that could not technically have been made a decade ago.

Where Christopher Nolan could only shift time in his nevertheless brilliant Memento by fading to and from black, subsequent advances in computer-based technology permit Kaufman in Eternal Sunshine to shift time realistically, to confront the audience's awareness of reality and fantasy, within a single shot. One wonders what hallucinogenics David Lynch could create with CGI if he were to channel the technology's capabilities.

For the first time (at least consciously) I have enjoyed movies in which digital technology, a decade after it came into vogue, played an integral part in the creative process.

I still remain extremely sceptical that digital effects should, or can, alone lead a movie - both 28 Days Later (left) and Eternal Sunshine revolve, chiefly, around good, solid stories, scripts and acting: the digital effects are a consequence of those stories, not the pivot around which they revolve - but I am less minded now than I was six months ago to dismiss the technology out-of-hand, as nothing more than a gimmick that has at best limited potential.

There have always been and will always be pure animations - and for that reason I was always less offended by Toy Story than Troy - but CGI will not truly come of age until its use in the making of movies no longer causes the audiences' jaws to drop in astonishment at mere special effects and instead challenges the audiences' perceptions of time, location and reality within films grounded in the traditional arts of writing and acting. For the foreseeable future, blockbuster summer releases will doubtless continue to seek to wow audiences with nothing more than computer animated effects and Kirsten Dunst's moistened embonpoint. But my hope for CGI now lies in the gradual embracing of computerised technology by the raft of intelligent, imaginative, independently-minded directors operating within and outside Hollywood as a means of adding something genuinely special to their finished work.

©Jonathan Westwood 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind   2004  108 minutes  Director Michel Gondry  Writer Charles Kaufman & Peter Bismuth   Actors Jim Carrey Kate Winslet  Kirsten Dunst  Tom Wilkinson  Mark Ruffalo  Elijah Wood  Photography Elle Kuras  Score Jon Brion  

Pictures courtesy of ©20th Century Fox, ©New Line Cinema, ©American Zoetrope, ©Focus Features and ©Fox Searchlight