Thursday, June 26, 2008

CG Die!

A few weeks back I found myself being directed to YouTube to check out something that was, apparently, highly entertaining. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be an absolute desperate piece of shit. However, in the Related Videos sidebar there was a clip of the last ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Naughtily shot in a cinema, with a camcorder at a weird oblique angle to the screen, it was also dubbed into – I think – German, although other European languages are available. Granted that isn’t the best way to see any movie, but it was enough to show how bloody awful this film was.

There had been a narrow window when I had thought about going to see the movie. Being in two minds I waited until I heard the reactions from people who could not only express an informed opinion but were fans of the series and had followed, albeit from a distance, the making of this fourth instalment.

Interestingly, the one thing that really narked them, even more so than David Koepp’s apparently nonsensical screenplay, was that Mr Spielberg had promised fans that, keeping in the style of the previous films, there would be little or no CGI. And Mr Spielberg lied.

You only have to look at both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade to see that photochemical effects work, on the whole, could be far inferior to digital effects. While something like The Mummy Returns certainly illustrates how appallingly bad CGI can also be. Aside from budget, schedule and talent, the big drawback with computer effects is a lack of restraint. That’s the thing to remember.

I may have mentioned this before but a commercial that has always stuck in my mind was one that came out in the mid- to late-1980s. It was, I think, for ICI. It may seem odd that I can’t remember what the spot was for, but I do know it wasn’t one product being promoted but a company. I would bet on good old Imperial Chemical Industries.

The reason I remember the commercial was, it was a complete clusterfuck of imagery slapped all over the screen. The reason it was a moving collage of crappery was because the start-up facilities houses were installing Quantel Paintbox. The agency “creatives”, who obviously had knowledge of what this piece of kit could do, sold the idea to the client. The client handed over the cheque; the creatives went down to the Paintbox suite, looked at the menu and asked for fucking everything.

A lack of restraint is a very bad thing. While cinemagoers blame Spielberg for the CGI, it may well be down to George Lucas who, over the past decade, goes about proving that he has completely forgotten how to make his previously adequate films that audiences once enjoyed. Especially given that what I’ve seen of the unnecessary Star Wars prequels, frenetic. computer-generated mayhem seems to be the standard replacement for actual story.

This shouldn’t be confused with special effects. For instance, this afternoon Channel 4 screened Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad this afternoon and that is just magical, even when it’s being shown at a stupid, inconvenient time. The effects in that, almost seventy years on, are just phenomenal. In the time since we’ve rightly applauded the work of Ray Harryhausen and Albert Whitlock and Derek Meddings and everyone who made magic with the most basic materials.

There’s also the non-shouty digital effects, like the helicopter crashes and dust storms created by the rotor downdrafts in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, which augment a film without getting in the way of the story. Even the work done by Weta Digital for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while obviously necessary to create the fantasy elements, managed to create pure spectacle without elbowing the story off the screen.

The really great thing about Iron Man was that it used digital effects as far as it needed to and went no further. That combined with a good script and great performances has to be the reason that in America, eight weeks after it debuted, Jon Favreau’s film has passed the $300 million barrier and is still in the top ten. Meanwhile, other effects-heavy movies open big and plummet by their second weekend because they’re a number of computer generated effects-heavy sequences strung together and very little substance.

All of us can probably reel off the names of films from the last decade or so that prioritized CGI bells and whistles over story. How pointless did the two Matrix films become? How exciting is a car chase when it’s created in a controlled studio and software environment? Compare a digital chase to the visceral chase sequences in The French Connection or The Road Warrior.

Time, money and limitless ones and zeros are gradually beginning to create ultimately soulless and empty experiences. I think that’s why, of late, I’ve primarily been watching films from before the 1980s. Remember them, the films whose credits were either all upfront or a small scroll at the end? These would be films that employed a writer, director, actors and editor, but didn’t really have much need of digital lighting supervisors or compositors. At no point do any of them suffer from their omission from the crew.

I don’t know if you read the Being Ernest post or the comments that followed, but Tom, qrter, and Lee did a great job in putting forward suggestions for triple bills to watch. In fact, having watched Dr Strangelove before the week before, and The List of Adrian Messenger on Monday night, I finished off my George C. Scott triple by catching Patton last night, as Tom suggested.

Trying to think of older actors and the films they’ve been in, I dug out the Word document entitled Blank Video Contents. While it may be oxymoronic, it lists the eighty-nine tapes that films were recorded onto over the years. Now, I know in this digital age, the idea of watching something on magnetic tape is about as quaint as listening to old 78s, but here are some of the titles of films I had forgotten about...

Gunga Din, Cat People (1942), The Paleface, The Lost Weekend, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Save the Tiger, Seconds, Melvin & Howard, The Front Page, The Killers (1946), The Killers (1964), Stalag 17, The Underneath, Point Blank, The Haunting (1963), Whiskey Galore, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, The Naked Spur, Harvey, Kafka, Build My Gallows High, Laura, The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, Carve Her Name With Pride, The Body Snatcher (1945), The Cat and the Canary (1939), Genevieve, plus nine of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes adventures.

An eclectic mix, certainly, but I can’t see the necessity of going to the cinema for a while. Although before I make a start I should make clear the distinction between computer effects and computer animation. One of the films I’m really looking forward to in the coming months is Pixar’s Wall-E. Along with the trailers and Wall-E vignettes here, check out the ‘exclusive clip’. That is just beautiful.


At 1:42 am, Blogger qrter said...

I was just talking to my brother about CGI today, what a difference it can make to see actors interacting with something that's actually in the room. It may take 82 people (including 14 dwarves) to operate Jabba the Hut, but now Harrison Ford has something to actually scowl at!

We talked about the Star Wars prequels being shit and then I remembered how in that documentary included with the refurbished Real Trilogy on DVD all the actors would say how George Lucas can't direct living, human beings to save his life. After Ford or Fisher would ask Lucas for some direction, he'd point at the script and say "why don't you just say what's on the page, it's all there, what's the problem?".

That made me think that the later advances in CGI paved the way for Lucas to fully develop his megalomania - now he could populate the screen with thousands of "actors" who would do exactly what it said on the page (he even made sure that the few humans involved with the film would be the most wooden actors he could find - Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman - or at least beat every bit of soul out of them - Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee).

Although I'm quite sure the prequel scripts wouldn't have been much better if acted out by Real People, but it might've made Lucas rethink his crimes.

(Sorry for the SW-themed rant..)

Anyhoo.. ooh "The Haunting"! Wonderful stuff. Only watched it for the first time a couple of years ago, made me read Shirley Jackson, which was a very good thing.

Is that Soderbergh's "Kafka"? I've thought about rewatching that the last few weeks.

When I look at Wall-E I instantly hear "Who's Johnny, she said.." singing in my shriveled brain.

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At 12:08 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

I still reckon that there’s a buyer out there for a CGI-laden remake of the Lavender Hill Mob, featuring mutated, half-walrus, half-greenhouse warriors (all voiced by Ian McKellen) launching nuclear attacks from their base on the Moon on the enemy of all life in the universe, currently in disguise as small, gold models of the Eiffel Tower. With lasers. And space monkeys...

At 7:30 pm, Blogger Jon Peacey said...

Sounds more like that would be Titfield Thunderbolt!

It strikes me that the CGI problem comes back to the computer wizards being so impressed with what they can do that they neglect to find a reason for what they do... and then dazzle some film people until they find a use for it.

Thief Of Baghdad is amazing- I'd love to make a snide comment about it being on in mid-day to free up the evening schedule for Big Brother- but the reality is that C4 have been showing classics at this time of day for at least the last 15 years- and while I was on Incapacity I loved every day of it and it pretty much decided me to move to the writing. And BBC2 covered the morning session! :)

That's a damn fine list you've put there: glad to see someone else who knows the film Seconds (presuming that's the Frankenheimer film).

Basically, CGI should be the means not the end.

I once read someone state that the greatest special effect in movie history was Gene Kelly.

At 9:26 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I think everyone would agree with you. After The Matrix and bullet time, and all of that malarkey, the Wachowski boys have to answer for some of it. Especially because of the two over the top dog-shit sequels.

But the real monstrous cock of idiocy has to be Lucas. Of course we may simply be the wrong target audience. Perhaps his films are made for pre-teen videogame players zonked out on sugary drinks.

It really takes a special person to take two film trilogies beloved by generations and take an earth-shattering shit over them. Personally, I’d prefer to be mugged at gunpoint than hand over my money to see one of the lousy films.

And oh yes indeedy, it sure is Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Alec Guinness and Armin Mueller-Stahl, a Lem Dobbs script... Magic!


Thanks for your contribution, fella. I would say come back any time but that would just be code for: fuck the fuck off and walk in front of a bus you cold-calling piece of shit.


I think everything should be remade with completely inappropriate digital effects, starting with Duck Soup. Margaret Dumont would be replaced by a handful of rabid space monkeys tied in a sack.


It does seem to be that the create stuff whether the narrative needs it or not. There should be someone assigned to each production who shouts, “I don’t care if it’s nice and shiny, it’s not part of the story!” He would of course need to be armed.

Reading the tributes to Stan Winston, although he set up Digital Domain with James Cameron, he still pushed for practical effects. After all, actors react better to something that is physically there with them than a green ping-pong ball nailed to a stick.

The Thief of Bagdad is a perfect afternoon film. You just hope a load of people got to see it. It just seems a shame that there are great films on in the afternoons, some terrific movies recently scheduled at something like one in the morning, but utter dross put on in the evenings.

Oh, it is indeed Frankenheimer’s Seconds. One of the scariest darn endings to a film I’ve ever seen. It’s a great movie, and Rock Hudson and Murray Hamilton are just brilliant.

That list was only some of the films. Of course most of the Powell & Pressburger’s, David Lean and Kubrick films, amongst others have been bought on DVD since, but there is still their early material on the tapes like the documentary shorts Day of the Fight and The Flying Padre. Or some of the films Hitchcock made in England before heading for Hollywood like Secret Agent, Jamaica Inn, and Young and Innocent. I think they’ve just become available on DVD.

A lot of the films came from BBC2’s old Moviedrome series, which came up with the two versions of The Killers. The 1946 version, directed by Robert Siodmak, stars Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien. The later version, directed by Don Seigel, stars Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and John Cassavetes. And Ronald Reagan.

The Criterion Collection has a great DVD package with both versions and a whole bunch of extra goodies. I must treat myself one day.

Anyway, before starting on any of the films on the list, I realised I also have Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight, starring Philip Baker Hall and John C Reilly. So I’m watching that. There’s a great scene just gone with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a craps player.

And... just checking something on the internet, I’ve discovered it’s PT Anderson’s birthday today. How weird is that?

At 12:50 am, Blogger qrter said...

I forgot the script was by Lem Dobbs. Eventhough most of those earlier Soderbergh scripts seem to be by him.

You just reminded me of one of my favourite films which I haven't seen in years - The Limey. Also a Dobbs script, although what I love about the film is more because of Soderbergh's decision to cut up and rearrange the script, probably. Also love how the film shows what a fantastic actor Terence Stamp can be.

At 10:57 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

I saw The Limey is back out on DVD and really need to pick up a copy. When I saw the film during its theatrical release there was only about a dozen people in the cinema. There was probably some bone-headed nonsense on at the time that everyone else was flocking to.

I loved the way the Californians couldn’t understand his London accent. Using footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow for the flashbacks was really inspired. Yeah, I need to see that again.

“You tell him I'm coming!”

At 11:57 am, Blogger qrter said...

I hope it still has the same commentary track as the first DVD - it's Soderbergh, Dobbs and Stamp, although Stamp is recorded seperately and the whole thing is done like the film.. it's cut up, chronologically out of order, things repeat, bits of referenced history (the sound of a '60s rally, for example) suddenly get spliced in, it's all over the place.

First time I listened to it I just didn't get it, I thought it was a misprint, was getting ready to bring it back, then finally the penny dropped.

It's the most daring way to present a commentary track I've heard (it also may be a bit too confusing..).

At 1:57 pm, Blogger Jon Peacey said...

I must confess that I was a little underwhelmed when I caught The Limey (on VHS- didn't actually find a cinema within a 30 mile radius). At the time it seemed a bit too referential (although the Poor Cow usage was very well done) and knowing. Maybe it's now time for a re-assessment.


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