American cinema has always been defined by its ability to innovate. Westworld, a small sci-fi movie released in 1973 starring Yul Brynner, changed the way movies would be made forever. It was the first film to use two-dimensional computer images, which would eventually evolve into what we now call CGI, or Computer Generated Images. Westworld is often pushed to the side when talking about the history of CGI, in favor of blockbusters such as Terminator II: Judgment Day, or Jurassic Park, even the cult hit Tron. But all of these movies contributed to shaping the films we know and love (or perhaps despise) today.
Unfortunately, it’s now become a bit of a cliché to criticize the use of CGI in movies. Filmmakers like Michael Bay seem content with throwing as many explosions as possible at the audience in an attempt to distract from their films’ blatant lack of plot. And despite the fact that films such as Bay’s Transformers franchise continually get lambasted by critics, they still find success at the box office. For example, take the recent Transformers: Age of Extinction. The film garnered some of the franchise’s worst reviews from critics, (which, quite honestly, is an achievement) and yet it still broke $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Why? Well, simply put, explosions travel well.
What most studio executives are now realizing is that emerging markets like China are ripe for the picking. International audiences prefer spectacle-heavy films, and giant robots punching each other are a universal language. Studios find it more convenient to invest in these effects-filled films that place the emphasis on visuals rather than story because these films are far more accessible to foreign audiences. Age of Extinction received a whopping 77% of its total gross from international box office receipts.
This isn’t to say that audiences are getting less intelligent. In fact, quite the opposite. There seems to be a large-scale movement away from CGI in upcoming films. Peter Jackson’s latest foray into Middle Earth, the Hobbit trilogy has been widely derided for its overuse of CGI. The budgetary limitations of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, released between 2001 and 2003, forced Jackson to mix practical effects with digital ones. The result? Arguably the best cinematic trilogy ever made, whose effects still stand up a decade later. Audiences could tell that Jackson poured his heart and soul into making those movies, and that he took no shortcuts when it came to the visual effects. When it comes to the Hobbit movies, however, Jackson seems more content green-screening effects rather than using practical ones.
Filmmakers should never underestimate the intelligence of audiences. Obviously, in Jackson’s case, you can’t go out and create a realistic-looking Smaug without the help of some nifty computer imagery (although I personally would find Benedict Cumberbatch in a dragon suit terrifying). But this doesn’t mean that they can’t try to bridge the gap between CGI and practical effects. JJ Abrams and Colin Trevorrow, directors of the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII and Jurassic World, respectively, have both taken to social media to assure fans that they will be relying on practical effects as much as possible. Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming sci-fi epic Interstellar, has made it a trademark of his to use as little CGI as possible, even if it means building a physical, rotating hallway (as was the case in Inception). This movement has been extremely well received by fans.
CGI is an incredible tool, in the right director’s hands. But an overreliance can come across as lazy filmmaking which audiences will sniff out in a heartbeat. As movies continue to get bigger and more expensive, CGI will become even more lavish. That’s why it’s reassuring that upcoming blockbusters are focusing on doing most of their effects for real in front of the camera. Hopefully, audiences will begin to discriminate between lazy directors and filmmakers who pour their heart and soul into their movie. That, to me, is the definition of real movie magic.