The Effects of Progress: Blurring the Line Between CGI and Animation

Zachary Cruz-Tan

As tired as I have grown of CGI and its endless invasion of potentially good Hollywood movies, I cannot deny how sexy it looks when it’s done well, and dang it, most of it is done very well these days. CGI has become a diplomat for technological progress; a loophole exploited by all the big studios looking for an easy way out. I may hate what it’s become, but I cannot stop where it’s going.

Earlier this year we were given Warcraft; the giant nostalgia orgasm for gamers everywhere, and a fine example of the polished aesthetic Hollywood now employs. As a movie that told a story, it was muddled and silly. But as a visual playground, even I bought into its spectacle. Let’s face it, even if you had no idea what that portal did or why that orc lady looked like a Maxim cover model with tusks, you thought the visual effects were pretty good. And they were. They were so good they made the live-action human characters look like cartoons, and not very compelling ones. My brother posed an interesting question shortly after watching the trailer for the first time: Why wasn’t the entire film animated? I didn’t have an answer.

But perhaps now, thinking back, the movie was always going to be live-action. No one looks at a screenplay anymore and thinks laterally in terms of medium, unless of course the screenplay was written specifically to be animated. Studio executives have convinced themselves that casting real actors and dropping them into green screen studios is a faster and easier way of getting results, when the truth is that fully animating a film cuts out the middleman and zips straight to the final product. You don’t end up with critics and fans spitting at your movie for losing itself in its visual effects.

I am not a dedicated gamer. I have never played Warcraft. But my brother has, and he has shown me several animated short films, made by the developers of the game, that could easily give Pixar a run for its money. In fact they’re of a higher quality than many mainstream kids movies playing now in multiplexes. So again, why wasn’t Warcraft animated in a similar fashion? Why, for that matter, are CGI-heavy blockbusters not animated? When the effects in a movie like Transformers are far more fascinating than the insipid story it tells, why not try to make the whole movie fascinating?

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I think the answer lies in our discriminating preconceptions about what an animated picture should look like and be about. Animation has its roots in the 19th Century and completely steamrolled its way through the former half of the 20th, with Disney lovingly shouldering the childhoods of each new generation with princesses and evil witches and singing animals. For much of the older population, that’s still all animation has to offer. But Japan has proven otherwise, with its brand of animation slicing up the competition and demonstrating just how mature and complex stories set to the tune of cartoon characters can be. Has there ever been an animated feature more profound and devastating than Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies?

So maybe the DNA of animation is evolving. One of the key traits of a great Pixar film is its self-effacing generosity towards all ages. Up’s prologue will likely wash over the heads of anyone who has yet to reach puberty. Wall-E’s eco message and scarce dialogue is more suited to the parents than their kids. Gone are the days when cartoons belonged to Saturday mornings. Now they belong to anyone who’s eager to have them. Who knows – now that computers have become harder working artists than the sum of a production crew, we may very well see an impending CGI extravaganza emerge charged, complex, and fully animated.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures & Blizzard Media 

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