Discussion: Is Digital Filmmaking Just a Part of the Natural Cycle?

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The other day I was explaining to my girlfriend why the Shaw Brothers studio system was interesting in the grand scheme of world film history. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, as it’s not something that she cares about, but that’s what I was doing. The quick version is that the Shaw Brothers model was interesting because as Hollywood was gradually moving away from studio-bound filmmaking in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the Shaw Brothers were doubling down on the old school studio model.

This model was composed of a few key components and it’s what classic Hollywood ran on for quite some time. At the studio there would be a group of reusable sets to keep film production costs down, as well as a contracted group of actors and crew members that worked on whatever was on the day’s agenda. While one team was out making a movie, there was another movie being made on different sets, while the guys in the writer’s room banged out the next films to be made. Shaw Brothers probably had more than five films shooting at once during their height, and this is how a relatively small group of people were able to crank out so many films in one year.

But as more and more films turned to location shooting, it became harder to sell the studio-based films to audiences. By the 1970s, Hollywood was all about shooting in the streets. Studio sets are great, but they can never compare with a real street corner. The Shaw Brothers continued into the early ’80s using the old studio model, but when your competition has Jackie Chan busting through plate-glass windows in the middle of Hong Kong for Police Story, it’s really no contest, even with my intense love of the Shaw studio. For reference, imagine an American audience’s reaction to wide-release films in the 2000s made with the production values of the ’80s… I’d love it, but most people would have probably scoffed on their way to Final Destination 3.

So how does this relate to the current abundance of digital filmmaking, or more specifically CGI-laden productions? With the rise of digital filmmaking, we have once again been ushered into an era of studio-based films, although nowadays the studios they’re working with are much more technologically advanced. But no matter what the tech is, will anyone argue that computer graphics look better than reality? Even now, 20 years after groundbreaking films like Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park used CG in ways that blew people’s minds, we’re still discussing how “good” or “bad” the CG looks. I think that at some level we will always know we’re watching something fabricated, and therefore shooting something real will always be the most realistic. (But isn’t it crazy that this is even an argument that’s possible?)

At some point, I do think a backlash against the fantasy of CG will occur. It might be 20 years (or more) from now, but eventually I imagine audiences will tire of movies that resemble video games more than they do the outside world. There will be game-changing films that turn the tide away from green-screened studio sets, and back out into the green hills of nature. So with that possibility in mind: The film industry isn’t treading new ground when it comes to digital filmmaking, they’re simply rebooting the industry. It’s all they know how to do.  It’s just part of a larger, natural cycle.

The slow decline of society might not make this a reality, as people continue to delve even further into escapism and wild, wish-fulfilling fantasies. I look forward to the future of cinema, whatever it ends up being. But I’d really love to see a future version of what the 1970s meant to American filmmaking, even if I am a senior citizen when it finally comes around.

So… What are your thoughts on this?

21 comments to Discussion: Is Digital Filmmaking Just a Part of the Natural Cycle?

  • I have had similar thoughts before: that people would eventually just get tired of all the CG and want something different. I suspect this will also coincide (as you somewhat allude to in the article) with a general preference for more realistic stories. As long as superhero epics and Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies are still at the forefront of cinema, we’ll still be seeing a lot of CG.

    I’m a bit more worried about my own medium of choice: anime. Anime is always studio based, and there’s not much way around it. Even the more dedicated animators, like Makoto Shinkai who goes out to real locations and takes reference photos for his background art, still do the animating in a studio. This is also an industry where CG really is cheaper than doing things the old fashioned way, especially for objects that frequently recur over a film/series.

    I’m afraid that this trend will culminate in more pure CG anime titles coming out. At that point I hope there will be an audience that longs for the classic visual style of 2D animation and crates a clear division between 2D anime titles and CG anime titles. If it develops into two separate markets, then at least I’ll be able to track down some good clean non-CG anime again. But would there be a large enough market to support that kind of division? I kind of doubt it. I suspect that economics will keep that from ever happening in my lifetime. But I can still hope, right?

    • I think it’s got to happen at some point that people tire of the pure fantasy. But when it comes to high fantasy or those superhero movies, specifically Marvel’s, I hope it’s a while down the road. The release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie proved that Marvel films were finally possible without reducing their “Marvel-ness,” and the broad plans they are executing with their franchises is just incredible to me. I’d have never thought they’d have the balls to bring comic book storytelling to film, but they’re doing it… and very well! And I’m totally OK with that because the stories pretty much demand the CG, and it honestly doesn’t bug me at all in those cases. There’s a featurette on how they created that one shot of all the Avengers kicking ass, and it’s really impressive how it was pulled together; an impressive amount of work. What distresses me the most is when CG is used where it’s not necessary, like a lot of movies with shattering glass or car crashes just do it in CG now and it look horrible. Just bang some shit together!

      In terms of anime, I hadn’t even considered it. CG definitely has poisoned those waters, and the idea of all CG anime (like most Western animated films are now) is sad. I have to imagine that because the 2D animation is such a hallmark of the genre they couldn’t possibly get rid of it completely, could they? I would think they’d be in different categories from each other, no? If not, that sucks. As much as I’m lacking in my anime knowledge, I love knowing that it’s out there, fighting the good 2D animation fight.

      • Stephen

        I don’t think that CG used for giant monsters, laser beams, and other random fantasy stuff is all that separate from the more needless uses of CG, like your example of broken glass. I agree that a giant monster is fine, while broken glass is just dumb looking. But I think that filmmakers aren’t going to make that distinction.

        As long as Avengers makes a ton of money with its overblown CG, some other filmmaker is going to look at it and say, “Hey, CG worked there, so it’ll be awesome in my police drama where nothing unrealistic is happening!” (Well, you could argue about the “unrealistic” part, but you get my drift.)

        Imitation and peer pressure basically. That’s why I think when people start looking away from CG it will be across all genres, and for all situations and will coincide with lower interest in those escapist fantasies. (Although, really just about all fiction is an escapist fantasy to some extent.)

        I’m sure there will always be the Christopher Nolans and Peter Jacksons of the world that know when to use CG and when to ditch it, but for every one of them there will be at least a dozen others that are just following the trend of the moment. They’ll use CG or not depending on what they think people will buy rather than good taste.

        Actually, Marvel and DC have kept 2D films alive. They certainly aren’t the high profile films that Pixar puts out, but there are a few people in western animation fighting the good fight for 2D. This maybe has to do with being comic book adaptations, where the best way to capture the look and feel of the comic book characters is to make them 2D. This may be the same reason anime has retained 2D as well, since anime is closely tied to the manga industry.

        That classic 2D feel is a big part of my love for anime, but I’m not sure how much that holds for others. There are a few pure CG anime titles out there, and I’ve mostly avoided them. So far, 2D has stayed important to the industry, but every year it seems less so. I hardly watch any modern mecha anime because they almost always render the robots with pure CG these days. Code Geass was a breath of fresh air in that regard. I’m worried that it’s only a matter of time before the characters themselves get wholly replaced as well.

        • When CG was just starting, they did make that distinction, but now CG is A-OK for anything. I don’t know that it’s peer pressure, I think it’s just that it’s a lot harder to stage real-life stunts and things, and execs are most likely the ones pushing for more CG. And most directors are just there to do a job, so they don’t really give a shit. As you mention, people like Nolan and Peter Jackson care a little more about FX, so they are able to bargain with the studios to get their way. That being said, The Hobbit features WAY more CG than LOTR.

          Yeah, those Marvel and DC animated movies are pretty popular! That’s cool, I hadn’t considered them from a 2d animation standpoint, but they really are carrying the banner these days. I think CG in animation can be a good thing if it’s done right, but every time I’ve seen it, it always stuck out as CG because it had different properties than the 2D stuff. In any case, 2D is much more charming and impressive, in the same way that practical FX are. They both awaken that sense of wonder, of not knowing how something was done and being impressed at how well it was carried out. I never feel this with CG because the answer is always, “Computer,” and deep, technical explanation of how they got the physics and light correct don’t engage me in the same way that the more handmade arts do. I suppose for little kids, who may grow up to do computer FX, it might awaken that wonder brain, as computers have always existed in their world and their wonder might come from what and how things are done with it. (I’m sure there’s a better way to say that, but my brain isn’t working right this morning.)

          • Stephen

            In theory, I can see well made CG looking like the 2D stuff, but to me it always feels like what you have mentioned on more than one occasion with CG heavy films. It feels like a video game. I stumbled on this one recently, and it’s probably the best I’ve seen so far for CG looking like normal anime. I’m pretty sure the entire film is 100% CG, right down to the human characters, and it actually is rather deceptive at times. It’s certainly better than the crap that doesn’t even try to look like anime. Still, that “video game” feeling keeps me from really embracing it.

            http://youtu.be/nu2XPqP9arg

            Like you, the answer of “computer” just doesn’t impress me. You can throw any amount of complexity into a computer and wait for it to calculate the answer. That’s not amazing. But that opening scene of Nausicaa, where she flies out of the forest with an ohmu racing after her, tree trunks and debris flying everywhere, the background whizzing by, and you know every frame of it was drawn by hand? Yeah, that’s amazing.

            Sometimes I feel like 2D is going to go the way of stop motion. An expensive curiosity rather than an effective method of filmmaking. Maybe I’m just becoming a stodgy old man, but I will always enjoy the handmade stuff, anime or live action, more than something run through a computer, even if the computer makes it look better from a technical standpoint.

            • Ah man, that clip is weird. As you mention, on one hand it looks good, deceptively so. It makes a good case for full CG anime that retains the style of 2D… although making one medium replicate another seems silly. This goes into a general thought I’ve had lately that every generation wants “things” to be easier than what their parent’s generation did. It drives technology as parents grow up knowing one thing and “that’s the way we do it” but the kid with a fresh perspective can see room to improve. (Full disclosure: I had this thought while making pancakes, thinking how my grandparents used to make them from scratch, but my parents or I would never consider that when there are “Just Add Water” mixes available.) Anyway, I think the same is true for film, where animators just don’t have the stamina to sit there and draw all the frames necessary to make a full hand-drawn 2d film. They think, “We don’t have to do it this way.”

              But getting back to that clip… on the other hand, it totally looks like a cell-shaded video game cutscene. That could easily be the trailer for a PS3 game. Maybe one day when we achieve photo-realism and technology is beyond amazing, all media will share one, cohesive aesthetic, but personally I like how each one has its own thing going. It makes them special. I also don’t like the trend that games are trying to be like movies. I just want to play a dumb game, not watch 30 minutes of poorly “filmed” pseudo movie before I can play anything. *fist shaking at the sky*

              There’s more artistry to computer FX than you give them credit for, but I know what you mean. There’s a wonder to watching hand-drawn stuff that is unparallelled by anything else. I think 2D is definitely heading the way of stop-motion, though, sad as that may be. But like stop-motion, it has its staunch fans and will survive through passion projects and a few big releases now and then.

              I think our love of the handmade is something of a nostalgia, “stodgy old men” thing, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I do think it’s important to keep sight of the fact that CG is more than the devil that killed handmade film craft, as it offers a good amount of positives to current films. If we could only get the filmmakers to dial it back a few notches I think we’d be good. 🙂

              • Mmm… pancakes. Here’s Douglas Adams’s rules about technology. Seems a bit in line with your observation.
                1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
                2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
                3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

                I’m with you on the video game front. I’ve done my share of fist shaking during games that just wouldn’t shut up. One of the best storytelling games was Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. It had a bunch of puzzles to solve, and while you were shoving boxes around or looking for things to climb on, the characters would be talking to each other. It was great because it melded the narrative with the gameplay. It used the features of the game to tell its story, and I do wish that games would follow that course rather than mimic film technique. Of course, I’ve always preferred games that have little to no story. If you want a story, why are you playing a game? It seems like those are two separate and not necessarily compatible goals. When I want a story, I go to a medium that’s specifically designed to tell a story.

                I do have to admit there is artistry in CG. I don’t think I will ever enjoy it much, though. I argue with myself about it at times. I know someone is still choosing the details, and those choices require an artistic thought process. But after seeing so much bad CG it’s hard not to think of it as “the devil that killed handmade film craft.” Logic tells me to be more forgiving, but my head refuses to acknowledge it.

                All this talk has gotten me to thinking about the Utena movie, and I think it’s time to give that sucker a review. The CG in it… well, I guess you’ll just have to wait for the review to find out. (and I’ll have to see if my memories hold true)

                • Due to weird circumstances, this is the 3rd time I’m trying to write this same comment. For some reason my hand keeps slipping and hitting the ESC key which apparently erases everything when you’re in the dashboard. Argh. My next post will be a discussion regarding my frustration with this newfangled usage of the ESC key. 🙂

                  I love those technology rules! They don’t specifically fit our annoyances with CG, but I think that proves our problems are more than old man nostalgia. I’ve never played any of the Prince of Persia games, but I like the idea of the game telling its story through the gameplay instead of trying to emulate another medium. I do have to make mention of my favorite game of all time, though, Shenmue, which marries video games and cinematic storytelling perfectly (for me). The invention of the quick time events to have intense, cinematic and dynamic scenes for some key moments of the game really make it stand out from the rest of storytelling games. The second game goes even further, featuring some of the most intense sequences I’ve ever played in games. Heavy Rain, a more recent game, takes this idea and runs with it and does it really well. These are but a couple of good examples amidst a sea of horrible attempts at telling a “cinematic” storyline in a game. Not everyone was meant to make films, and I wish game developers would focus on gameplay instead of trying to become the Spielberg of games. That being said, I’m always on the lookout for another game to recreate the feelings that Shenmue gave me.

                  I think if the artistry of CG was more apparent, it’d be easier to accept. The thing is, part of CG’s methodology is to try and hide the seams and make it blend in with reality, which kind of asks for people to complain about it not achieving what it tries to do. Lots of practical FX do attempt to look real as well, though, and still look fake, but at least for me, I love the artistry of dumb practical FX too. I think that’s where my old man nostalgia kicks in. And I do have to say that as I get older, I have developed a nostalgia and a love for ugly early CG, because I find it shares a lot with the “handmade” aspects of practical FX.

                  Haven’t heard of Utena, I look forward to the review!

  • Uncle Jasper

    Good points you made there, Will. I think there’s always going to be a certain demographic that will buy into whatever new CGI shitfest Hollywood has cooked up to shove down their throats, but I also believe that there is already a certain small, but growing undercurrent of backlash towards CGI from jaded moviegoers. Like you, I do believe overloaded CGI productions are a phase, but sadly, one that we will not see the end of any time soon. No matter how many passionate artists there are in the industry, film is a business first and coding a dinosaur in computer software will always be cheaper and easier than hiring a bunch of talented FX artists to create a full sized animatronic T-Rex in some rented aircraft hangar somewhere. I will always bitch and moan about CGI being a cop-out and how it stifles creativity and suddenly abandoned a whole generation of physical FX artists who were just reaching new heights with their talents, but the truth is that until the mainstream begins voting with their wallets, CGI will be the most cost and time-efficient method for special effects in film.

    • Hahahahaha, I will always admire your ability to turn words into daggers. I feel bad for anyone who happens upon your comment that likes CG shitfests. Hahahaha. Anyway, you’re right. There’s always going to be someone willing to see ANYTHING. They don’t care about the technical, they don’t care about the artistic, they just want entertainment and they don’t want to feel like they’re being given something “budget.” That’s probably the biggest hurdle that the return of practical FX faces, that people will think, “Ugh, this reminds me of those old movies my Dad watches.” I’m super curious to see how the Evil Dead remake does in this regard, as I believe it’s 100% or 99% practical FX.

      Film is definitely a business first, but I honestly think that at this point CG is more expensive than practical FX. It’s the only way I can understand why budgets have skyrocketed so much. $100 million used to be a crazy amount to spend on a movie in the late ’90s, and now we regularly have shit exceeding $200 million. Y’know that animated movie Tangled? That shit cost $260 million!!! WTF. What’s crazy is that when you look at the greatest movies of the ’80s, shit like Aliens, Predator, Back to the Future, etc they’re all under $20 million. Even Jurassic Park only cost $63 mil.

      I checked a couple of inflation calculators and $20 mill in 1985 is roughly $43 mil now, so the only explanation I can come up with is all the additional Post-Production done now, including CG. CG peeps are a team of skilled laborers being paid well, and their numbers grow exponentially as the film nears release and enters crunch time. The FX artists are just as skilled in their field, but they build a fake head one day, explode it the next, and that’s it. Nothing else needed. And this is why I’m fucking blown away that more people haven’t jumped back on the practical bandwagon. Like you say, their techniques were reaching incredible results, and continue to get better and better even now. I do think that at this point it has to be a hybrid sort of thing, there’s no way they’re going to bring back matte paintings and stuff like that, so at least some CG regardless of what happens is a part of cinema forever I think.

      I really don’t think it’s a cost issue, but more of a logistics one. People would rather stay clean and cringe at a tennis ball than to have pig guts exploded all over them and the set. So much of that human element of film is missing now. But yeah man, it’s all about the digits. If no one goes to CG ShitFest Part XXXVII, they’ll have to change.

  • What frustrates me about the use of CGI is the way many filmmakers use it not as a way of communicating a story, but as the story itself. George Lucas should pay everyone back for those stupid Star Wars prequels, which were nothing but a blatant showreel for ILM’s technical skills, not about how awesome the old Jedi knights were.

    Visual effects should be used to enhance the story, not detract from it by being all “look at me” cool. Michael Bay’s Transformers could have used this concept and made three great films, not 1 great one and two mediocre ones.

    I agree with Uncle Jasper above – filmmaking is a business first, and a creative outlet second, so I don’t see any letup in the use of computers to provide effects in bits and bytes for film. If it’s cheaper to throw a digital stunt double into a frame than film a real-life person doing a stunt practially, then I know which was any level-headed producer is going to go. Sad as it is.

    • Yeah, CG is pretty much a main character in many films, instead of simply augmenting the story. They should start listing it in the credits, Starring: CG by ILM, Jim Carrey & Adam Sandler! [Side note: If I fall prey to talking about the Star Wars prequels, I’ll just end up typing thousands and words and getting frustrated with the futility of it all, so I’m just going to avoid that completely… But I agree with you. Hopefully the new ones will recognize this, but don’t hold your breath.]

      But as I elaborated in reply to Jasper, I don’t think it’s cheaper. How much can it cost to pay a guy to jump out a window, compared to a guy modeling glass, perhaps writing a new program specifically for light reflections off of shattered glass, then a couple of guys modeling and animating the dude jumping, etc. I’m not entirely sure of this, but it doesn’t make sense to me any other way. I think initially it was cheaper, though. In any case, it’s definitely a lot easier from a production standpoint. But they’re there to make my dreams come alive, not take the easy way out! I have faith it’ll happen, but I do think I’ll be rather old by the time it rolls around.

      • What interests me more about this is the use of digital technology to shoot on. The fact that a lot of digital cameras can shoot at film-quality (or better-then-film quality) these days was going to spell the end for traditional film. Somehow, the doomsayers have been proven wrong for now, with a vast number of films still shot on old-school 35mm film stock. That said, there’s something about shooting digitally – the ease of storage, the fact that digital memory isn’t as costly as a million feet of 35mm, etc etc – that would naturally attract filmmakers (at least, it would attract me!). My guess is that some old-school filmmakers still think film is better than digital (much like the vinyl/CD comparison, I guess) and will persist with it until the generational change occurs and this isn’t the mainstream thinking.

        Personally, if shooting digitally allows for greater flexibility for a director, then there’s a terrific argument to be had in using it as opposed to the costly film stocks.

        • Digital cameras are definitely going to be the only way anything is made in the future. It’s probably not too far away from happening now, actually. They do offer “film quality,” but aesthetically it still looks different than film. But realistically, so does modern film stock compared with stock from the ’70s.

          If I were to make another film, I think I’d have to go digital as well, for all the reasons you mention. It’s just so much easier. You don’t have the satisfaction of measuring distances and calculating f-stops and feeling like you know what you’re doing, though. Well, depending on the level of digital camera you’d still be doing that, but at my financial level, it’d be more point and shoot. 🙂

          I would like there to be some barriers to directors just putting anything they think up on the screen. The whole industry is turning into George Lucas’s, and we can’t have that!

          And vinyl is better!

  • When it comes to things that can and do exist in reality, filming reality will (nearly) always be better. Maybe the occasional stunt that would be theoretically possible but highly impractical would be better served by CGI, but if you can shoot what’s real, you shoot what’s real.

    That said, I think all the hue and cry about CGI today is greatly overblown. People are acting as if the current state is the endgame. There’s the assumption that because Jurassic Park was 20 years ago that CGI is now a mature medium. It’s not. It’s still in its infancy. JP was “Gertie the Dinosaur”, Avatar was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We’re a far cry from CGI’s equivalent of the Disney Renaissance. Mostly we’re watching Hanna-Barbera.

    Every rendered pixel requires a huge amount of complex math to determine what it should look like — and new techniques are being discovered constantly on how to better mimic reality. And it is still just very primitive mimicry — we’re still figuring out how light reacts in certain situations, and teaching it to a computer is a separate issue altogether. It’s going to take time to get things to the point where the CGI artists are satisfied with the level of quality they’re putting out. Yeah, we can tell what’s what nowadays. But the end goal is that we won’t be able to.

    Complaining about it right now is like complaining about a cartoon in the 60s saying you can tell what boulder is going to move because it’s lighter in color. It’s assuming that the current state of the medium will remain the same.

    • I’m aware that the art of CG is always improving and bettering itself, and for the most part I think it looks pretty damn good these days (especially when used in service of story instead of purely for wow factor). Your comparisons to animation are valid, but until recent times animation has never sought to truly replicate reality, only to provide a stylized interpretation of it. The industry of CG FX has always been under the “does it look real” scrutiny because they have always been trying to achieve that replication. As a side note, I find it troubling that we have people devoted to creating pixel-perfect representations of reality instead of actually just filming something. Like even if we achieve photo-realistic CG that no one can tell is fake, is that something to commend on anything other than a technical level? Isn’t it something of a Rube Goldberg machine? My paranoid tendencies generally color everything with a worried tone about society, but I’ll admit that it’s probably just meaningless wondering on my part. But my hopes that I expressed in the article aren’t really for abolishing CG, but for a re-grounding of films in general.

      And I should probably define my nebulous terms. When I say that “digital filmmaking” is something that bothers me, I mostly mean it in the sense of digital camera moves (impossible movements through space, or objects) or other things that don’t need to be digital (like sets, some FX, miniatures, etc). We used to get directors being creative with their cameras, but now, unhinged through digital means, a lot of that innovation is removed. Where the tracking shot through the bar in Goodfellas is always impressive, the “tracking” shot that opens Hugo, which is almost completely digital, does nothing for me. It’s technically well-realized and looks fine, but it’s creatively empty in my eyes.

      So basically my complaints aren’t really against CG looking bad or fake, it’s more about the way it has deterred the film industry away from realistic shooting and that great creative force: compromise.

  • Very interesting post. I’d like to think you are right, and I hope someday there is a backlash against so much CGI. However, I seriously doubt it will ever happen. They can do a lot of stuff that isn’t possible with practical effects, and they often digitally touch up backgrounds to improve them (for example, removing a background item that may not have really existed in a historically-based movie). Personally, I prefer practical effects, but I don’t see them making a big return.

    • Yeah, you’re probably right. CG is definitely here to stay, but I hope that at some point it shifts a little so that films aren’t completely dependent on it. I just think there’s something to be said for creative types being reined in by something, and if everything’s possible, they never have to compromise. As we gradually replace reality with CG in our films, the next step will be to replace actors (provided we reach that “photo-realistic” level of quality)! It might happen one day, and I think the gradual change will allow many to accept it.

  • Here’s an interesting article about some comments Dennis Muren made that echo some of what I’m saying.
    http://www.movies.com/movie-news/special-fx-arent-special-anymore/11843

  • I haven’t had time to read this through properly. This is just a courtesy note to tell you that I put the link to this blog on the Heroic Sisterhood facebook page.

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