The numbing ubiquity of computer graphics

News Ryan Lambie 14 Dec 2010 - 05:18

Once so dazzling in films such as Jurassic Park and The Matrix, computer graphics are now a common sight on the small screen and in cinema. And Ryan's not happy...

Andrex adverts now feature creepy CG puppies. In a slightly eerie usage of computer technology, digital dogs use laptops, bake cakes and drive taxis in an effort to sell us toilet paper.

The Andrex ad, with its sinister dogs from the Uncanny Valley, is evidence, if any were needed, of the ubiquity of computer graphics. Once a novelty, the use of CG has become so cheap and commonplace that you're as likely to see a fully computer animated mammal in a commercial for toilet roll as you are in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.

Back in the late-70s and 80s, big screen visual effects went through a remarkable period of transition. The use of scale miniatures, matte painting and backscreen projection had remained almost unchanged since the dawn of cinema, a comparison of the visual effects in, say, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) reveals that little had changed in terms of technique, even if the end results were more lifelike 55 years later.

Gradually, however, computer graphics began to creep into visual effects, and as processing power improved exponentially in the 80s, their appearance became ever more prominent.

Twenty or 30 years ago, even the tiniest glimpse of a computer-generated effect had an almost magical air of futuristic novelty about it. As a child, I remember seeing the wireframe trench run in Star Wars, a sequence that surely inspired Atari's joyous videogame tie-in a few years later, and being enthralled by it. (Though, in fairness, I was at an age where I would have been equally enthralled by the glow of a lava lamp.)

Nevertheless, the 70s and 80s were an era where the appearance of computer graphics in film was still quite startling. The Light Cycle race in Tron looked breathtakingly exotic. The minute-long 'Genesis' sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, created by the arm of Industrial Light and Magic that would later become known as Pixar, was an utterly bewitching one. The walnut-shaped, mirror-like ship from 1986's Flight Of The Navigator was similarly jaw-dropping.

And yet, since the advent of a holy trinity of groundbreaking movies in the 90s, namely, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and The Matrix, it has become increasingly difficult to get particularly worked up about special effects of any kind. Audiences may have cooed and gasped over the imagery of Avatar and Inception, but we've now become so numbed by such visual flights of fancy, whether they're in films or adverts, that they appear to be set to a side almost as quickly as we've seen them.

As Tron: Legacy vehicle designer Daniel Simon put it in a recent interview on this very site, "We're living in a very fast-moving world. Even for me - I'm 34 now, and it's shocking to me how... I mean, when I saw Avatar, I was so blown away, but I was also blown away by how fast people forgot about it. Like, a few weeks after it came out, if you were still talking about Avatar, you were so from yesterday!"

Think about how frequently the effects work of The Matrix was borrowed and lampooned in other films and commercials. A version of it even turned up in an advert for the middle-class forest retreat, Centre Parcs, with a 360-degree shot of an unsuspecting swan.

By contrast, the distinctive moments of Avatar and Inception have scarcely caused a ripple in popular culture, despite these films' huge grosses. We haven't seen an Inception-style folding city being employed to sell perfume, or a blatantly obvious rip-off of Cameron's blue Na'vi tribe used to advertise a car cleaning product, which would surely have happened had those films appeared in the 80s.

The way products are advertised has, of course, changed considerably in the last 20 years or so, but so too has the way we consume popular culture. Now readily available on mobile phones, computers, iPods and iPads, the sheer amount of dazzling imagery we see every day has reached saturation point. Ahead of release, big-budget movies will now have a dozen different types of poster to advertise them, and numerous trailers, commercials and sneak peak clips.

It's hardly surprising, then, that filmmakers struggle to create a sense of awe through special effects alone. By the time we've sat down in the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood masterpiece, we've already learned so much about the film's mood, tone, and overarching plot that, when the expensive effects are splashed across the big screen, they're greeted with a nod of recognition rather than a cheer of excitement.

The comedian Billy Crystal, in an interview back in the 80s, remarked that professional comedians seldom laugh at each other's jokes. Immersed as they are in the mechanical process of writing and telling amusing stories, they merely deconstruct them in their minds, and perhaps murmur their acknowledgement that, yes, that particular quip worked well.

In this respect, we've perhaps become similarly critical as moviegoers. Where we once sat through Terminator 2 and gasped when Robert Patrick turned into a slippery blob of mercury, we now watch, say, Inception and simply acknowledge that, yes, the folding city looks quite realistic.

In an attempt to break through our jaded defences, Hollywood has taken to employing things like 3D glasses to add a new sense of exoticism to the activity of going to the cinema. But if it hasn't already, 3D is surely something that, like Panavision before it, will soon cease to be a novelty, and will instead become yet another weapon in the Hollywood filmmaker's arsenal.

There is an upside, of course, to the prevalence of dazzling computer graphics. For one thing, it will perhaps force filmmakers to come up with compelling stories to tell, rather than attempting to cover up a flimsy or regurgitated narrative with flashy effects. It's a slim hope, but it's at least a possibility.

Better yet, the fact that it's now comparatively cheap to create CG effects means that new filmmakers can let their imaginations run riot on a tiny budget. For evidence, look no further than Gareth Edwards' Monsters, a film created with little more than two professional actors, one Sony camera and a copy of 3DSMax. As Edwards put it in a recent interview, "You can go into a shop now and buy a laptop that's faster than the computers they used to make Jurassic Park."

So, while the days where computer graphics can shock or dazzle us, as they once did in The Matrix or Terminator 2, appear to be long gone, the continued integration of technology into films has, for those with imagination and a flair for storytelling, greatly extended the creative possibilities of cinema. And given ad men the ability to conjure up really, really creepy digital puppies to sell rolls of loo paper.

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