When CG gets in the way of a good movie

Computer effects are often used to perform minor miracles in the movies, but there are time when its presence is merely a distraction...

As each year passes, directors get a little better at integrating computer graphics with live action. Perhaps following in the wake of David Fincher, a filmmaker who’s repeatedly proven his ability to tell stories with a little help from his CG effects department, we’ve seen films that have woven computer-rendered imagery with human actors almost seamlessly.

Some CG-augmented scenes in films are so well handled, in fact, that there are times when you don’t even notice any trickery at all. In spite of its low budget, I didn’t even realise that director and visual effects creator Gareth Edwards had made so many additions to his film Monsters after the fact.

It was only when I watched the ‘making of’ documentary on the movie’s Blu-ray release that I realised just how many scenes had been tinkered with to a greater or lesser degree. Even in scenes that looked as though they’d simply been filmed on the hoof, small details such as signs or added hints of damage to buildings had been added in with a bit of computer wizardry.

To cite a bigger-budget example, the often startling images of war seen in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down had been achieved with far more computer assistance than I had realised. In spite of its rather iffy politics (which I won’t dwell on here), Black Hawk Down is, from a visual standpoint, quite stunning. Even a decade on, its depiction of a conflict against US and guerrilla forces in Somalia is remarkably well handled, with subtle use of CG bringing a palpable sense of immediacy to the film.

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Returning to David Fincher, computer graphics were used so subtly in his most recent film, The Social Network, that I barely noticed their presence. I’m mildly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even realise that both Winklevoss twins were played by Armie Hammer. Both the performance and the CG convinced me that Fincher had somehow found two remarkably similar-looking actors to play the parts.

Such films prove that it is possible to use CG in a way that not only serves to tell a story in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the invention of the computer, but also that it can be used in a manner that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

But what of all those other movies where, just as you’re being immersed in the story that’s unfolding on the screen before you, a computer effect appears that completely pulls you out of what’s happening? It’s a purely subjective experience, of course, and one that’s bound to vary from viewer to viewer, but it’s something that I’m certain will have happened to anyone with an even casual interest in movies.

Despite all the once spectacular computer imagery to be found in The Matrix and its somewhat disappointing sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, the latter film in particular featured one CG-driven sequence that immediately broke any sense of disbelief the rest of the movie may have built up. On paper, the scene where Neo beats up seemingly hundreds of Agent Smiths sounded like a classic one, but the reality was so fake-looking that it proved to be a complete distraction.

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A similar situation occurred in Guillermo del Toro’s otherwise excellent vampire action sequel, Blade II. There’s a particular scene in which, for reasons that now escape me, Wesley Snipes’ sword-wielding hero, Blade, has to fight a pair of ninjas in a floodlit warehouse. For the first part of the sequence, it’s played with human actors, and is a perfectly well choreographed, entertaining moment.

But then, for reasons best known to del Toro and his effects designers, several longshots in the sequence are created using a CG version of Snipes and a ninja. Juxtaposed with the glimpses of the flesh-and-blood actors fighting one another, these computer-generated moments stick out like a sore thumb, and their inclusion is something of a mystery.

Which brings me to what is, in my opinion, the worst offender of them all – an otherwise serviceable film all-but ruined by the presence of distracting CG. That film is I Am Legend, director  Francis Lawrence’s 2007 recent attempt to adapt Richard Matheson’s classic novel for the big screen.

Shot for a generous $150 million, I Am Legend saw lonely apocalypse survivor Robert Neville (Will Smith) eking out an existence in a post-plague New York. In its opening scenes, I Am Legend steadily built up an eerie sense of forboding, showing the lonely Neville exploring the crumbling city in his muscle car, with the film occasionally flicking back to his earlier, happier existence before the outbreak of a humanity-extinguishing plague.

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But then the cracks begin to show, with the film’s first (admittedly minor) offence: some rather poorly computer-generated animals that looked like they’ve walked in from Jumanji. And then, just when you’ve decided to overlook those – animals are notoriously difficult things to render in a life-like fashion – I Am Legend makes a second, far bigger mistake.

In Matheson’s novel, the vampire horde that has overtaken the world in the wake of humanity is described as being more or less humanoid in appearance. Director Francis Lawrence, for some reason, decided to bring these creatures to life entirely with CG, imagining them as a horde of scurrying, bald people with distractingly mobile jaws.

For the most part, there doesn’t appear to be any specific reason why heavily made-up actors couldn’t have achieved many of the shots seen in the film, since they look pretty much like ordinary people anyway, albeit ordinary people with skin problems and terminal hair loss.

There was talk, at the time I Am Legend came out in 2007, that normal actors had been tested for the film, but Lawrence simply wasn’t happy with their appearance or movements. The result is one of the great what-if scenarios in cinema – just how much better could the film have been had Lawrence opted for actors instead of computer graphics? Its compromised ending aside, I Am Legend was a well shot and acted film, and where CG was used to depict the decay of a post-apocalyptic New York, the results were sometimes stunning.

What a shame, then, to populate the film with creatures whose appearance is so distractingly digital. I still remember seeing them for the first time in the cinema, and the effect was like someone firing a starting pistol while you’re far off in a daydream. I was suddenly reminded that I was merely sitting in a cinema, watching a sci-fi action movie.

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At the very least, I Am Legend serves as a useful warning to other directors looking to integrate digital effects with live-action footage – used sparingly and with skill, the possibilities of CG really are endless. But mishandled or misapplied, they can sometimes have an effect that’s entirely opposite to the one intended.

Some three years on from the release of that film, some footage has emerged that gives us a tantalising glimpse of just what I Am Legend could have looked like had Lawrence gone for practical effects instead of CG. Arriving via io9, the test reel below shows some of Steve Johnson’s suggested latex effects for the infected horde in I Am Legend.

Even seen in isolation from the finished film, it looks far more human and natural than the computer-generated monsters we ended up with, even with that telltale rubbery sheen in evidence. I can’t help looking at the footage and wondering what a different film I Am Legend might have been.

io9