Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I get much more credit [than I deserve] and I have to remind people, "no, no, that's real."

I first saw The Matrix at the Century 21 in San Jose. I didn't know what it was about, I just wanted to see a movie and I like Keanu Reeves. (Ever since Speed, I've like both him and Sandra Bullock.) As you might expect, the special effects blew my mind. The movie seems to have replaced Star Wars as the premiere example of taking special effects to a new level. But it wasn't just any special effects, it was computer special effects.

By the time The Matrix came out in 1999, everyone was pretty much aware of CGI. Jurassic Park and The Abyss led the pack in science fiction. But CGI was used in Father of the Bride, Mortal Combat, The American President, Titanic, and The Mask. The the exception of The Mask, the point of CGI was always touted about how "realistic" the effects looked. (The Mask was advertised as a live action cartoon, clearly the point of CGI in that case was to give a cartoony, not realistic, look.)

So what is realism? Something is realistic when the viewer can imagine that the scene was filmed without any kind of trickery. The irony is that people don't always know what a real photograph of the depicted event. A good example is Jurassic Park. We have no clue what the skin color of actual dinosaurs was. Yet the coloring of the dinosaurs in the movie looked realistic to me. Explosions are an other thing. As a dedicated viewer of Mythbusters, I've learned that real explosions aren't as fireball heavy as Hollywood would have us believe. Yet, I've often seen an explosion that seemed realistic to me even though what I was looking at was a fire, not really an explosion.

We call the voluntary imagining of a camera filming something we know is imposible, the willing suspension of disbelief? And it's often considered a cornerstone of creating fantasy or science fiction stories. The audience, we are told, is only willing to make so many "buys" an episode or movie and if you push an audience member to far, they will stop suspending their disbelief. The act that caused them to be taken out of the movie, play, book, or tv episode will be criticized for forcing people out of the movie.

I think this idea comes from naturalism, the predominate style in American cinema. What we see on screen (or on stage as naturalism refers to the same phenomena in theater) is supposed to reflect what we would see in real life. This rule seems to be a firm today as neo classism was 200 years ago. (Neo classism had a lot of weird ideas that we wouldn't hold to today, like the three unities.) Naturalism has taken over though.

As you might imagine, this became a problem when science fiction became an extremely popular genere. How, filmakes must have wondered, can you make things seem real when they don't exist? Fortunately, people like George Lucas were working the problem. The used space design concept he used in Star Wars (also one of the main reasons the genere is so popular) is pretty much a textbook example.

Every Solution Breeds New Problems

Unfortunately, we've ran into a problem with this solution. We know for a fact that nothing like a lightsaber exists on this planet. We know people can't bend back at a right angle with nothing to support themselves and dodge bullets. This isn't a secret. Now, the key word in the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" is the willing part. The audience is clearly willing to watch a story where people do things that are impossible, or filmakers would have stopped making them. And I'm not going to quibble it. What I do quibble with is the "suspension of disbelief" part. Frankly, if you know something is impossible, you don't suspend your disbelief to watch the movie. You don't really believe a man can fly for two hours, you just care that it's impossible.

When I hear people talk about CGI, it's often to disparage the special effects in the movie or tv show they had watched. The bad CGI, I'm told, takes them out of the movie. It crushes their suspension of disbelief. I think this is simply a way to make the fact you don't like a movie sound objective. "See, it's not that I'm disliking it for no reason, I have an objective pice of criteria that backs-up why I don't like it.

I've always disagreed with this idea. Back when I was in college studying theater, professors often told us that they were being taught how to express our feelings. We had back-up what we said with examples from the movie. This was usually an exercise in crap. The formula to getting a good grade on these assignment was easy, agree with the professor. Professor, having once been students themselves, know this and try not to let their opinions leak out. This is often impossible, and smart students catch on. Some professors, wrongly, believed that the requirement to back-up your assertion with examples from the work being discussed allowed them to be objective. The problem, of course, is that if you disagreed with the professor you need less proof than someone who agrees with them.

Good CGI/Bad CGI

So what happens is that commentators and critics talk about good CGI and bad CGI. If the CGI is good, the movie is usually good. (Or, the highest complement is usually something like "I didn't even notice the CGI it was so good.") If, however, they disliked the CGI, the movie was bad. I can't think of an instance where a critic or reviewer said the CGI sucked, but the movie was good. I can think of the reverse: the CGI was great, but the movie sucked, but not the other way around.

I think this is just rationalization. My evidence, such that it is, is the fact that the audience can't always tell when something is CGI, and when it is not. I first became aware of this back when I was listening to the commentary on The Matrix DVD. The Matrix was the first DVD I bought for my first DVD player, a PS2. During the commentary, John Gaeta, the visual effects supervisor says the following during the scene where Neo is flushes out of the vats in the real world and picked-up by the Nebakanezer:

"Time and time again people come up to me and they go wow there's like all these...there's so many special effects where like uh you you you move Carrie and uh Keanu and Laurence around um with amazing you know digital effects, and this that and the thing. And they recite all these shots which aren't visual effects. It happens all the time. And the amazing thing about that is uh the uh stunts are in many ways so complicated, so more over the top than traditional American stunts that people don't believe that they're not done with digital assists. And I constantly get hounded about, I get much more credit and I have to remind people, "no, no, that's real."

I tried to keep the transcription as close to what he said as possible, keeping the ums and uhs so as not to seem like I'm selectively editing him.

Anyways, I find his words fascinating. But I don't agree with his explanation, that the stunts or wire work is so amazing that people don't believe it's not CGI. At least, I don't believe that's the explanation for other movies where this happens. For example, when it comes to Star Wars, I think Lucas's reputation proceeds him. People just automatically assume everything is CGI. Take the following from Roger Ebert's website at the Chicago Sun-Times. There Mr. Olson told Ebert that:

Despite all the blustering about digital effects versus practical effects, the dirty little secret that no one wants you to know is that both 'The Phantom Menace' and 'Attack of the Clones' are THE two biggest model (miniature) shows in the history of filmmaking. Hands down. Each of those great 2,000-plus CGI effects shots you say look better in DLP are in fact sometimes populated with dozens of practical miniatures, just like in the original trilogy of films. Please don't sully the names of hundreds of talented individuals who work very hard on these films in many new and time-honored ways. Some of these individuals are in fact the same people who worked on the original films.

What's truly interesting about this is that the quote is proceeded by someone basically saying that the new crop of Star Wars movies are the equivalent of Toy Story or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Never mind the huge swaths of live action in the movies. Whole scenes playing with no CGI characters, for minutes. Nope, it has Jar Jar in it, it must be burned and Lucas is a heretic. What's really interesting is that Rheinschmidt seems to have forgotten that Yoda was often derided as a muppet at the time of the Empire and while the consensus now is that he's awesome, it was not always so. Also, I'm a little confused by the Spider-Man reference. As he read a Spider-Man comic? As he scene the movie? Animation seems like the best way to have Spider-Man swing around the city. What does he want? A muppet Spidey?

Back to Yoda for a moment. Roger mentions that many "people...resented the way Yoda was turned from a puppet who was a contemplative philosopher, into an action figure animated with CGI. I can't help but wonder if these people have though this through. Surely, no one though that Yoda was a pacifist. He told Luke that he had to kill his own father. He trained Luke how to use a lightsaber. Yoda was pointed out as a paragon among Jedi. What did people think? That Yoda was great at every aspect of being a Jedi but the one thing they're most known for: kicking ass with a laser sword?

I think the answer to that last question is is "yes." Back when I was playing the Star Wars CCG from Decipher, I was listening to one of the designers talke about they were going to divide the Jedi into two kinds, those who focused on the kickass and those who didn't. (I'm sure those weren't his exact words, it's been over 10 years and I've slept since then.) For example, the presenter said, Yoda hasn't been seen using a lightsaber. But rather than chalking it up to people simply having an alternate character interpretation, the CGI gets criticized. Presumably because the people writing to Ebert assume that muppets are incapable of action scenes.

While I'm at it. Let's talk about Sex and the City 2. I haven't seen it yet, but I was watching an interview on The Daily Show with Michael Patrick King, the movie's writer and director. He said in the interview that the scene where the girls are riding camels in the desert was filmed at the same location Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. He repeated this factoid in a bit called 60 Seconds with Michael Patrick King on Cinimax recently. So what's the point? Roger Ebert doesn't like the movie and he says in his review of the movie "[Morocco] supplies magnificent desert scenes, achieved with CGI, I assume, during which two of the girls fall off a camel." Why does he assume it was achieved with CGI when he know the movie was filmed on location in Morocco? I sometimes wonder if it's required to bring up CGI when you complain about a movie now.

Death of the Critic

I don't mean to imply or outright state that there a no objective criteria which one can evaluate a movie. I think there is. As a theater major, I'm required to believe this. It's in the handbook. However, I'm not convinced using objective criteria as evidence to back up why a writer dislike something is a good idea. It almost sounds like snobbery. I.e., that only a person not knowledgeable about cinema would like this movie because there are objective reasons to dislike it. Rather, I think a person can objectively write about a movie (or a play, as I'm duty bound to point out) but doesn't have say anything about how good the movie is.

Lets take The Matrix, so much has been written about it, I doubt I could contribute anything new. But I think is possible to look at a shot, whether or not it includes CGI, and look at what information is conveyed to the audience in that shot. The cig in the shot, would contribute to the information the audience receives in the same way the cloths on the actor, the business the actor does, and the scenery in the shot. This is much more useful to that simply saying "such and such was done with CGI" and then using the mere existence of CGI as evidence of the writer's point.

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