Special Feature: The bare necessities of CGI


One of the more unexpected by-products of the galaxy-wide discourse orbiting the new Star Wars film was widespread nostalgia for traditional effects. Cult film fans may say that they've spent years clamouring for the days of yore, but The Force Awakens brought the recognition hurtling into the mainstream that bigger CGI is not always better. Right from the off, Disney's marketing machine which was quick to place practical effects and rubber creature costumes front and centre of photos, footage and commentary. There remain a lot of computer graphics, but instead of being paraded around to draw the attention of the audience - a few computer-generated characters aside - they were employed to augment actual footage, aiding in the storytelling as well as igniting those iconic lightsabers. For many, this usage case is the nirvana of effects in cinema and several recent films have gone some way to repairing damage being done by green screen blockbusters filled with weightless interaction.

Forget convincing you that a man can fly - try convincing you that a man is being mauled by a bear. Better still, as in Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant, try shooting a bloody bear attack with such horrifying immediacy and ferocity that it is only after they've left the cinema that viewers wonder to themselves what was real and what wasn't. The sequence is one of the standouts of the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring thriller but not instantly because of its impressive CGI. Instead, the camera remains in close proximity as the bear - a mother protecting her cubs - gores the helpless hunter. In order to execute a scene such as this, the visuals must obviously be of an exceptional quality, but the animators also paid minute attention to the details of the scenario so that the bear was just another element of the frame, not its reason for being. They debated whether the bear's fur would be wet or dry, and how blood would appear on its body and maw. The result is a sequence of white-knuckle drama elevated by the surreptitious use of CGI.

This is also the case in George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. Once again, there are stand out moments of computational wizardry - such as the gargantuan sandstorm - but vast swathes of Fury Road were a combination of physical stunt work and touching up from digital designers. The Namib Desert didn't quite offer the range of scenery, or the stylised palette that Dr. Miller wanted for the film, so much work was done in post production to embellish that achieved by the crew on set. Similarly, the Jordanian Desert wasn't quite able to stand in exactly for the surface of the red planet in The Martian, so digital filters were applied to give the skies and surface a burnished tinge. In Fury Road, they deepen the colours and contrast to aid the frenzied hyper-reality. That all of the films mentioned are amongst the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards would suggest that the Hollywood establishment is also keen to see effects not used as a selling point that stands out like a sore thumb, but as another way to enhance the spectacle of mainstream cinema. And whether it be reddening a sky, shifting a palette to craft a memorable style, or attacking DiCaprio with a bear, it seems that much like a number of older technical elements of cinema, CGI technology is coming to the conclusion that less is undoubtedly more.

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