Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Backlash Against Computer Generated Imagery

N.B. I have not corrected any of the quotes in this piece for spelling or grammar. They are mostly culled from the comments section of this article in The Guardian and, as is common for comments they are posted in a very stream of consciousness fashion with little proof-reading. Please imagine your own (sic) throughout.

"Now I should point out before we begin that I have major, major issues with digital effects. I had to go through several months of counselling after witnessing the sight of Jabba the Hut digitally recreated and superimposed onto a previously deleted scene in the "updated" version of the first Star Wars film (I refuse to refer to it as A New Hope). And I haven't yet seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but plan to keep things that way after viewing the trailer, which features a Spanish Armada rendered completely devoid of grandeur and menace through the use of CGI.
"Frankly, I would happily see a blanket ban on all digital effects in film, tomorrow. Imagine if science fiction movie makers had to use their ingenuity again when depicting spaceships and monsters (as in the original Alien). We might witness a return to the practice of using scale models, such as those in the original Star Wars films, which were 100 times more realistic than their CGI equivalents in George Lucas' rubbish triptych of prequels." - Ben Child writing in The Guardian

For every well reasoned piece written about CGI there are a mountain demanding a backlash. Most of these pieces and innumerable fora comments are targeted against computer generated visual effects and this week came the call, albeit tongue in cheek, for all CGI to be banned. There seem to be two strands to the complaint. The first is that films with visual effects are aesthetically inferior to those without. This argument is generally couched in terms like "not real" or "fake looking". This is a complaint about the actual imagery produced. The second line of attack comes against the processes themselves and those who use them. Digital effects are created by "boffins" rather than artists and they are made "by a computer", the implication being that no human effort or talent has been expended in their production. Directors are lambasted for resorting to digital trickery rather than using ingenuity and talent as previous generations had.

Before examining the state of digital visual effects it is perhaps worth looking at what qualities are lauded by these critics and therefore, by extension, what CGI apparently lacks. The over-riding concern seems to be one of ingenuity and craft. The hand-crafted models in the 1977 version of Star Wars are regarded more highly than the digital creations in Revenge of the Sith. The question is why? Are they more realistic? This is a very loaded question. Realism is a slippery beast. Is the complaint that, if the film-makers were to construct full size examples of these ships, put them into orbit and photograph them and then compared that footage with a CGI version and a traditional model, the model would more closely resemble the real plate? That is a tough question to answer objectively in this instance. We can however compare the huge amount of virtual set work done using CGI where a digital element takes over from a practical set. Take the exterior of Newark Airport in United 93. This and every aircraft exterior was created digitally, apparently without complaint. If therefore, digital effects artists were able to create, with scientific precision, an object would that then be acceptable or is there more subjectivity at work here?

When Troy was released, complaints were raised in some corners that the ships in the Greek armada had too tiny wakes and almost no bow-wave, a sure sign they said of CGI trickery. A little nautical knowledge is a dangerous thing. The Greek penteconters upon which the CG armada was based were keel-less and had a very shallow draft. There is minimal surface contact between the boat and the sea because it is much harder to row a boat that sits deeply in the water, overcoming drag becomes exhausting and your crew mutinees. These ships create no wake at all, one can examine footage of the 'Olympias', the trireme (a much larger vessel) built for the Greek navy in the 1980s. When creating the effects for the film, the VFX team, of whom I was one, elected to put some wake in as we felt, artistically, it looked odd without them. Perhaps we did not add enough fakery to make the ships believable to that section of the audience. The bow waves were photographically sampled from a real penteconter and layered onto the CGI ships incidentally; they could not have been "more real". The difference between realism and believability is key. They are not synonymous. It is not "reality" that the opponents of CGI crave, it is a believability that they see modern films with digital effects lacking.

Believability of course implies "suspension of disbelief". Everyone, but the most credulous, is aware that fictional films are just that. The events portrayed did not occur. Looking at the mechanics of film-making we do not in reality see in a series of edited long-shots and close-ups. We however buy into their believability because of our continuous exposure to them from the first moment we are placed in front of a television as a tot. We absorb what these devices mean to the point where we no longer need consciously to decode them. Much as when reading a novel the experienced reader does not consciously decode the squiggles on a page into letters, process the assortment of letters into a word and then recall the meaning of that word - this happens subconsciously. We experience cinema similarly, there are tropes, conventions and stylistic choices we learn instantly to decode. Puppetry and model making fall into this category. We understand, certainly in the case of films we saw uncritically as children, the symbolism of the animated Talos in Jason and the Argonauts. Though beautifully animated what we see on screen in no way matches what a 100ft tall bronze giant would look or move like, but we learn how to read this image, how to understand it. We learn how to believe it, and images created in the same manner. Such is the depth of our immersion and our ability to believe in these narrative conventions that a journalist can write the following and no-one will pick him up for making an obviously fatuous statement that live-action films are "real":

"On the other hand, for a movie which features what should be appalling scenes of men having their heads bitten off and gently crunched by Grendel, perhaps the most hideous creature ever to be shown on the big screen, not to mention Angelina Jolie starkers, it somehow fails to really get the blood pumping. And I can't help feeling that's down to the fact that the use of CGI is less affecting than live film. If it's not real, why should we react to it as though it were?" - Ben Child

As we become older, more critical and sophisticated, this entrenched belief changes into a nostalgic familiarity for what we loved and responded to when younger. It is now the aesthetic we delight and believe in. The more familiar the trope, the easier it is for an audience to become immersed. To use the literary analogy once more; if, whilst reading a novel, we come across a word we do not understand we are immediately jolted out of the narrative, the artifice of the literary form laid bare in front of us. This is the problem that CGI has to overcome. For those of an age to post on the Guardian website, CGI effects have come after childhood. There is no deeply ingrained way of decoding them. The only time they work for this audience is when they don't notice them because they are so seamless. To put it crudely, this is why critics respond more harshly to imperfect CGI than they do to sub-par models or puppets, they have no inbuilt mechanism for subconsciously decoding what is happening on screen. The huge, sweeping "impossible" camera moves jolt for the same reason, they lie above our subliminal understanding. That these artificial camera moves are so often combined with CGI merely compounds the problem.

The natural reaction of people to something they don't like is blame. In the case of CGI that blame is generally aimed in two directions, the film's directors and those who actually do the work. Directors are blamed for being "lazy" and visual effects professionals are either labelled "boffins" (another way of saying, in the popular lingo, not artistic or creative) or irrelevant because the effects are created by a computer not a person. This is not as complex an issue to understand as the reaction of an audience to what they see on a screen. This is simply an issue of ignorance and misunderstanding.

Part of the problem is that the process of creating CGI is very complicated, full of acronyms and has a massive learning curve for anyone wanting to understand it. Most people have dabbled with a paint set at some point in their lives, even if only as a child. There is some knowledge therefore that creating a beautiful painting is difficult. We understand how it is done and most of us understand that we cannot do it as well as Rembrandt. The same can be said of puppetry or model-making. We can see that professionals do it so much better than most amateurs. Amongst the majority of consumers of cultural product there is a mannerist appreciation of difficultà or skill. Again from the Guardian comments:

"When it comes to special effects vs. real spectacle, let's be honest. Sometimes, we pay for the thrill of watching people do something difficult, perhaps dangerous or just really, really impressive." - BigBennyBoy

This is not new. John Donne, the poet and preacher, wrote in his "Sermons" (1649) about judging the quality and worth of a painting based on the technique of the artist thus:

"A picture without any drapery, any clothes about much a harder thing, and there is much more art showed in making a naked picture, then in all the rich attire that can be put upon it".

If the average audience member believes that CGI is created by a machine without human input it is quite understandable that they would look upon it as an inferior art to that of a model-maker or painter. Even the term "Computer Generated Imagery" perpetuates this myth. I presume the term, "Artist Designed Computer Generated Image" was deemed too unwieldy. Just as a painter is not criticised for not making his or her own brushes and pigment, neither should the digital artist be lambasted for his or her choice of tool. Every digital effect is designed, described and planned by a human, or more often, a team of humans. Within 50ft of me there are painters, sculptors, animators, model-makers, graphic-designers, engineers, scientists and mathematicians. There will be many for whom the inclusion of the latter three under the heading of "creatives" will seem odd. Surely these are "boffins" so scathingly described thus:

"I actually don't think it's the technology that's to blame. It's the folk that 'use' it...the boffins that harness the tools, are blinded by the possibilities; instead of an artist with a vision we get a gadget obsessed dad in front of a flat an HD TV fiddling with the controls and marveling at the apparent improvement in quality.
I don't think they're is anything wrong with CGI or any digital technology, it's just the people of a certain age and temperament that get very aroused - possibly sexually - by the lengths that can be reached, exaggerated, spoiled, overdone, and polished to an unnatural sheen when working in this field.
Boffins are to blame. You have boffins making films. All should be controlled by the director." - francaisenyc

This comment suggests that those with technical skill must de-facto have no artistic ability, or to put it another way, they are not creative. It is a huge failing of our society that mathematics, engineering and computer programming are not seen as creative disciplines, quite the opposite in fact. When one actually examines them it becomes increasingly apparent that they are deeply creative, but it requires a certain basic level of understanding to appreciate it. If one is illiterate then there is no beauty to a novel. We do not however argue that because there are people who are illiterate that the novel is an invalid art-form; we instead suggest that they should perhaps learn to read. Appreciation of any art-form or culturally creative endeavour requires an investment of intellect and time from the audience. Films and TV are absorbed from an incredibly early age, reading comes a little later. To understand the basic principles of computer programming, mathematics or engineering takes effort and time; if one does not spend that time it is unsurprising that looking at the results of these disciplines is unrewarding and perhaps challenging, maybe even an affront. A computer programme can be a very beautiful thing indeed. When its output is an image of delicate complexity and depth it has an additional level of aesthetic quality that even those without an understanding of programming can appreciate. One comment from the Guardian piece writes:

"The wonder of film was in seeing the smoke of the train coming into the station, the rustle of the leaves in the trees. There's nothing wrong with faking these things - the broiling, rolling seastorm in Pinocchio is an artistic achievemennt of the highest order - but when you fake it with algorithms you simply throw away the mysterious germ of truth in film" - ruskin

I am unsure precisely what point is being made here. In reality smoke moves in a mathematically describable way, as do the leaves on trees, these are the laws of physics. A sophisticated piece of fluid dynamics software in the hands of a technically savvy artist can produce utterly beautiful, convincing results. The smoke can be controlled to behave in a fantastical fashion (wizards apparating in Harry Potter) or to mimic reality incredibly closely. For example, the smoke, along with the towers and debris in World Trade Center was created digitally for obvious reasons. The "mysterious germ of truth in film" sounds to me like a pseud's way of describing nostalgia once again mixed with a great deal of ignorance of the processes that are involved in CGI's creation, either in reality or in simulation.

So, seemingly, it all comes down to familiarity and comfort. Children emerging from any of the Star Wars prequels had the same expression of magical delight on their faces as I did seeing The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi in the 1980s. For this new generation, the current debate on CGI will seem archaic and incomprehensible. In 1929 The American Federation of Musicians ran a series of press advertisements following the introduction of "fake" (pre-recorded) music into films:

"This is the case of Art vs. Mechanical Music in theatres. The defendant stands accused in front of the American people of attempted corruption of musical appreciation and discouragement of musical education. Theatres in many cities are offering synchronised mechanical music as a substitute for Real Music. If the theatre-going public accepts this vitiation of its entertainment program a deplorable decline in the Art of Music is inevitable. Musical authorities know that the soul of the Art is lost in mechanisation. It cannot be otherwise because the quality of music is dependent on the mood of the artist, upon the human contact, without which the essence of intellectual stimulation and emotional rapture is lost."

The idea that someone could object to a recorded film score seems laughable now. In 30 years I believe we will see reprints of the piece from The Guardian being sniggered at in the same way.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your final quote on the end of live music in Cinemas , whilst superficially amusing and certainly overstated, actually cuts to the core of this and similar arguments.
I don't think I am alone in finding live ballet more enjoyable with a live orchestra, or a singer in front of a live band preferable to one singing to a pre-recorded backing track. Why? Because there is a conjunction between live and live - between the musicians and the artists creating simultaneously, a tenuous but real thread that still continues in the cinema.

I believe the real villain and the basis of our feelings of negativity about CGI is the akward conjunction of live actors and the artificial created by the blue (Green?) screen, and the manipulation of real actors into cartoon figures.
We all love cartoons and immediately suspend disbelieve, be they computer generated or hand-drawn. These have an honesty which transcends the medium, and a seamless quality between fake characters and fake action.

Actors on a set (real or staged) seem connected to it in a way that does not happen when they act in front of a blue screen. We can accept this in situations like a Superman movie, because we 'know'it is fake - a modern piece of string holding up the actor - and let it pass, but when the whole film is similarly faked - what is the point anymore? There may be a wide gulf between real theatre and modern movies, but it is not so wide that we cannot make a human connection with the emotions of the actors. I am afraid that when we talk about 'boffins' it is really a polite way of saying that Heart is missing in their efforts, not creativity.
We pay actors big bucks because they have the rare ability to show their hearts to us, not because they are 'creative'. To be moved by a film we need to see the actors move emotionally, not mechanically!

This is why CGI cannot stand alone in films like Beowulf, but is fine as a prop in live-action films, as long as it doesn't engulf the actors.

5:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but to ignore the general malaise over CGI or try to pass it off as nostalgia for models and puppets seems misguided. There IS a big problem with how it's being used nowadays, and I think it stems from the assumption of the filmmakers that any of it looks real in the first place. It doesn't. But it gets flaunted as if it does. THAT is annoying.

12:27 am  
Blogger Fastrak said...

By trying to sell something that has already been sold the viewer's suspicions are raised.

I think many times the model based imagery of old was like a magician giving the audience a glimpse of his empty hands. It may be that only a glimpse was provided because they could not withstand real scrutiny, but this was accepted by the audience. Now, many modern CGI films focus on their effects, like the magician actually saying "Look, my hands are empty, I am not holding anything, I dont have anything up my sleeves". The audience now senses a challenge, becomes supercritical and may see subterfuge in even innocent actions.

Could the problem be that the modern director, confident that their illusions can withstand scrutiny, has lost some of the showmanship of days gone by?

6:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In defense of bad imagery?

I think you have overreacted to some very valid criticism. Many CGI shots suck. Much garbage is presented, in top budget exratvaganzas no-less, and they are seeking big profit for their sub-standard efforts.

By defining the criticism in straw man terms, you try to present the detractors as luddites, whose concern is simply nostalgia, therefore letting your ego avoid the real heart of the criticism.

Computers make it a lot easier to throw out tons of imagery that isn't natural, isn't anything approaching real, but programs make it easy and cheaper to do.

It is therefore naturally abused. And a lot of people who really shouldn't be at the controls are doing just fine pumping out crappy graphics for me to endure.

Not saying this describes you, so you needn't be so defensive.

The art is in its infancy, AND IT SHOWS A HELL OF A LOT.

I would almost always prefer the non-CGI version of an effect, if it can be done. If I can tell it was generated by a computer, then it failed. End of discussion.

Your portrayal of the younger generation as being more accepting of this substandard imagery (Star Wars 4 vs. Star Wars 1) may be true, or it may just be projection. I find it irrelevant. The art is progressing so fast, that the bad simplistic physics and generic type CGI we see today (and for the last 15 years) will soon be obsolete, replaced by much more convincing and realistic material. That is inevitable. Of course you know this, being in the business, so why the panties in a bunch?

5:49 am  

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