When It Comes To CGI, Less Is More

By December 27, 2016
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The following opinion piece contains some spoilers for the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One. If this is a movie you haven’t seen yet, then check out the television show copyright criminals liked the most this past year.

You’ve heard of computer-generated images, right? Something we pretty much shorthand anymore to “CGI.”

Well, CGI and I actually share a birthday. In 1976, a major motion picture used computer animation for the first time when Futureworld – the sequel to 1973’s Westworld – featured a hand and face entirely created by computer.

No one really noticed, and even Futureworld director Richard T. Heffron likely had no clue how much CGI would become part of the entire visual entertainment world we now live in today in the 21st century.

It really is amazing how much CGI is used. Sure, it’s obvious in films like the Transformers series or even Star Trek, but it also can pop up almost anywhere. Several years ago, I was an extra in an independent film called Judas Kiss, sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper. It was a busy street in Seattle, complete with banners in front of stores advertising various wares.

A visual effects team went into those scenes after they were shot and effectively changed the words on the banner. They did it so well, someone had to tell me it had even been done.

Because of how amazing CGI is, I think sometimes all of us – including (and especially) filmmakers – forget how far we still have to go. And what sounded like a great idea on paper really wasn’t a great idea in practice.

Yes, I’m talking about the inclusion of Tarkin and Leia – originally played by Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher – in the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One. I mean, why not? If George Lucas could insert Jar Jar Binks and a whole host of CGI droids in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace all the way back in 1999, surely in 2016, we can completely recreate both late and aged actors using nothing more than a model and a computer.

Right?

Wrong. Whoever thought that including Tarkin and Leia this way was a good idea, well, I just hope that’s the worst decision they ever made. Because it’s really a bad one.

Yeah, CGI looks amazing. I’m excited about the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes because the entire main cast is nothing more than CGI creations.

However, it’s also easy to suspend our disbelief when it comes to those computer characters because we’re not putting them next to actual monkeys and apes.

If we did that, then it would become much harder to ignore the imperfections and artificiality that exists in characters like Andy Serkis’ Caesar, because they are right there in our face.

The same is true with human characters. Yep, Pixar can make humans look great – only as long as you don’t put them next to real humans inserted into the story. And I know what you’re thinking – Wall-e mixed both CGI and actual humans in that Pixar film. But remember, the CGI humans in that story were changed, thanks to being in space for so long and being, well, lazy.

The work on Tarkin was extraordinary, and if this were an animated film, I would be commending the people who did it. When I saw Rogue One, I was not aware how big of a role Tarkin would have, so when we saw him from the back originally and a nice reflection in the glass, I thought that was perfect.

Yet, Gareth Edwards couldn’t leave well enough alone. No, he had to not only give us full-facial Tarkin, but he mixed it with real-life actors, and suddenly it felt like I was watching a rough cut of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Later, we got to see Leia from behind, wearing that amazing set of white robes she donned at the beginning of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope. I’m not the praying type, but I was practically on my knees in the middle of the theater begging the movie gods to not have her turn around. Maybe a quick profile glance of her face and Fisher’s voice – that’s all we needed!

But no. We got full-facial Leia. And sadly, as skilled as the visual effects artists were on this film, there was just no way they could capture the beauty that is Carrie Fisher.

You’re reading this, and probably thinking, “Damn, he really hated Rogue One.” But that’s the thing – I didn’t. I really liked it, actually. I liked all the characters (even though I thought Saw Gerrera played by Forest Whitaker gave up way too easily in the end), and enjoyed the story a lot.

I had a good time watching it, and made me almost as happy as I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year.

But what ruined this film for me was Edwards missing the fact that less is more. Tarkin did not have to be a major character in this. If fans can’t tell Princess Leia from the back, then are they really fans?

And if Tarkin did have to be as major of a character as he was, why not simply recast the role? I mean, we recast Mon Mothma with actress Genevieve O’Reilly, who was just a young girl when Caroline Blakiston originated the role. Was it really such a sacrilege to do the same with Tarkin?

If it was, then serious consideration should’ve been made to downplay Tarkin’s role. Really, anyone could’ve played that role, and it would’ve worked well. Instead, I can’t even tell you what Tarkin was saying half the time, because to me, he stuck out like Dr. Manhattan’s big blue, um, Manhattan, swinging around in Watchmen.

Star Wars fans already have bad experiences with over-excessive CGI. If you don’t believe me, just look at how many fan clubs for Jar Jar Binks exist.

Futureworld got this right so many years ago. The CGI hand? Cool. The CGI head? Also cool. Was there a CGI Yul Brynner? No. And let’s hope Star Wars learns its lesson as we continue down the path of what could be a very busy film schedule for the franchise.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael began what has become nearly 19 years of entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based out of New York City where he is the editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in the Bronx.
  • John Ikarus

    You’re being too much of a perfectionist.