CGI & VFX: Organic and Mechanical Combine!

Many movies today rely heavily on the use of visual effects and CGI technology to create or enhance the story’s narrative. Some movies require substantially more digital aid than others. Films like Avatar and The Avengers couldn’t exist without the use of VFX or CGI, while movies like Lord of The Rings benefited through the balanced use of good location scouting, costume, and VFX & CGI. A good film requires a delicate fusion of all these processes, and not be over saturated with one.

In the third chapter of his book, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, Stephen Prince discusses the impact that CGI and Visual FX are having on the role of the actor. There is a justifiable fear within the film industry eventually actors will be totally replaced by computer generated actors. This notion is so prevalent amongst within the film community that there was actually a film, Andrew Niccol’s S1mone, which portrayed a film director who garners massive success and acclaim thanks to a digital actress he inherited from a mad scientist. Prince writes: “Simone represents the death of the actor and even of reality…” (Prince, 99).

I personally stand divided on the issue. Like Prince and David Fincher, I acknowledge the distinction between acting and performance. As Fincher aptly puts it, “Acting is what you do; the performance is the thing that you make from the acting.” (102). As a hopeful film director, I understand that it is my job to coax a performance out of the actor through my direction. However, neither my directing, nor the actor’s acting, cannot alone make a compelling performance. Performance occurs in a third space, an organic space that feeds off myriad creative energy present during a live shoot. I believe that inspiration can strike anytime from anywhere; in fact, many beloved and iconic movie scenes are totally ad-libbed or improvised, creating unique and irreproducible moments that make film feel less manufactured and more organic and magical.

Let’s use one of my all-time favorite movies as an example, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). Casablanca has so many good quotes. Among my favorites are “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” and of course “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time”. However, perhaps the movie’s most iconic line is every time Rick says “Here’s looking at you kid” and it was totally ad-libbed by the genius Marlon Brando. Apparently, Bogard utilized the phrase when teaching Ingrid Bergman to play poker in between takes.


However, while I do have mad respect for the preservation of the organic aspects of filmmaking, aspects which I maintain are irreplaceable and inimitable, I appreciate the engineered and manufactured aspect of cinema. Prince writes: “Actors provide the human element in cinema, a medium that otherwise is heavily dependent upon machinery for creating light and color and capturing images and sounds” (98). Additionally, one could argue that mise-en-scene, set design, color palettes, etc., are all engineered and editorialized of filmmaking; aspects which can be considered the analog equivalent of digital tools, before digital tools were as sophisticated as they are now.

Prince sees these types of mechanisms, both analog and digital, as falling under the term “acting”, which he defines as “the ostensive behavior that occurs on set to portray characters and story action” (102). Prince also has a unique perception of what defines “actor”. According to him, there are three ways in which an actor can exist within a digital universe.

 “They may be present as the live action component of composited shots (for example, Naomi Watts acting with King Kong). They may give a performance that is motion-captured for use in animating a digital character (for example, Andy Serkis as Gollum). The third condition is the most signifi cant and infl uential and the one that is perhaps the least obvious—the animator is an actor and works with the objectivity that an actor in live theater does not have” (103)

Motion capture, I believe, is the most equal blend of organic acting and technical assistance. Take for example the Lord of the Ring’s character, Gollum. Motion capture suits, like the one used for Lord of the Ring’s “Gollum”, tracks an actor’s movements. Instead of generating an entirely new character from scratch, with his speech, gestures, and movements being artificially created, the motion capture suit allows to track the actor’s movements, giving the VFX artists a basis from which to model the character’s movements from. This also helps prevent a character’s movements from being too unnatural and inhuman, adding to the film’s verisimilitude.


Gollum, aka Smeagol, aka Andy Serkis

The highest grossing film of all time, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), utilized intensive special effects and CGI that actually took nearly a decade to develop. The film is renowned for it’s stunning digital imagery, almost all of it being a form of CGI or VFX. James Cameron began developing in 1994 and had planned to release it in 2009, however, Cameron postponed production until the “necessary technology” that the film required was available. This means that Cameron understood that CGI & VFX were progressing and he capitalized on it with Avatar.

Check them N64 graphics in the bottom left, neat.

A less extreme example would Richard Linklater’s mind-bender A Scanner Darkly. This film he entire film was shot “normally” at first and then digitized to add the rotoscoping effect. Rotoscoping is the process of tracing images and overlaying them with differing textures and colors. Rotoscoping is in the middle; a midstep between normal live action footage and complete digital creation. A Scanner Darkly is evidence that movies don’t have to exclusively be CGI or live-action.

This is what happens when you take the Red AND Blue pill at the same time, Neo.

Prince’s discussion on the increasing prevalence of CGI and VFX within the world of cinema brings to mind a quote from one of my favorite directors, Orson Welles. Welles once said “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations”. However, shouldn’t we strive to make our tools of creation as powerful and limitless as our imaginations?

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