Classic SPT: We Are Spirits Living in a Rendered World

Jack Sully sure looks real, but that thing in the tube behind him feels a little... blue? Couldn't resist.

Another Classic Still Playing with Toys blog from all the way back on January 8, 2010. In a further effort to preserve some of the more memorable articles from the past, here now is a little blog on thoughts of CGI and its impact on the film biz from the wayback machine which still feels relevant toward my feelings of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film... Enjoy.

It's okay; I can hear your groans all the way through the interwebs... someone else spewing about how CGI has ruined movies, like we haven't heard that before. But, especially after watching a few twenty to thirty year old movies over the Christmas Break, it continues to be clear to me that movies have completely lost a sense of peril after the advent of CG effects. Oh, and movies have people falling uncontrollably through the air a whole lot more than they used to...

I'm still in a pretty grim mood from seeing Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol... and I saw the movie almost two months ago. You know the old adage that less is more? I really think it needs to be printed to the top of every computer monitor in Hollywood.

But let me rewind a second, I'm jumping completely ahead of myself here...


Marty McFly is stuck at a hand-painted starting line, while Doc Brown hangs perilously from the hands of the Clocktower. My palms are sweating; I'm engaged and genuinely concerned for both of these characters simultaneously. Doc confidently gets an idea and wraps the cable around the clock's minute hand, while Marty slams his head against the steering wheel in frustration... and the car mysteriously starts. Doc heroically ziplines down the cable and into the bushes - the audience cheers. The hamster running the wheel inside my brain informs me that this is awesome and I smile...

Twenty-odd years later, I'm sitting in the theater and Scrooge is falling through the air (again) hitting icicles, bails of hay, and all these other completely inhuman acts that would otherwise kill a spry teenager let alone a frail old miser. This old dude could (and should) be paste on the cobblestone streets. And, frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.

He's completely CG. He has no weight or tangibility to him. Let me set aside the fact that the story is such a mess that I don't care about him or his redemption in the first place, but I'm not engaged and I definitely am not concerned for him. Why should I be? When he hits something he's going to bounce back up like he's Gumby (dammit). My palms aren't sweating because it's abundantly clear that what I'm viewing isn't real, and it's animation that's attempting to look real, which further confuses that hamster on the wheel. 

As I was sitting watching Jurassic Park for the millionth time, I found myself wondering why I cared so much for the characters in this CG world. Why Jurassic Park, a movie made in the digital age, still made me feel like the films that were made photo chemically. 

I love the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, but Kirk on the ice planet getting chased by generic Cloverfield monster number twelve that we've seen CG animated doesn't get the same chemical and emotional reaction from me as the heroes in the gas powered Jeep being chased by the T-Rex ("Must go faster, must go faster..."). 


Richard Kimbel stands at the edge of a seemingly bottom-less reservoir and looks down - and I feel vertigo right there with him. But Jake Sully falling off the edge of a floating mountain tied to a winged beast doesn't elicit the same response.


Marty McFly, on his skateboard, latches onto a pickup truck and wheels through the streets of the city and waves to all the passers by and I immediately think, "I want to do that." But Scrooge attaches to the back of a horse-drawn buggy on a fully rendered (and obvious homage to McFly's mode of transportation) and skids through the streets and my reaction is a whole-hearted "meh, whatever."


I wish I knew. 

Sure, I'd bet that the most prevalent and probably winning argument out there would be that I experienced the former examples for the first time at a younger age when things were new and exciting and I wasn't conditioned to all of these exhilarating moments and events. Maybe time and age has made me so cynical that I don't connect anymore and it's just something that I have to deal with. 

But then why do I feel warm-hearted when I'm watching a movie and something emotional happens? Why do I fight back tears when the main character deals with the death of his father? I obviously have the ability to continue to connect to the characters that I'm viewing on the screen when they're human, when they're real. 

I get choked up at the end of Wall-E and at the beginning of Up... they're fully animated, so it can't be that I'm completely averse to computer generated imagery. But wait, Wall-E - a task-driven robot from the grim future is human, likable, I'm concerned for him and care about him. 

But wait, in the new Star Trek movie I connect with each and every character because they've exhibited signs of being human and I'm enjoying the ride - but the minute the hot pink snow monster starts chasing Kirk, I'm completely taken out of it. Is it because the threat doesn't seem tangible anymore? Because the monster is just a plot device of convenience rather than something that's been introduced ominously and built up to be something to fear?

Ah ha... perhaps that's it. To coin a phrase from the film I was watching that stimulated this internal conversation with myself, the filmmakers were so preoccupied with the fact that they could, they didn't stop to think if they should... 

That's great that we now have the ability in a 3D environment to have Jim Carrey fall through the Earth's inner atmosphere with his arms flailing and the clouds billowing around him. But is that really what A Christmas Carol is all about? It's incredibly perilous that Jake Sully is forced off a cliff with no means of stopping his decent, but I've been watching the CG characters climb two-mile high vines to get to that point without a care in the world, or without any effort being shown. It's obviously not that dangerous because nobody's really concerned. The threat isn't real.

CG is awesome, it's freed up a great deal of visionaries to fulfill their greatest fantasies... but if they lose sight that every human is not super human, that every creature does not need motivation, that the visual and not the story can express danger, fear, and emotion... then what's the point?  You can paint me a picture of a basketball and I'll look at it and go "hey, that looks pretty life-like, that's definitely a basketball," or you can be in the worst, foulest mood of your life and paint me a picture of a deflated basketball that's been worn and overused... and I'll definitely be able to tell the difference.

Because it'll make me feel something.