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With the summer releases of Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets and War For The Planet Of The Apes it has become clear that our popcorn flicks are relying more and more upon the amazing technology available within the industry today.
The CGI in both films are visually stunning and deserve all the accolades they have earned. However, there is a stark difference between the latest space opera from Luc Besson and the third instalment of the Ape franchise, which centres upon Andy Serkis’s Caesar. Whilst Besson’s impending commercial flop, used it’s CGI to give audiences visuals they had never seen before, Matt Reeves’s War For The Planet Of The Apes, used its motion capture technology and state of the art equipment to tell a story that could be told in no other way. Whilst one focused on bright aliens and an expansive world, the other aided and abetted the emotional performances of its cast; its visual effects becoming a means to better telling the narrative arc of the primate protagonists.
With all this in mind I turned to previous CGI-fests and their practical effects counter-parts, asking the simple question, do visual effects weaken the quality of our blockbusters?
When Visual Effects Aid A Story
Much like War For The Planet Of The Apes, there are numerous examples of visual effects aiding the story telling of our big screen adventures. Disney’s mission to reboot many of its animated features with CGI remakes have been to mixed results; although both Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass were weakened by their overuse of the tech-magic, Beauty And The Beast and The Jungle Book, both benefited from their imaginative retellings, with the latter seeing a vast improvement upon it’s xerography animated predecessor. With the current development by Jon Favreau of The Lion King in a CGI retelling, it is clear that this technique of rebooting old animated features through visual effects provides a fresh take for the movie going audience to enjoy. It allows not only for old storytelling flaws to be improved upon but also updates the narratives for a modern generation; a fine use of visual effects helping to improve upon the quality of our blockbusters.
CGI has found another use recently, in telling stories that could not possibly be told through pratical means, specifically when it comes to space. Both Interstellar and Gravity are prime examples of visual effects being used to the films advantage, with vast breathtaking nature of space and the build up of tension that both perform beautifully. In either instalment of a spacecraft going wrong, film lovers are on the edge of their seats, with visual techniques that can only be achieved through a computer. With 10 academy award nominations for Gravity and 5 for Interstellar, it is clear that the industry as a whole appreciated the bold step forward that Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan took, to bring a whole new narrative experience to our screens.
When Visuals Harm A Story
Of course, for every Interstellar there is an Avatar, visually stunning but from a narrative perspective, weak. For every Jungle Book, there is a John Carter Of Mars, a film so lacking in any coherent of even good narrative, that Disney have tried to erase it from their record ever since. These films along with Jupiter Ascending, Speed Racer and the Transformers franchise as well as countless others, bombard our senses with colour, rubbery aliens and a vomit fest of visuals. Just because it looks good doesn’t mean it is good. Sometimes the CGI is so horrible that it can ruin a beloved blockbuster series that fans had been anticipating for years; looking at you Peter Jackson/George Lucas (I’ll allow you to choose who the biggest offender is). So whilst some may enjoy Tron: Legacy for its imaginative world, or the Phantom Menace for the feeling of nostalgia that it gives them, CGI and visual effects can create a lot of headaches for the general viewing audience and really weaken the narrative and sometimes visual quality of our blockbusters.
Practical Effects Are Still…. Effective
Some have found a solution to this epidemic of glossy heroes and fake looking villains. The art of practical effects has not been left to die like so many believe. Mad Max: Fury Road is in my opinion, one of the best action films of the last ten 10 years. It used visual effects sparingly, with George Miller only allowing their usage to enhance in camera practical effects. The results of this are not only an attention to detail that many CGI films lack, but also a feeling of brutal reality that cannot be achieved through a computer screen. Blending both old and new techniques allow for the best possible film experience with the application of the greatest tools from throughout the industry to create a visual and narrative masterpiece. Many directors have started to turn to practical effects more in their work, J.J. Abrams learning from Lucas’s mistakes in Star Wars The Force Awakens as one such example.
To improve upon the technological developments of our century, we need to turn to our film past to truly make the most of the tools at our disposal. Visual effects may be weakening both the narrative and sometimes the visuals of our blockbusters, but with the use of practical effects, CGI has a very important place in the industry. Whilst films such as Life Of Pi, benefit hugely from the use of a computer, I believe visual effects are at their best in blockbusters when they are used to support in camera, practical footage.