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I’ve finally gotten a chance to write a piece on something that’s been bugging me for some time: the lazy overuse of CGI in today’s movies.

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as CGI (computer-generated imagery). Gosh, movies sure must have been boring way back then, eh?

This particular raptor is an animatronic, not CGI.

I admit, CGI definitely has its place. It allows filmmakers to stretch their imaginations and put whatever they can dream up on the screen. However, this freedom is also their liability since a good number of directors lazily substitute potentially more realistic special effects with CGI. Why build a set when it would be cheaper to digitally replace a blue background with an image of the natural world outside, or the interior of a house or spaceship?

Sure, stop-motion animation and glass paintings and models weren’t (and still aren’t) totally convincing, but they are more appropriate in a real-world context. The CGI monster in Cloverfield looks real only because it’s set in a digital landscape from the point of view of a digital camcorder. But it can be hard to buy into a movie when every character in it is real except for a few (like most fantasy films). Those CGI creations can end up distracting the audience from the storyline.

And there are simply some things that CGI can’t recreate. The jitters of the puppets in a stop-motion animated film like The Nightmare Before Christmas would have a much different effect on its audience if the movie was completed with computer graphics rather than the painstaking work of moving characters frame-by-frame. Who would’ve guessed that the opening shot of Xanadu in Citizen Kane is a superbly rendered glass painting? Honestly, it looks more real than CGI can expect to. Georges Méliès’ films and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would not be nearly the same if they were done with a computer instead of miniatures.

German director Werner Herzog is known for showing real things happening rather than using special effects, and he always pulls off brilliant cinematic moments. The famous dancing chicken sequence in Stroszek, the scurrying rats in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, the towing of the 340-ton steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, and the hundreds of crabs on the rocks by the sea in Invincible are all simple shots and scenes, yet they carry an incredible dramatic weight as the audience realizes, “Wow. That’s real. He didn’t fake that.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater. Computer-generated special effects are necessary sometimes, and they can be wonderful creations. Jurassic Park alone is enough proof that CGI can work beautifully. But most action movies show that these special effects can also be abused, too. Who is dazzled anymore when Spiderman flies across the screen? Don’t we all just nod and think, “Hey, that’s pretty good CGI,” even though the fact that we recognize it reveals that it’s an example of bad CGI?

So even though fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, it’s usual more truth-telling. There’s just something about seeing something occurring on the screen and realizing it’s a true event. Don’t believe me? Go to the video store or library this week, rent a Herzog movie or documentary, and try to tell me I’m wrong.


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