Friday, February 13, 2015

The Power of Pixels

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

Computer-Generated Imagery. CGI. For most people who make no secret of their disappointment for Episodes I-III, this is one of the biggest berserk buttons. The prevailing theory is that I-III lacked “soul” and “energy,” because they eschewed practical elbow-grease for flashy computers for all their visual effects.

"You mean they didn't get a few hundred extras with dinosaurs?"

Of course, this attitude is complete and utter bantha poodoo. I myself have written two  – count ‘em, TWO – articles about the sheer number of practical special and visual effects that the three films employed, the second with photo evidence, and many others have thankfully been jumping on this bandwagon in the wake of JJ Abrams’ calculated mentioning of practical in the lead-up to the newest film. The truth is, just as with IV-VI, Lucas and his teams used every tool at their disposal and even invented a few to bring us the best films they possibly could.

And yet, the attitude still prevails, because no matter what way you slice it, CGI was in fact used extensively in I-III and featured prominently. Proving that practical effects and elements were used just as much if not more is only half the battle, and my mistake has largely been paying only lip service to the other half:

The fact that CGI is not in any way, shape, or form a BAD thing.

"Computers WILL do fine..."

CGI is a tool. If done right, it’s a very effective tool. Now, there are times when CGI is misused. We all know what bad CGI looks like. And it may be an overused tool, especially in the realm of animated features.

But the CGI in Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III? Not bad by a long shot.

I’ve always viewed the CG used in I-III to the general visual effects in IV-VI. Phantom Menace and New Hope were truly groundbreaking. Empire and Clones were still impressive, but not as much as the techniques were more readily available. Jedi and Sith were well-done, but baseline for the time and no longer as innovative in that respect.  

And that, to me, is where the hypocrisy in this sentiment is so evident. Phantom Menace set a standard for CG visual effects in fantasy/science fiction blockbusters that almost every movie in that genre has enjoyed in the sixteen years since, and the only complaints on any with comparable quality and saturation that I’ve heard being even close to what we got with I-III was from the first Hobbit film a few years back – interestingly another long-awaited prequel to a successful film franchise that was a bit more lighthearted on its surface compared to what preceded and followed it. It’s also sad to me because Gollum, the gold standard on photorealistic CG performances and motion-capture, looked ten times more real in Unexpected Journey than in all his previous incarnations.

"We never told it what happened to its father. Didn't we kill its father, Precious? No, we IS its father! That's not true, Precious, it's impossible. SHUT UP!"

As much as Gollum should rightly be considered a benchmark for visual effects, the characters in Phantom Menace should be given credit for the most realistic CGI since the dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park. By that I mean, while they may not have had the photorealistic translucent skin of Gollum, they had a real weight to them. I felt like I could reach out and touch them, and feel that texture. Watto may have looked like a Muppet, but he looked like he was there with Liam Neeson. The same goes with Jar Jar and Sebulba, at least in 90% of shots – nothing’s perfect, and this was pushing the envelope at the time.

"After this scene I had to wash my hands with heavy duty soap to scrape away to adhesive. We also had to bleach the plates."

But it surprised me the last time I watched the film how the characters were better integrated into their environments than even I had previously remembered. The lighting and textures were more spot-on than anything in the intervening years between it and the Park. And though few will outright admit it, filmmakers have been impressed enough to copy and try to top Phantom’s success with its creatures – and in my mind only Weta Digital’s work has improved what ILM accomplished on JP and I-III with its work on the Middle-Earth films, King Kong, and Avatar.

So the more I hear someone complain about the CG in I-III and turn around and praise something like Guardians of the Galaxy which is, again, of comparable quality and saturation to Phantom Menace (a film fifteen years its senior, by the way), it becomes clear to me that CGI is yet another scapegoat. The same with the dialogue, story, and performances, all of which are easily comparable to 90% of the most popular “geek” films since the movie that was once simply Star Wars blazed across the silver screen shy of four decades ago. Will the haterbase ever realize that, rather than anything Lucas and his team did, the reason they don’t connect with I-III is something more personal and subjective? Alas, the self-unaware will always be a factor. One can only hope that the influx of young adults for whom I-III WAS their life-changing film experiences will soon overwhelm those who are still stuck in the early 1980’s. Then, perhaps, history will be kinder to these true marvels of filmmaking.

"Bring it!"


  1. Yeah, for all people lambast TPM it's IMO far and away the best-looking of the prequels, and integrates the CGI and practical extraordinarily effectively (it helps that it's the only one shot on film as well, which is probably why the lighting and such that you mention looks so spot on).

    For me, it's when the CGI starts to replace sets that I get somewhat weary. I'd have to double-check my behind the scenes sources to check (so I could very well be wrong here), but IIRC TPM uses a lot more physical locations and sets than the later films, and there are times when it shows--I'm thinking primarily stuff like the Jedi Council chambers in AotC, which at times look awfully pasted-together and poorly integrated.

    I think it's mostly just I've always viewed CGI at its most effective when it's used primarily as "visual effects" rather than "special effects" (the former referring to effects done in post, the latter ones done in-camera)--so the modern-day versions of matte paintings, backscreen projections, bluescreen, etc., etc. And then of course it's immensely useful in realizing creations that would either be outright impossible or extremely impractical to realize in real life--it's difficult to imagine things like Sebulba, Gollum, or Dobby working at all well as practical effects. But there's a line to it, as there is with most things. Sometimes I do think SW crosses it, and sometimes egregiously. But it's foolish to just out-and-out dismiss CGI as a tool outright, and doing so I think misunderstands the practicalities of working in film in the first place.

    1. I will say that digital is a double-edged sword when it comes to effects. The crisper picture only makes things more obvious.

      But at the same time, I do commend Lucas for pushing a new technology to its limits. And even when it wasn't perfect, I've still seen much worse.

      And, yes, one of the reasons Phantom is my favorite is simply because it's one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen.

      Other than that, I have to say I found your comment very refreshing.

    2. To be honest, for myself Revenge of the Sith is the prequel that best integrates all of the various effects techniques which had been developed in the previous pictures, and are now being employed to tell it's story.

      Menace pushes the envelope in terms of volume and scale, and Clones makes advances in terms of inserting live action elements into fully realized digital environments (with mixed, if largely positive results), but it's in Sith that it all really gets perfected, and feels truly seamless, particularly as regards the digital environments.

      Personally, I'm yet to see a motion picture as audaciously inventive in terms of visual effects, since the Star Wars prequels wrapped up, even Avatar is just utilizing advances made by it's predecessors. What it does simply isn't possible without the work done by ILM in integrating live actors with digital environs, and the fact that that work has not only been disregarded, but lambasted, is utterly criminal.

      The prequels look great, and if they might go further than the capabilities of the technology on occasion (but only on occasion), I find that infinitely preferable to the alternative of not making the push at all. If that means that Clones' scene in the Jedi Temple isn't 'quite' convincing, if it's only serviceable, then so be it. That's how advances are made.

  2. To be fair, the specific scene that T. Hartwell brought up (the council chambers in AOTC) does look a little dated and out of focus to my eyes. That scene, however, is the only scene where I find the CGI distracting. There's a great thread on TFN about sets and practical effects in the prequels, and when you look at all the photo evidence, CGI replaced actual sets pretty rarely. The presence of CGI is really neither here nor there for me, as it's not like the effects of the originals hold up perfectly either. Every time I watch TESB, I can easily tell that the dark blue-violet background in the carbon freezing chamber is a matte painting and the tauntauns are clearly animatronic models controlled off-camera, same with the rancor in ROTJ. So I give the effects in both trilogies the same conclusion: They do exactly what they're supposed to do: create different worlds and creatures in a galaxy far, far away. And I can clearly tell that they are special and visual effects, simply because none of the aliens in any of the movies exist on Earth, and there's obviously no such place as Coruscant, Kamino, or Cloud City to actually film at. My point is, CG or not, it's still, just like Camelot in HOLY GRAIL, "only a model!" But it's a model that, for the most part, holds up really well and expands the possibilities in this fantasy universe.

    1. I agree. And I was very surprised to learn while doing my practical article research that many environments that even I thought were CG were in fact practical models.

      However, this article is about praising the CG that IS there.

    2. And I mean, I should clarify that my issue isn't one of wanting effects to be realistic or not being able to tell what effect does what--in that regard I *completely* agree with the last statement. As a forumposter once remarked when someone was commenting how obvious it was the Tauntauns were stop motion, "you lookin' for realism in your space opera?"

      My issue is more one of aesthetics--generally (and there are obvious exceptions here), bad practical effects tend to still *look* fairly pleasing, whereas bad visual effects just look *awful*. And it's not even something that's limited to CGI, though I've noticed as a general point computer effects age remarkably fast. But like I said, there's a line to it, and to SW's credit even when I feel inundated with visual effects, they're generally of a pretty high standard. As you would expect from a company like ILM.

    3. Absolutely, and different people will react differently to things. People just need to be careful to consider how much of their reaction to something is their own preferences and points of view.

    4. Oh, btw, apropos of nothing, have you had the chance to see Jupiter Ascending? Talk of effects got me thinking of it--it's a crazy bonkers and unapologetic homage to old pulp sci-fi serials with some seriously fantastic bits and bobs. You'd love it.

    5. I wouldn't mind checking that one out sometime. It's depressingly rare that I can afford movies these days, so we save it for the most important stuff, but I still miss out on a lot.

      That reminds me, I'm overdue for a write-up on the most recent one I saw, which was a last-second tagalong with my parents.