Posted on March 9, 2023 in Technology

Why Does it Feel Like CGI is Getting Worse?

CGI, or Computer-Generated Imagery, is exactly what it says on the tin. A lot more qualifies as CGI than you might think – even phone filters could be considered CGI. So why, when there’s so much of it, does so much of it look bad? Especially by theoretically multi-million-dollar movie studios? Have we passed its peak?

More of It

Firstly, there’s just more of it than there used to be. CGI was a sparing supplement, and usually pretty expensive, so painted mats, painting the film itself, and practical effects used to be the way to go. This wasn’t always ideal: practical effects are often expensive, and can be very frustrating for actors on-set! Dave Bautista’s Drax makeup (from Guardians of the Galaxy) could take two hours or more to put on. Jim Carrey’s Grinch was much the same. The process is so agonizing that it often takes special expertise to coach the actors through it until filming is done so they don’t literally go insane. To minimize the human suffering of the actors, CGI can be used in scenes where they’re not especially prominent, or where a scene may damage the makeup and they’re unwilling or unable to put in a double.

Even better, CGI allows for insane visuals that couldn’t be made with practical effects. The Mummy series features things that can’t be done with practical effects – scarab beetles, for example, don’t move as fast as the movie portrays, nor do they run in floods together. Huge sandstorms don’t exactly have human faces in them all the time either. 

Not to mention backgrounds! Where previous generations of moviemakers were forced to use painted mats and real sets, greenscreen technology has gotten so good that it’s almost difficult to tell when a movie is using a greenscreen as a background, given the background could be a real place and not outer space.

 CGI also opens the door for newer, more dangerous-looking stunts. Before, clever editing of the film would be necessary to make a larger-than-life stunt possible. Now there’s CGI! The end of John Wick 3 featured a sequence too dangerous for Keanu Reeves or a stunt double to perform, and so CGI was used to make it look like John Wick flopping around. CGI may win actors where stunt doubles don’t. While some admire Tom Cruise’s willingness to do his own stunts, others call it too risky. During the shooting for one of the more recent Mission Impossible movies, Cruise broke his ankle after landing a jump wrong. This delayed production, even though the release date wasn’t changed, and he revealed that his ankle still wasn’t quite right after the movie was completed. By saying the studio doesn’t want anyone doing a particular stunt, they may have convinced him to stop trying. Similarly, when animals are featured in movies, it’s unethical to put them in situations where they feel like they’re in danger because they don’t have the cognizance to know a stunt is just a stunt. A Dog’s Purpose rightfully got a lot of flack when it actually used the real dog actor in a simulated white-water river (simulated as in a fake river with real water) to get the shot. CGI animals may not always look the best, but it’s better than potentially traumatizing a real, living creature.

Overusing It

All of this has become faster and cheaper than doing it the ‘real’ way. Obviously filming in space would be prohibitively expensive, and a number of movies are downright impossible to make with an actor in makeup or a puppet instead of a CGI rig. The technology has improved quite a bit! However, that doesn’t make CGI a fix-all, even though studios are often treating it as such. For example, Dr. Strange: Multiverse of Madness received criticism online for it’s cheesy-looking CGI in places a quality prosthetic would have sufficed. Screenshots of the movie vary between Marvel-worthy and something out of Spy Kids. A staff member of one of the CGI teams working on Endgame reported that the studio filmed an actor in the wrong suit, and instead of refilming the scene, they were asked to CGI the right suit over it. In fact, a huge number of scenes with suits in them have the suits CGI’d over to make them look more polished! The entire movie is shot knowing there’s going to be CGI assisting difficult tricks of lighting and iffy props the actor isn’t allowed to see to prevent spoiler leakage. The final filming of Infinity War is known for how hard the studio worked to keep actors in the dark – green screens with limited direction, actors standing on their own to recite lines, key plot components shot out of order to keep said actors from piecing the story together – a common conspiracy is that by doing this, Marvel is making it impossible to tell who has a bit part and who’s carrying the movie, thus making it harder to negotiate for better pay when the contract can still be negotiated. Speaking of pay…

More of It, For Cost Savings

CGI studios are not often unionized. They make less money, so they cost less money, and because they don’t have to be physically on-set, they can be physically located anywhere, including countries with significantly lower cost of living. Hiring a CGI studio located outside of the U.S. can free up additional funding to spend on the actors themselves, or on the things the studio positively cannot outsource.

The problem with this is that it’s shorting every party and forcing them all to work for less money than they’d be paid in a fair environment. Stunt workers require insurance. Fun fireworks for explosions require insurance and a lot of specialized expertise so nobody goes deaf or dies. Do you know what costs less? CGI! CGI explosions often don’t look as good as the real thing, but they cost less. If the story is good, fans are often willing to overlook an over-reliance on CGI where it’s unnecessary, which encourages the studio to do it more. They’ll put fake dogs into spots where real dogs could have gone, safely, because it saves them money on animal handling in the long term! To protect animals from accidents and cruelty, the animal has an agent that’s meant to vouch for it. That agent makes the real animal cost more. The studio sees this as a cost to be cut, not part of doing business. When every corner is cut, it starts to affect the way the movie feels for the worse. Actors talking to empty air don’t have the same presence as actors talking to other actors, or handling real props, or wearing something real that’s going to be digitized in post.

Again – you cannot film in actual outer space, and Rocket Raccoon could not be recreated with a real raccoon, but Sebastian the Rat is so endearing in the re-make of Suicide Squad because he’s a real rat. He’s not CGI. The same goes for Marley, in Marley and Me. Even if it makes the animal’s appearance cost more, their onscreen charisma is often worth it, if only the studio can be convinced.

More of it, Faster

The studios have become so accustomed to cheap, quick CGI that they consistently give the studio less time than they really need to render something to perfection. The CGI in that new Dr. Strange movie could have looked better if the CGI professionals were given more time to polish it, but releasing in the right season for the right price kept them from doing their best work. The CGI is meant to shortcut the practical effects specialists and assorted animal or explosives handlers out of the equation, and once it’s out of slack, it starts cutting into itself. It starts looking worse!

CGI looks worse not because it’s somehow gotten worse, it looks worse because big movie studios are using it to take shortcuts where no more shortcuts can realistically be had.