The Debate Over CGI

Before Batman v Superman came out, there was a lot of discussion about the use of effects in certain shots from the TV clips, like when Batman drives the Batmobile into his cave, or when Superman flies over to Lex Luthor… people were talking about how they noticed how bad those shots looked (a few people said that the Arkham games had better Batmobile driving effects than the shot I linked to above), and then moreso after the movie came out, as well. My response would always be to rewatch those TV spots and then keep my mouth shut because I just didn’t see it. They looked fine to me. Then when I saw BvS for the first time on March 24, in real Imax, and I did look for those things, but maybe not hard enough, because, again, I didn’t see it. The CGI, for me, at least, was simply not one of the problems with BvS. (Although, admittedly, that was also my first time seeing a feature film on a screen that big, so that could have been part of it.)

But that sort of clued me in to something about myself… I guess I just don’t notice CGI. I mean, I can see when it’s really bad… like the Rock’s Scorpion King in the second Mummy, or Neo’s fight with the hundreds of Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded. But, for me, the CGI has to be particularly bad to notice it, and that tends to happen in a much smaller amount of movies than the anti-CGI people would have us believe… at least from my perspective. Even in this video, the CGI they point out (with the exception of the aforementioned Scorpion King and Agent Smith battle, both highlighted) is stuff I definitely didn’t notice when I first saw those films (though, admittedly, I would notice it now if I watched those films again).

During my binging, I came across the following video:

After seeing it, I decided I’d like to have this discussion/debate here with y’all. How do you feel about CGI versus practical effects? How often do you notice CGI (definitely more than I do, but still) in movies and TV shows? Do you think mediocre CGI can ruin an otherwise great film? What would you hold up as examples of great CGI? Do you really prefer practical effects, or can those be bad, too?


  1. brucegee1962 says

    When I watch the original Star Wars now (the original Han-shot first, all-models version), I’m always struck by how bad all the visual effects look. But back in the 70s, they were absolutely-fricking-tastic — I couldn’t imagine anything any better.

    I remember touring the Museum of the Moving Image in London. They showed some of the very earliest footage of a train rushing toward the camera ever recorded, and of course, to us, we can notice all the obvious scratches and flaws. But back then, there were people in the audience who screamed and tried to jump out of the way.

    The reason something “looks real” or “looks fake” to us is because we’ve been trained with what to look for. When cgi first came out, it looked fine — it was only later that we were trained to notice choppy edges or inconsistent lighting. Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet that, at some point in the future, things that look like state-of-the-art realistic to us now are going to look cheesy and unconvincing to more sophisticated viewers of the future.

  2. Kreator says

    I tend not to notice CGI either. My sister often does, though, and she can’t resist pointing it out, so watching movies with her can sometimes be an annoying experience. Personally, I have no preference between CGI and practical effects, and I simply roll my eyes when heated discussions about it erupt.

    As for mediocre/bad special effects ruining an otherwise great film? Sometimes they can, but at least in my case an interesting story can often immerse me enough in the film’s world for me not to care about it (and vice versa, pretty visuals can make me overlook a horrid story and I’m not ashamed to admit it).

    Finally, of course practical effects can be as bad as the worst CGI around, or even worse, but hey, Sturgeon’s law. Also, it should be noted that sometimes the quality of both can even change dramatically within the same film. My CGI example would be the Deadpool movie, where Colossus stood out as too unreal even for my usual CGI blindness, while there were obviously a lot of other computer special effects that I didn’t notice or care about. As for practical effects, I present The Dark Crystal, which is quite old but I only watched for the first time a few years ago. For me, the Mystics looked amazing and I could even kind of believe they were real living creatures, while the Gelflings stuck out like a sore thumb as the rigid puppets they were, especially thanks to the extra screentime afforded to them by virtue of being the main characters.

  3. says

    Never mind live action movies, I really can’t stand CG animation and still prefer older cel animation movies. CG animation is often too detailed, oft times more than film or real life. Try watching a movie like “Frozen” on a TV screen from across a room and you’ll see what I mean. The “muddiness” and rough edges of cel animation seem…warmer than CG.

    On top of that, CG character design still looks hand-drawn. But unlike cel animation where exaggerated features are intended to make the characters distinct, CG animation makes them look excessively unrealistic. Cel drawings often look more natural despite proportions and locations on the face that don’t match real life. Again, compare the large eyes and small mouth of “Frozen” characters to the large eyes and small mouth of the average anime TV show or movie.

  4. lorn says

    Over time, I’ve noticed that the video that holds up is almost always the ones where the visual effects are symbolic, often just placeholders. I loved Doctor Who, original series Star Trek, Blake’s Seven, in part, because the visual effects were so cheesy. If the story was good it didn’t matter. In terms of willing suspension of disbelief in for a dime, in for a dollar.

    That isn’t to say good visual effects aren’t useful.

    The problem is that for a whole lot of media CGI has become a substitution for a good, well formed and thought out, story and characters with compelling stories. Too many movies use CGI to compensate for plot holes, brainless stories. Throw in enough explosions and the preview reels will fill seats.

    Visual effects are the spice of movie making. The meal is the story. Some spices can make a meal much more enjoyable. But no amount of spice will make a lousy meal good.

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