How CGI Can Convert People To Silent Films

It was towards the end of Aquaman (2019), where a stunning underwater battle full of glowing aquatic kingdoms and zapping weapons and vast crab armies and armored sharks ended with the superhero commanding the most enormous sea beastie ever while standing triumphantly on its head (seriously, the only thing missing was him whipping out an electric guitar), when it occurred to me that CGI had entered its Baroque period.

Thất Hải Chi Vương Aquaman: Hành trình từ chàng thanh niên bị coi thường  tới Bá chủ biển cả
I mean, dang.

Generally speaking, we live in a remarkable era of special effects, don’t we? Anything we can imagine, no matter how epic or “out there,” can be brought to life onscreen. Mythical creatures, gorgeous landscapes, alien cities, giant robots, ancient gods, dinosaurs…the sky’s the limit if you have the right team of artists and animators. It’s no exaggeration to say that the scope of our creative abilities is something unprecedented in human history.

The Best CGI Characters in Movie History
Image credit: Screen Crush

So naturally, while being faced with jaw-dropping visions the likes of which no human eye hast heretofore seen, we complain about how there’s too much CGI. If we comment on it at all, that is–it’s not a given the way it used to be.

Kiddos, I’m old enough to remember when CGI was getting more common, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how every review of a movie with special effects commented on how good/bad the CGI was. The technology was getting better with every passing year, and there seemed to be no end to the wonders we were getting to see onscreen–not to mention the joy of Pixar’s magnificent mid-2000s run.

WALL-E - Movies on Google Play

But somewhere along the way, CGI became so common that now we simply take it for granted as an obligatory part of modern-day spectacles. This has lead to a phenomena where, say, a massive battle between hundreds of superheroes and villains hardly seems to register (something I’m sure the dozens of hardworking animators really appreciate). In film reviews, it takes some really unusual or difficult effects to receive much attention (for instance, Aquaman was noted for its tricky “underwater” effects). Heck, even commercials can be packed with CGI nowadays–maybe it’s not surprising that we’re a little weary of it. And don’t get me started on when CGI’s used at immense expense for films no one needs (*cough* the 2019 The Lion King *cough*).

Come to think of it, we’re also getting to the point where CGI can look inexplicably inferior to older films. Consider the disappointing Jurassic World (2015) vs. the magnificent Jurassic Park (1993). Or when CGI scenes are cut so fast or use so many swoopy camera angles that you can hardly tell what’s going on (perhaps to get away with subpar effects?). Sometimes I wonder if CGI looking like CGI is, somehow, the new “style.” It’s not exactly trying to convince us that the special effects blend perfectly with actual footage–otherwise known as “the original point of it all.”

dwayne johnson scorpion king drawings | The Mummy Returns Scorpion King  Darkest | Movie history, Movies, History
Some films have never heard of the point.

So what’s really at the bottom of the backlash against the prevalence of CGI? I’m sure you’ve already guessed: the lack of wonder. When we know an effect was made in a computer, no matter how many designers and animators were behind it, it’s just not as impressive as actual sets, actual stunts, and actual detailed makeup (not to mention amazing puppets). It doesn’t help when action scenes clearly don’t follow the laws of physics, looking more like realistically-rendered cartoons than anything else.

From the third Hobbit movie that I’ve seen once and only once, I offer: a case in point.

And now we’ve come to the point of this post–the upside of modern-day CGI weariness for the super-niche genre of early 20th century silent film! Because here, in these old black-and-white films (occasionally tinted), where so many surviving prints are scratchy or blurry, and where acting or storylines can seem stilted or archaic, there is still wonder.

ithankyou: Douglas Fairbanks in… Robin Hood (1922), Royal Philharmonic  Orchestra, Cadogan Hall, London
The real castle set from Robin Hood (1922) (with a handmade matte painting in the very background).

If there’s one thing I hear from folks over and over again, it’s admiration for silent film actors who did their own stunts, their own directing, wrote their own stories, etc. etc. Buster Keaton letting a wall fall around him with only a couple inches of clearance from his shoulders, Douglas Fairbanks bounding around buildings and pirate ships, various stunt men flinging themselves from bridges or jumping off cars just before a locomotive smashes into them…

This is from The Fall (2006), a wonderful film if you haven’t seen it.

Stuntmen–and actors–raced horses through dry California valleys, leaped off of cliffs, fought villains in burning buildings and struggled through real blizzards, all for a few moments of drama or thrills on film. Film crews endured primitive living conditions, extreme heat and bitter cold to capture the perfect real-life locations.

Way Down East: how Lillian Gish suffered for her art | Silent London
Lillian Gish enduring icy conditions for Way Down East (1920).

Everything had to be done by hand, from the delicately-done in-camera special effects to the lettering on some of the title cards. Editing consisted of cutting the film into strips with a scissors and carefully pasting the scenes together, the editors using sharp eyes to match up the different shots. Animation, especially since it was captured with hand-cranked cameras, took a remarkable amount of care and patience.

Before Walt Disney, There Was Lotte Reiniger
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), animated with exquisite paper silhouettes.

And let’s not forget how excited directors were to bring their elaborate visions to life, commissioning detailed sets hammered together by teams of carpenters and decorated by skilled artists. The scale of some of these visions was stunning, and all done in the days when many folks still used horse-drawn wagons.

Intolerance | film by Griffith [1916] | Britannica
Intolerance (1916).

It was all done “for the sake of the picture,” that all-encompassing need. It was an extraordinary time, difficult and full of hard work, but inspiring. So I say, if folks have CGI fatigue and want to experience a bit of wonder, they just might want to give silent films a chance. They have the ability to inspire the same kind of awe you get with any handmade work of art.

7 thoughts on “How CGI Can Convert People To Silent Films

  1. Excellent post Lea. Nothing tops the cinematic thrill of watching Safety Last! in a packed theater. Even today the audience screams, shrieks, and laughs the entire film through, because it all real.

  2. The lack of interest in the silent era today is somewhat depressing, not least because so much of today’s CGI stuff stems directly from the visions of people like DW Griffith etc (cf: the ridiculous 300) – but your initial comment about the ‘baroque’ nature of CGI now holds a key, I think, to another way forward. I’ve sat through all of these blockbusters and the one thing that I ALWAYS think is: where are the experimental film-makers who are schooled in this technology? If we’ve reached a level of complexity and almost god-like creativity – and I’m assuming this stuff gets exponentially cheaper to create by the day – then why aren’t young animators/directors making truly crazy stuff that challenges narrative convention and allows you to step outside the norm? You see glimpses in Japanese anime and even the aforementioned blockbusters, but I long for this god-like power to be used to really weird me out. David Lynch came close with the recent Twin Peaks reboot (esp. the atomic bomb episode), but he can’t be the only visionary out there…

    • When we think of the experimental films made in the 1920s (avant-garde, Expressionism, and such), we can only imagine what they could’ve achieved with something like CGI. Sometimes I feel one of the few true visionaries of film was Abel Gance largely because of NAPOLEON. Not only did he use practically every special effects trick in the book, but he actually played with the medium of the screen itself, introducing that triptych screen. He truly was thinking outside the box.

      What’s interesting is how today’s artsy, experimental films seem to get inspiration from the past, instead of the possibilities of the present. I watched THE LIGHTHOUSE recently (finally), and was deeply impressed with how OLDER film techniques, like using 4:3 ratio and black and white photography, actually added to how unusual and haunting it was.

  3. Even classic stop motion can still impress. I will never not be amazed by the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts. Films from all eras can be a welcome relief from CGI 😀

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