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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.