Computer Graphics in Movies

CGI is everywhere. In fact, it’s downright unavoidable. It seems even local TV commercials selling discount mattresses from people called “Crazy Eddie” can afford it for their never ending going-out-of-business sales.

Long ago during its infancy my brother and I argued about the potential of CGI. I tend to be wide eyed and optimistic about the possibilities of technology, while he tends to see most advances as destroying all that is good in the world. Ultimately I think we were both right and both wrong. CGI has great potential, and only now are we beginning to see the promise of that potential. But at the same time comes a great danger – that of laziness.

It becomes all too tempting to replace an elaborate live action stunt with CGI, for example. After all, you can do things using CGI that can’t possibly be done in real life. The problem is, of course, that no matter how good the CGI is, we can still tell it’s not real. This kills 90% of the thrill instantly, yet it’s getting used more and more.

Even the last Indiana Jones movie suffers from it. If ANY movie should have avoided using CGI in its stunt work, it was this one. While it didn’t ruin the movie single-handed, it was a symptom of all that was wrong with it, sticking out of its neck like a tumour the size of a watermellon that you’re expected to ignore but can’t help but gawk at.

The problem is directors are tempted to use it as a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel. It’s like Michael Bay and explosions, someone has to tell these directors “Less is More!”

Of course, the place where these arguments would seem to have no weight is a movie that is ALL computer graphics, but you’d be surprised. The problem is people get overwhelmed by the possibilities of the technology, and rather than using the animation to best serve the story, they use the story to best serve the animation. Because they can.

This is the major failing of Robert Zemeckis’s animated movies. Even Beowulf, the best of the lot, suffers from it (that and his other favorite toy – digital 3D), but then you have something like A Christmas Carol which ends up having Scrooge shot into the atmosphere on a rocket, shrunk down to the size of a Smurf, skiing down roofs on icicles… yeah, you get the idea.

It’s not a question of these things not being in Dickens’s story, it’s the fact none of these things serve the story. They exist only because CGI and digital 3D technology allow them to. Rather than playing in a sandbox, Zemeckis has been let loose in a Toys R Us, and it shows. It’s not that his movies are bad, they’re not. But we do wonder why he’s putting on a perfectly good show with Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls when suddenly a kid wearing an Optimus Prime outfit on a BMX wielding a Nerf crossbow flies out of nowhere.

Pixar is an example of a company that “gets it.” Everyone praises their movies and rightfully so. Even the worst of their movies is still really good. And they never, ever, overdo it. The graphics always serve the story, never the other way around.

But snapping at the heels of Pixar is Dreamworks, who have for years been trying to cut their own slice of the family friendly CGI movie pie. It’s been a mixed bag so far. I really liked Shrek 1 and 2, while movies like Madagascar have only left me Mad and Scarred (see what I did there?)

Dreamworks latest attempt is How To Train Your Dragon. Gill and I saw it on Tuesday, and I have to admit, I liked it. In many ways it uses CGI to its best advantage. Yes, it goes for the jaw dropping action scenes, but it has a good story at its core as well. It also manages to achieve that mix of humour and drama that I enjoy but is rarely done well in movies.

The problem is, it feels like a fair bit of that story got chopped up in development. I’m not sure how else to put it. It just feels like there is a lot more to the story than what is shown. There is a lot behind the rivalry between the Vikings and Dragons that is alluded to, but never really explained. Even the biology of the dragons needs a bit more development, especially the nature of the BIG dragon. For a child this might not be a problem. Kids are great at filling in blanks and explaining the unexplained in their own way, often quite convincingly.

But good storytelling is about knowing how much needs to be explained and how much can be left to your imagination. For me, How To Train Your Dragon falls just short of that line. There just isn’t enough substance for me given that this story is about resolving a deadly feud that has gone back generations. It’s 98 minutes long, but might have been better off as a mini-series, the way Japanese do OVA series, a dozen or so episodes with a definitive beginning, middle and end. That could have been pretty cool.

So while How To Train Your Dragon isn’t in Pixar’s league, it was a very enjoyable movie. It’s just a shame it had more potential than it actually managed to achieve.