Ever since the first moving picture was taken and displayed on a screen, motion picture technology has been steadily advancing. These leaps and bounds have resulted in new and improved ways of storytelling, such as sound, color, widescreen cinematography, and advanced editing techniques. Movies themselves are a form of technological advancement, after all. But are all advancements in technology beneficial to storytelling in movies?
Some of the greatest films in the history of cinema were done with limited resources and before modern advancements were even imagined. These were stories that created new concepts and worked around limitations with imagination. Humungous epics like Ben Hur were completed through the use of massive stages, detailed miniatures, and thousands of extras. These types of films are truly impressive even today thanks to the literal blood, sweat, and tears both in front of and behind the camera.
While computer graphics have allowed filmmakers to create creatures and setpieces that could never have come to life through practical effects, they have also taken their toll on many stories. With an overreliance on modern technology, the magic and suspense of films are often sucked out in favor of big but lifeless spectacle. What is the right balance? How can it be properly struck today? And is there any going back to the classic ideas and impact of past films?
Monotony Over Innovation
Maybe having the ability to bring anything to life can actually harm creativity. For having unlimited access to bring new concepts to life, many films are intent on recycling old ideas, set pieces, and filmmaking techniques. While there are at least a couple films each year that take modern technology and use it to put something new on screen, or put a fresh twist on something familiar, the invention of new filmmaking approaches has generally slowed down exponentially.
Then again, modern films aren’t exactly the greatest examples of bold explorations of new ideas. There are only so many ways that giant robots or aliens can destroy New York, but that doesn’t stop giant blockbusters from doing it again and again. While special effects teams may be able to make a giant fireball better than ever, that doesn’t mean they have to do the same one again and again. I think we can say that concept has been mastered by this point. Let’s move on to something new.
The Impact of Reality
If there is one piece of filmmaking that has been hurt the most by modern technology, it is the fight scene. This is not to say there aren’t some fantastic fights supported by computer graphics or even completely centered around completely computer generated characters (that Rocket and Groot shootout from Guardians of the Galaxy is amazing), but there are many opportunities that have been passed up in favor of just using shortcuts.
The best fight scenes are thrilling and compelling because there are real people bashing each other. Yes, they may be actors, but actors fake fighting is often more convincing than a bunch of CGI’d legions fighting when they were never really there in the first place. Just compare the jaw-dropping fights from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy to the monotonous and cartoonish brawls in The Hobbit Trilogy. One has actors battling in perfectly-choreographed scenes, the other has devastatingly fake dwarves tumbling down fake hills in fake barrels. Which will be best remembered a few years from now?
While spectacular battles that were never possible before modern technological advances can be thrilling in their own way, there is something genuinely special about real fights. That’s why when a modern movie like The Raid comes out and employs all practical effects and an old school approach to martial arts action, audiences take notice. It’s the reason why we love Bruce Lee, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and many more classic characters. The real approach to fake fights makes it so much easier to invest.
Sucking the Suspense Out
Because creatures and all sorts of sci-fi ideas can now be portrayed convincingly (usually) on screen, storytellers are more tempted than ever to throw the money up on the screen and have viewers see their creations for all their worth, all the time. It’s a practice that undermines many concepts that gave way to some of cinema’s best films. Most importantly, it’s the idea that what audiences can imagine in their minds is far more thrilling/spectacular/frightening than what a movie can show.
If Jaws was made today, it would contain a far more convincing shark than the rubbery affair that sprang from the ocean off the coast of Amity Island. It would also put the creature front and center in every scene of the movie. But it’s the off-screen threat that makes Jaws such a vicerally thrilling affair that still holds up today. When filming, the mechanical shark, nicknamed “Bruce,” was severely malfunctioning, forcing director Steven Spielberg to show it far less than intended. Instead, more scenes were shot from the shark’s point of view and only quick flashes were given to the audience as victims were dragged to the watery depths. It was truly a stroke of good luck, and one that could easily have been avoided given today’s computer graphic imagery (CGI).
The same goes for director Ridley Scott’s Alien, were a man in a rubbery monster costume had to be obscured in shadow to stay scary. Without the Xenomorph’s entire body ever shown, audiences automatically filled in the gaps themselves, with those ideas making the creature far more frightening. Modern films revolving around creatures are all too quick to put their creatures front and center, showing viewers every inch within minutes of the movie beginning. It’s this lack of suspense and eagerness to show everything that leads to many film’s losing suspense and keeping audiences from creatively interacting with what they are watching. While movies are meant to take viewers along for a preconceived ride, they also require a large degree of investment in order to be completely satisfying. But shining a bright light on every corner of the world can often squash this by stifling audience members’ imaginations in favor of definitively portraying one person’s ideas.
Behold, the Ravages of Time!
If there is any one aspect of technology that hurts films in the long run, it’s that special effects are constantly evolving. Great practical effects from decades ago are not subjected to the negative effects of aging nearly as much as computer graphics. What was once seen as groundbreaking frequently becomes shoddy in the eyes of future audiences. Because of home video, films are put to the test rigorously year after year. Because computer graphics are constantly evolving, the eyes of audiences are becoming more and more trained to spot fakeness and special effects that ring untrue.
A film like Jurassic Park can be used as the litmus test for films of all decades that use CGI. The film’s deft use of both CGI and practical effects helped Steven Spielberg and his collaborators bring dinosaurs to convincing life on screen. By prudently choosing when to use CGI and when not to, any weaknesses in the technique were craftily avoided. That’s why the film holds up so well today. Even a previously groundbreaking film like Terminator 2: Judgment Day is on shaky ground these days, with the liquid T-1000 not always holding up perfectly. It’s far better than the countless films that tried to emulate to idea in its wake, but it will be interesting to see how its effects are receive in a decade from now.
There are simply far too many films that have aged terribly for filmmakers to not beware the toll of aging CGI. Even The Matrix is filled with effects that seem somewhat cheap and silly today, with plasticky fake humans flying through the air at one another and clashing in ways that point out the technique’s fakeness. Whether it’s digitized humans that are obviously not their real counterparts, creatures that move in ways that breach audiences’ uncanny valleys for fakeness, or generally poorly crafted effects that keep viewers from being fully invested, there are countless pitfalls for those who do not carefully walk this line.
The Advantages of Advances
Of course, to focus completely on the disadvantages of film technology’s progression is to take away from how it has helped push the medium in many exciting direction. Most importantly, high quality films are more easily made these days with the creation of digital filmmaking. Additionally, the concepts once thought unfilmable are now possible thanks to CGI, which has let the most out there ideas be put on screen in a believable manner.
What it comes down to is balance, understanding, and serving a solid story with techniques that are right. Maybe the more filmmakers understand the positives and negatives of computer graphics technology, the more often they can use it to the most effective means possible.