Rant – CGI? Give me handmade (almost) any time..

This week Avatar has passed the $1 billion mark at the box office. The fact that the movie already ranks number 4 on the all time list of box office champions is pretty amazing after an uninspiring opening weekend of $77 million. I have seen Avatar; having seen the trailer I could pretty much predict what was going to happen over the course of the film. What I was not prepared for was the beauty of the film.

It is mind boggling that Avatar is made up of 40% live action and 60% photo-realistic CGI. The places and people in the film are strikingly realised, and the scene where Jake and Neytiri walk across moss that lights up under their feet is just stunning. Until this point, CGI seemed to be missing something. There is something warm and personal about handmade special effects. The knowledge that what you are seeing on screen actually exists, and that someone created it, adds a dimension that some films are sadly lacking.

Take, for instance, the recent performance capture version of A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens’ novella was first published in 1843, so there is no doubt that the story has staying power, but this most recent adaptation was not the best that there could have been. First, there is the much discussed, lamented and berated fact that performance capture characters have ‘dead eyes’. There is very little conveyed through the eyes of the characters, in fact it can be argued that they look like the eyes of a dead and frozen fish, but many technologies have advanced through use, so we could forgive that if it weren’t for the other problems with the technology. Yes, the actors say that not having to worry about the placement of cameras was liberating, but that can lead to unnecessary movement of cameras when the scene could benefit from being still. And at the end of the day, I have to ask the question, what was accomplished in A Christmas Carol – or Beowulf or The Polar Express for that matter – that could not have been achieved through another medium? The answer, it seems, is precious little.

In contrast to A Christmas Carol, is Where The Wild Things Are. Another classic and beloved story made into a film. From reading the book it seems there is very little that could have been made into a full length film, but Dave Eggers did a wonderful job with the screenplay and unravelled a story about childhood and its trials from the pages of what is essentially, a picture book. As someone said on Twitter, you do not have to be a child to see the film; you just have to remember that you once were one. But story aside, the fundamental difference between the two films is the knowledge that almost everything on screen in Where The Wild Things Are existed. For something to move, someone had to reach in and make it move.

The same can be said for CG animation and hand drawn animation. There is no doubt that the quality of hand drawn Disney animated films dropped off. I am a complete, self confessed Disney-holic, but I put Atlantis on the other day and turned it off within a few minutes. The warmness was missing. It may be true that a great movie will transcend the medium that it was created in – after all, we still watch and love great silent movies – but Atlantis is not one of the films that Disney should be proud of. It should be buried and forgotten about. However, after seeing it, one thing became clear – I can now understand why audiences turned away from Disney hand drawn animation and flocked to see animated movies by the new kid on the block – Pixar. Pixar movies, in my experience, are the exception to the CGI rule that proves it. Someone has got it right, and that someone was John Lasseter, the pioneer of Pixar.

I love Pixar movies, they have come on in leaps and bounds. Every new one that comes out is a step up from its predecessor. The stories are great, the characters are easy to relate to, and the computer generated aspect of the film does not detract from what started off as a handmade technology. That said though, I am excited that Disney has returned to their staple and are bringing out The Princess and The Frog as a hand drawn animated film. From what I have seen of the film, it is a return to form with beautiful animation, great story and warm characters.

Twitter friend @Sarxos commented on my blog today – when I said I had watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit – and said “An absolute classic. Zemeckis needs to get back to this kind of movie and forget the mo-cap stuff”. I can’t help but agree with him. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was amazing, but didn’t have to be groundbreaking to do it, the precedent had already been set for animation/live action combinations with Mary Poppins. I came out of Avatar wanting to visit the fictional planet of Pandora, but the question that lingers, for me, is whether the movie would be half as successful or enjoyable if it hadn’t been so beautifully made.

When Final Fantasy came out, it was jokingly said that real actors would one day be retired in favour of CGI ones. Thankfully we are a long way from that reality, and with wonderful films like Where The Wild Things Are, Coraline and The Princess and The Frog, and TV shows with a handmade feel – like The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords – still being made, we are getting further and further away from a completely digital age.

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