Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. This month we investigate characters in film that are not made of flesh and bone, but bits and bytes born from hours of programming. Join us as we discuss CGI characters both good and bad.
When people talk about the visual effects used in the Star Wars Prequel trilogy, the usual complaint goes something along the lines of, “there’s too much CGI and not enough practical effects.” It’s an argument that’s been going around pretty much since Episode I released in 1999, though it’s not completely accurate. As Slashfilm showed in an article they did (a good read by the way), practical sets and models for visual effects were being used a great deal. Far more than people really give the trilogy credit for. The majority of CG in those films were used as enhancement to the practical elements they were using.
That doesn’t mean that the Prequel CGI detractors don’t have a point, I merely feel they’re blaming the wrong thing for what they don’t like about the use of the computer effects in the film. Personally speaking, I feel The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith feature a healthy mix of both good and bad computer generated images. On one hand, Yoda and General Grievous both look pretty awesome and continue to look good even to this day, but other characters haven’t fared nearly so well and some would argue never worked in the first place.
Let’s start with one that I had trouble with in theaters and just the other day while I was watching it…The clone troopers from Episode II and III. When we found out that clones troopers would appear in Episode II as sort of predecessors to Stormtroopers, many fans got excited. But then Lucas made the decision to digitally create all of the soldiers, rather than dress people up in physical costumes like the Stormtroopers we grew up with from the originals. It was a risky decision, and while this allowed him to show off far grander battle sequences because of it, I can’t say it fully paid off.
The biggest issue with the clone troopers came from the Uncanny Valley effect. If you’re not familiar with the term it’s a theory that holds when something looks and moves almost, but not exactly, like humans do it causes viewers to be repulsed. Basically, you know something is off, even if you can’t pinpoint it, and it throws the entire scene out of whack for you. Instead of investing you in what’s happening, it’s causing a sense of revulsion.
The clone troopers suffered from this effect the most because by and large most of the all CG characters in the films were aliens. Since they weren’t humans, we didn’t get this effect as much, but with the clones, it was inevitable. While they were impressive in some scenes, it was hard to escape the fact that they didn’t move in exactly the way you’d expect human soldiers to move. It’s an effect I think would have been minimized had they used some real actors in costume for more of the close-up scenes, while utilizing the all CG troopers to fill in the backgrounds and larger battle sequences (essentially how Lord of the Rings handled their epic battles).
Besides some of the uncanny valley effect throwing people for a loop, the other primary problem facing just about all of the CG constructs in the film comes down to weight. Yes, I said weight. It may sound weird, but it’s true. You have to remember, the prequels were among the first films to use CGI to create entire supporting characters. These weren’t just background shots or one off characters that basically amounted to extras. No, they were full characters who interacted with the rest of the cast.
It’s something which hadn’t been done before (though now it’s commonplace), and the truth about pioneering technology is that it doesn’t always work. While studios have since taken the ideas Lucas used in the prequels and turned them into something amazing in other movies, they didn’t always work the way they were intended in the prequels. Weight is something I’ve talked about in other films before that used CGI extensively, and it’s a big problem throughout the trilogy.
It’s similar to the uncanny valley, in that something is off, though we can actually pinpoint this one. Oftentimes in the films, the computer generated characters feel weightless. They walk as if there’s no weight to their bodies (things don’t “bounce” when they step as they should), motions are too fluid when they do them, and it looks like animation rather than real life movements. This is something that affected all of the CG throughout the prequel films, from Jar Jar to the droid army (and it’s a problem other films have had as well, not just Star Wars).
The reason why we don’t have this problem as much in films anymore, is the advent of mo-cap technology. With real actors being used as a basis for the CGI, you’re getting characters that move naturally and have a weight to them. It’s a big reason why characters like Gollum, Caesar (from Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and everyone from Avatar worked where others have not.
Yoda worked well in the films, especially Revenge of the Sith, because they used reference shots of humans (the VFX supervisor Rob Coleman) making the expressions they wanted and then recreated them in the computer for Yoda. In essence, a very early kind of motion capture based on still images rather than full video performances. While it was no where near as advanced as we are now, the use of those references made for a better performance out of the digital Yoda than we’d gotten with some of the other characters.
By the same token, this is also why Jar Jar actually worked in The Phantom Menace as well. From a character standpoint, I understand why no one like him. He was annoying, over-the-top and didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story. He was definitely out of place. Technically speaking, however, Jar Jar is one of the better done CGI characters in the films. They used an actor to play the part so the other characters had someone to interact with on the set, and then digitally painted over him. Sounds familiar, huh? While not to the same degree as it’s used now, this frame of reference helped make Jar Jar feel more like a real character than many of the others in the films…It’s just too bad he sucked as a character.
Everyone complains about the overuse of special effects in the Star Wars prequels, but the truth is, the original films were facing the same issue back when they released. No other film of that time period had used such extensive visual effects work, and it helped move the industry forward in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have. The same could be said for the Prequels. They tried something new. They used technology in a way that it hadn’t before in order to push the bounds of what could be seen on the big screen. In a lot of ways, the Prequel films helped pave the way for the use of all CG characters which have in turn given us Avatar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Yes, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith had issues with the technology and it’s likely that Lucas depended on the newer tech more than he should have. However, the films did feature plenty of practical effects as well. The biggest problems with the CG in these films stemmed from the fact that they didn’t move/act the way we expected them too. Even then, there are several moments in these films that are absolutely stunning and an impressive feat of technology (Yoda, the battles at the end of AotC and beginning RotS, General Grievous).
The primary issues with the films stemmed from the scripts, not the reliance on visual effects. The original films were heavy VFX movies, yet no one blames those for being over-reliant on them. But because the original films had a more solid story and framework behind them, the VFX felt more apart of the story and part of the world being created. With weaker scripts, the VFX in the films felt more like a distraction than anything in some regards.
To be honest, I’m one of those who actually enjoys the Prequels and watch them still fairly frequently. I’m not blind to their flaws, however, though I don’t think they’re as horrible as everyone suggests. At this point I feel it’s simply become popular to hate them, than to look at them for what they are. While the VFX didn’t always work (sometimes it did), it’s impossible to deny the effect they’ve had on the future of the industry.