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CAST OF THOUSANDS...OF PIXELS

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column, published in the Deseret News on March 9, 2007,under the headline, ‘Computerized background looks too fake,’ is a rant about CGI looking too phony, especially in crowd scenes. And when it was written that was certainly a legitimate gripe, as the examples suggest. But to be fair, in the dozen years since, special effects have become much more sophisticated. And little did I know in 2007 that just four years later we’d see Marilyn Monroe given new CGI life in TV commercials, along with Fred Astaire, Grace Kelly and others. Tom Cruise, take note!

Remember that old tagline that was used to advertise so many movies in the 1950s and ’60s — "a cast of thousands!" Well, not anymore.

Unless you count the cartoon crowd scenes in movies today.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In theory.

After all, artwork — in the form of drawings and miniature models — has supplemented movie backgrounds ever since movies began.

Need a blue sky, even though the scene was filmed on a cloudy day? We'll paint it in.

Want a village devastated by a flood? We'll build it small and photograph it big.

You get the idea.

Today, of course, such things are done with CGI — computer-graphic imagery, more commonly referred to as computer animation.

Which is fine as far as it goes, although some filmmakers who love dazzling special effects predict that one day movies will be so driven by computers that humans will hardly be needed at all.

If Tom Cruise wants to co-star in a film with Marilyn Monroe, perhaps he can perform against a blue screen and she can be added later!

But if today's big movies are any indication, we have a ways to go.

 

Take, for example, "300."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen "300," which opens in theaters today. So I have no opinion of the movie itself. But I can say that in the trailers the multitudes of warriors look phony.

Perhaps in the context of "300" — which is, after all, based more on a comic book than history — it doesn't matter. Maybe it's supposed to be cartoony and over the top.

But I've noticed this in other recent films and I'm beginning to wonder if the technology is being pushed a bit too fast.

This has been building in my mind for a while now. It was some years ago that I first began to notice — as in, it's a bit of a distraction — large crowds being added with animation instead of extras. (In Hollywoodspeak, "extras" are actual human beings hired to fill out crowd scenes; see "Spartacus," "Lawrence of Arabia," etc.)

But it's getting kind of ridiculous.

Two recent examples leap to mind: "Curse of the Golden Flower," a Chinese epic, and the World War I dogfight flick "Flyboys."

"Curse" is a flamboyant, Shakespearean soap opera set in 10th-century China, with an emperor and empress engaged in a down-and-dirty power struggle — a deadly game of one-upmanship.

The film gets wilder and weirder as it goes along — especially in the climax, where thousands of soldiers spill gallons of blood. Gallons of computer imagery, that is.

     

This entire sequence just looks too fake, very much like a cartoon. Or worse, a video-game cartoon.

After all the human interaction that has gone before — however hyper-real it may seem set against the film's colorful, eye-popping costumes and set design — it's understandable that the audience might expect something a tad more realistic in this battle sequence.

In the case of "Flyboys," I couldn't help but think of WWI films I had seen decades before — from "Hell's Angels" to "The Blue Max" — which used some models but also a lot of daredevil flying of actual planes in the air.

"Flyboys" also too often resembles a video game, with silly-looking cartoon dogfights.

But it's a little worse than that. Because you're not at the controls.

It's like watching someone else play a video game.

After a while boredom sets in.