CGI and Romance

This piece by Psyop from Twinings got me thinking about romance in CGI. The whole thing is made using computers but looks like a gorgeously drawn illustration. CG has got to the point where big teams of talented people can make something that looks charming, crafted and authentic. This retrostyling is part of a wider tendency in CGI to mimic pre-CGI modes of animation. Work that pretends to be stop-motion, papercut or plasticine. With such a concerted effort to attain the credos of past arts, it’s a shame that CG art still comes in for stick, despite its best efforts.

People wistfully reminisce about ye olde special effects, whether that’s stop motion animation, traditional cel animation, modelmaking, prosthetics or puppetry. They deride the overuse of empty pyrotechnics each time the latest CG blockbuster opens and wax lyrical about how Steamboat Willie or Snow White has something intangible that can’t be beaten. And contemporary hand-animated films like Belleville Rendezvous or Fantastic Mr. Fox get an automatic seal of approval and mark of authenticity in a way that more CG-heavy films have to work harder for.

It’s hard to separate the cloying nostalgia from what’s actually happening. Terms like charm, romance, authenticity and craft are more complicated than they seem. The fact that it’s harder to ascribe these terms to the work of a CG artist is a problem. The lack of charm in CG is surely not due to some inherently soulless quality in CG images, surely? And if it is, what is this soulless quality? Conversely, what constitutes craft and authenticity in animation?

Take Ray Harryhausen’s legendary skeleton fighting scene from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) as an example:

The skeletons, despite their hokeyness, have something unheimlich that adds to the mood of the scene and that you wouldn’t find in a film nowadays. It’s the jerkiness of the skeleton’s movement and their tactile quality. It’s the little animation mistakes, the physical (and ultimately budgetary) limitations that imbue them with character. In short, it’s their handmade quality. It’s that trace of craft that seems to give character to Harryhausen’s work. Similarly, the distinctive movement of a Muppet is defined by how the mass of behind-the-scenes puppeteers can physically manoevre themselves. The puppets are brought to life despite their limitations, and that is what gives character, charm, craft and ultimately romance to the medium.

So, craft despite limitations help imbue an artform with charm and romance. Then perhaps it’s right to say that CG doesn’t do this very well. At the commercial end of the industry, limitations are constantly being overcome with the release of a new render engine, shading algorithm or proprietary plugin. CG finds ever more convincing ways of obscuring its construction. It’s aiming for 1:1 reality and it’s not far off. What’s more, it’s not made from physical materials so it’s not limited by physicality like every other artform that ever was. It’s all intangible code and pixels. Without limitations or materiality, where can charm shine through? Maybe this is the soulless nature of CG.

Or maybe… it’s the fact that CG started out from somewhere too real, too perfect. Take another look at the T1000.

This is a landmark of computer animation. And it uses something that only a computer can achieve in this way - pure reflection mapping and raytracing. It is native CG and its soullessness is a strength, albeit a peculiar one. In a way T2 is the zenith and the endgame of this potential, a watershed moment. After Terminator 2, tech got exponentially more complex: artists, coders and filmmakers started using CG to approximate real, chaotic, emotive things: skin, hair, fluids, fire. Not just a melty mirror. Now we find ourselves in a constant stream of improvements - each new film ups the ante with better raytracing algorithms, better simulation and render engines. Code is evolving in so many directions, so quickly, towards direct approximation of messy, chaotic reality. Even though CG can do a good impression of a soulless monster, underneath it’s built by hand, and it’s here you can find charm and romance.

Just look at the difference between Toy Story 1, 2 and 3. Craft despite limitation creates charm and romance.

Notice the visual differences between one raytracing engine and its successor, between one hair shader and the next. You can see it even more in something like


. Things that you thought were perfect at the time are primitive by todays standards. Do we only see these differences in retrospect? In thirty years, will we be looking back fondly on less accurate raytracing, poorer sampling, basic reflections, simpler textures, rougher animation, less physically real simulations and a lack of render-intensive effects? Probably. And it’s because of this that I think code is where you’ll find character and romance in CGI. Nostalgia for stop motion will apply equally to early computer animation. In 2030, clients selling washing powder or insurance will be asking for a retro CG look, co-opting the charm and simplicity of a bygone age that their customers feel nostalgic for.

Strangely, though, if you look at something that exposes these qualities now, it’s hard not to compare it with the best that Pixar has to offer and ascribe some sort of defect to it as a product.

Show the seams now and it looks like bad CG. Show the seams in 30 years and it’ll look like an animation classic, full of romance.

Kudos should be given to those artists today working within technical limitations and exploring them. Those who revel in the qualities that code engenders. Someone like Beomsik Shimbe Shim, who got in the news today not because of his

great handmade CG films

but because his new cover art for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs reminds people of a

“hideous Pixar outtake”