Pushing the boundaries between fantasy and reality

Audiences and professionals around the world have come to expect an element of high class computer graphics within films and television and this expectation is ever increasing. But how far can the boundaries between reality and fantasy be pushed to meet these expectations?

CGI has come a long way over the last couple of decades. It used to be the case if you couldn’t show something for real, you’d use CGI, but due to it’s limitations, available technology and of course budget and time, it was often considered a last resort for a production and therefore made up a minimal amount of screen time.

Nowadays the art of visual effects has reached a new level of sophistication. Dedicated and hard working artists, technical crew, those advancing the technology provided to them, means that CGI has offered Directors an “extra camera” to create a greater mix of fantasy and reality on the big screen.

Christopher Nolan, the Director of ‘Inception’ once said “the audience has to believe it’s a filmed image, not synthetic”. Nolan is a Director that believes there is a time and a place for CGI. It has to be handled carefully to fit into any film if a real life look is required.

Real-life or CGI?

Real life, or CGI spectacular, audiences worldwide now expect an element of photo-realism or hyper-real CGI as standard in film and to a certain degree, television. The wide use and success of CGI has been fantastic to see, but has meant the craft is under constant scrutiny by professionals and fans alike and means that production houses must constantly strive to push new boundaries to meet these expectations.

Computer graphics created for the multi award winning ‘Gravity’ directed by Alfonso Cuarón, took a seemingly lean team of 400 post and visual effects crew to complete, which ultimately contributed to an estimated 80% of the film.

Audiences enjoy digital visual effects and action enhancements like those seen in the mind bending, dream-like sequences in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’. The plethora of Marvel and DC films now available on the market are littered with complex and fun fight / action sequences, only achievable using CGI.

Incredible creatures, like the wonderful tiger in Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ which pushed CGI artists and companies to the limit, ultimately delivering a creature that became an industry first in terms of its realism. Motion capture techniques used in Rupert Wyatt’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ raised the bar even further, creating photoreal Apes, whilst still allowing the actors to deliver performance through facial expressions and body language.

Hits and flops

There is no doubt that whilst there are CGI hits, there are also flops. The much anticipated ‘Star Wars’ prequels were disappointing. Let down by flat digital worlds and characters. ‘Tintin’ was technically brilliant but a great failure in terms of a character design and art direction blunder between Herge’s drawings and the real world.

Nolan was interviewed by the Director’s Guild of America shortly after ‘Inception’ was released:

“The thing with computer-generated imagery is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool for making better visual effects. But I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in”

Whilst I agree to some degree with Nolan’s point of view, I do feel that there is a place for the “spectacle” and the “seamless”. Further advances in CGI will probably mean that the debate about authenticity will have to lessen, and doing things for real will become even more unachievable and CGI and VFX will have to stand in place even more so.

There is no doubt though about our continued desire to see these extraordinary things, and drift into a fantastical world, every now and then, and this is likely to never be sated – our appetite for a big-budget film or television series with high octane action and effects will remain, or even just to be immersed into an environment different from our own. As our expectation rises and our need for escapism increases, I have no doubt the CGI industry will strive to match it, producing even more staggering and exciting results. It will be interesting to see where it can and will go next.