How Hollywood Uses CGI - Aesthetics Week


By Molly Freeman

Guillermo del Toro, director of Pacific Rim, speaking at the 2013 WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Ca. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

It’s been over one hundred years since Georges Méliès used machinery, theater techniques, clay models, and costumes of paper-based board to create A Trip to the Moon. While these visual effects look crude to audiences today, at the time they were revolutionary.

Now, all the summer blockbusters employ tons of various computer-generated visual effects from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and J.J. Abram’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.

All of these films use a lot of computer generated imagery and in some cases, like Gatsby, the point of seeing the movie might become secondary to the visuals up on the screen. Though some enjoyed Gatsby, others thought the excessive computer-generated imagery detracted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original vision. Chris Godfrey, the VFX supervisor for the film, posted a before-and-after reel from Gatsby that exhibits the film’s digital-based glitz and glamor.

Pacific Rim, a hotly anticipated summer blockbuster chock full of visual effects, opened nationwide on Friday. Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro has been previewing the film since last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con. A movie with Pacific Rim‘s plot — about people fighting gigantic sea monsters with human-piloted robots — is certainly going to need a lot of CGI, even though del Toro chose to shoot some sequences of the film with as little computer generated imagery as possible, employing numerous camera tricks instead.

For instance, the production built a set in Toronto’s Pinewood Studios consisting of several city blocks that was so big it took up the whole studio. They also built sections of the giant robots and put the actors inside to do their own stunts, which del Toro said was physically exhausting for the actors. The goal of these less digital techniques was to create a world that appears more real and help the audience connect to that world and the characters that inhabit it.

Additionally, Ben Kendrick, managing editor for Screen Rant, tells BTR that del Toro used certain camera effects—oil splattering on the lens and other objects flying into the camera—in order to make the audience feel more immersed in the world of Pacific Rim.

“I do think filmmakers…have now realized that just having realistic looking things isn’t enough and that they have to come up with some creative ways to help ground those CGI effects into the actual world that they’re supposed to exist in,” Kendrick says.

Traditionally, the best received movies are those that find the right balance between computer-generated visual effects and real sets, actors, costumes, etc. Many movies in the past year have been criticized for an excess of CGI including Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as well as Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Both movies were slammed for looking too surreal, or otherwise cartoon-y.

Chad Van Alstin, a reviewer for, explains that directors shouldn’t rely too heavily on digital effects. He points out that Peter Jackson used more computer-generated imagery in The Hobbit than in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it didn’t work.

“I think you have to use CGI appropriately. It’s a really valuable tool and for some movies it’s fully appropriate to go gung-ho on the CGI, a good example is the first Transformers, which I thought was a really good movie and there’s a ton of CGI,” Van Alstin says. “But in general if you can do something with models, and you can do something with props and having real backgrounds that are actual locations, then that should still be done.”

The 3D film format has been on the rise since James Cameron’s Avatar became the top grossing film of all time, but Cameron recently criticized the film industry for using 3D all wrong. Cameron himself conceds the influence, telling Vulture that studios push directors to use 3D even though they might not be comfortable doing so, and the movie doesn’t require a 3D format.

Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and all those movies should not necessarily be in 3D,” said Cameron. “If you spend $150 million on visual effects, the film is already going to be spectacular.”

Increasingly movies are being released in both 2D and 3D, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense for a particular movie to be in 3D. In which case, some critics feel Hollywood is using the format as a gimmick to attract audiences and charge them extra to for their movie theater experience.

However, as Kendrick points out, visual effects, CGI, and the 3D format don’t guarantee a movie will be a big hit. People can go online and talk about films—they can be extremely vocal about whether a movie felt genuine amidst all the digitally created imagery.

The most recent movie that fell victim to such internet backlash is Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Both Funny or Die and poked fun at the movie by envisioning hilarious boardroom scenes in which The Lone Ranger was greenlit.

“Hollywood is really struggling—they’re really earnestly trying—to figure out how to find that balance between giving people CGI and these really imaginative worlds and throwing them into 3D [with] all these new tools that they have,” Kendrick says. “But doing it in a way that’s genuine and it’s in service of the filmmaker’s vision for the movie he or she is making.”

Hopefully Hollywood can take a cue from the public’s opinion—and their wallets—in order to create more realistic, enjoyable, and intelligent movies. Computer-generated imagery is still relatively new to the film industry and they might just be working out the kinks in the creative process.