|The Dreaded Green Screen of Blah|
The most recent (and thankfully the last) of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies was, unsurprisingly, just as disappointing as the first two. The same director that gave us The Lord of the Rings in beautiful, bordering on obsessive detail, turned around and gave us a series that feels rushed and unloved. Despite the fact that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was a box office success, it is an aesthetic disaster and that disaster can be summed up in three letters: CGI. Some think that computer generated imagery is just a tool, but it has become so much more than that. It might be the most corrupting influence in the movies today, seducing and ruining some of our most talented artists, of whom Jackson is one of the most ambitious and, sadly, obvious examples.
Many movies today use CGI. Some rely on it much more heavily than others, and the best ones apply it in such a way that makes it impossible to tell when and how it’s used. In The Lord of the Rings movies Jackson showed us how to use CGI strategically, a textbook example for making a fantasy world appear beautiful and, more importantly, real. Then, for some reason, using the same source material, some of the same actors and seemingly striving for the same epic vision, Jackson lost his artistic bearings to a computer program—it’s the aesthetic equivalent of robots conquering the world and smashing every last vestige of human feeling to dust. Every scene in The Hobbit series reeks of the computer. The imagery is so crisp, perfectly rendered, and ordered that it just doesn’t look or feel right. As the Matrix movies point out, there’s something wrong with perfection and it always gives itself away. At first blush, this might seem a crazy criticism, but even in a fantasy world we demand a sense of realism, a sense that what we’re seeing could be real and, more to the point, human.
|The Rivendell of Lord of the Rings|
The elf city of Rivendell looks entirely different in The Hobbit than it does in Fellowship of the Ring. For Fellowship Jackson’s team built detailed miniatures, sets on location and in the studio. They then used CGI to blend them all together into one seamless experience. As a result, Rivendell looks like a real place that you could visit, or at least a where a human being actually take a breath. The important thing is real affects and real sets came first, and afterwards, Jackson’s team used CGI to augment what is essentially an actual world. For The Hobbit, almost no part of Rivendell was physically real. Jackson filmed his actors in front of a green screen and then dropped them into computer-generated sets afterwards. I applaud the actors for doing as well as they did, considering that they not only had to act, but also had to guess at what was happening around them.
|The Rivendell of the Hobbit|
In The Lord of the Rings Jackson and his team achieved the effect of Gandalf being taller than the halflings through the use of forced perspective and visual trickery. In The Hobbit, they filmed Gandalf and the dwarves separately and then digitally placed them in the same scenes. This is not conducive to good acting. Acting is more than just hitting the mark and giving lines. Reacting to other actors, as well as the physical world, is a large part of what makes acting credible. In order for actors to seem real, they have to be able to react in subtle ways to what is around them, and in most cases they just can’t do that when they’re acting in a green void.
When a character or creature is clearly the product of a computer, it becomes difficult to see them as anything more than a special effect. The orcs in The Lord of the Rings were mostly played by real people wearing prosthetics, with the exception of parts of the armies that were shot from a distance. Each orc, like the real actors that played them, had unique and individual faces, differing body types and even, kudos to the costume designers, their own individually designed armor. It gave the orc scenes specificity grounded in reality. They looked like a real, diverse army—grungy, dirty and scary. In contrast, the Hobbit orcs look shiny, plastic and new, the product of a CGI cloning scheme. Even Azog, the main antagonist for most of the films, is mostly a creation of CGI. Look at him, he has the stiff CGI mouth that’s so common among the computer generated set. It’s hard to be afraid of a character that is the product of pixels. Not to mention his army, which seems populated by a million versions of the same orc. Even within the fantasy genre, where pushing the boundaries of what’s possible is expected, a movie needs to adhere to our sense of the real world.
|A real actor playing a real orc in Lord of the Rings|
As the five armies come together near the end of The Hobbit I realized something strange and confusing. First, I counted and could only come up with four. Second, the landscape appeared to shift and change from moment to moment. When they needed a mountain range for giant worms to bust through—boom—mountain range. Need more room to fit a fourth army onto the battlefield? Just shift the location of the lake and push the mountains back—boom—bigger battlefield, more armies. Once again, the illusion that Middle Earth is a real place loses all credibility. With every CGI inconsistency, Jackson, and his team’s sloppiness, become more apparent and aesthetically offensive.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy hit the sweet spot between reality and CGI. The character of Gollum was a CGI miracle. A product of Andy Serkis’s genius, motion capture technology and CGI, you can see the possibilities of the technology when it’s balanced with a real human presence. One of the keys to its success is that Serkis wore motion capture suits and acted out everything scene and delivered all of Gollum’s lines before the creature Gollum was put in his place post-production. This is CGI at its best—when it is used to reinforce the real work that goes into a film. Unfortunately, The Hobbit trilogy did not follow this same method. If it had, we would have gotten a completely different kind of movie, instead of an over-the-top love letter to computer-generated imagery.
|The right way to CGI|
For filmmakers, CGI is incredibly seductive, like crack to a cocaine addict. When used carefully and intelligently it can be amazingly effective as well as beautiful. But when used irresponsibly it can absolutely ruin a film. With such heavy use of CGI, films are becoming less human. It doesn’t have to be that way, as Serkis’s Gollum attests, not to mention his riveting performances in the Planet of the Apes movies. But once the illusion of real characters in a real environment is shattered, art is lost to the computer.
|Generic Hobbit Orc, so sad|
©Kelly Airo and the CCA Arts Review