Step back from the train: the worrying growth of wonky CGI

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Poor visual effects are a zero-sum game, but who is going to stand up to this alarming slide in standards? A few thoughts.

In the year 2222, when Film History students sit in their classrooms on Mars, learning about the cinema of the 21st century, you can already begin to predict which topics will be on the curriculum: the rise of streaming platforms; the ‘death’ of the mid-budget theatrical release; maybe even the continuation of a two-century long post-mortem into just what happened with Cats. Also on the list of topics though, might be the death of naturalism in big-budget filmmaking.


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Like almost everything in life, this notion begins and ends with Tom Cruise. 

Cruise is pretty much the last of a dying breed, the kind of movie star who in an age of franchises, sequels and intellectual properties, can still open big. Yes, the parameters of what it takes for a Cruise movie to open huge have reduced significantly over the last couple of decades, but place him in the right type of movie where he’s doing something batshit crazy and people will show up in large numbers. 

With the two Dead Reckoning entries marking Cruise’s exit from the Mission: Impossible series, you might begin to wonder just what comes next. Cruise has leveraged his movie star status in the past to stand up for a good many causes, film production and cinema going not least of them when the pandemic threatened both. And who else came to the aid of TV owners who were flummoxed as to why their shiny and expensive flatscreens made films look about as cinematic as an episode of vintage EastEnders? That would be Cruise via a bizarre but welcome public service announcement. 

What we might miss the most though, is the star’s commitment to the practical aspects of big-budget filmmaking. Sure, he’s not the only producer out there committed to putting crazy sequences on film, but he’s surely the most high-profile. George Miller, Christopher Nolan and yes, Michael Bay are all known for creating their art on a vast, expensive (and crucially,) real-world canvas, but Cruise goes that one step further, painting himself into the creation too. 

Yep, we’ll miss him when he’s gone but we’re beginning to wonder whether the void that he leaves will actually be filled by another human being. 2024 marks Cruise’s Mission: Impossible curtain call but it also sees the release of two other films that may prove influential, not only as to how practical big productions continue to be, but also as to whether naturalism in moviemaking continues to be a priority for studios seeking to put out billion dollar-grossing productions.

Bullet Train

Bullet Train

More on those two films in a moment, but let’s just look first at a couple of movies from this year to give us a flavour of the current patterns of practical filmmaking. First up, consider Bullet Train, a largely practical action flick courtesy of David Leitch, a director who made his name bringing us the kind of physically-oriented productions that Cruise is renowned for. 

In some ways, Bullet Train is a reflection of the kind of increasingly-outmoded style of action storytelling that we’re discussing: an original story built upon eye-popping and practical set pieces, all anchored together by a charismatic movie star performance. It worked for Leitch with Keanu Reeves in John Wick, he repeated the trick with glorious aplomb with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and he’s done it once more with Brad Pitt and Bullet Train. 

Veering off-track

Or has he? In the five years since Leitch directed Atomic Blonde, he would go on to make both Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Both of those films would employ generous dollops of CGI to augment practical sequences and whilst that isn’t surprising given the nature of those franchises, Leitch’s next original and less expansive venture, namely Bullet Train, would to some degree do the same. Going as spoiler-light as possible given that the sequence in question occurs deep into the film’s third act, a film that has managed to be practical in nature throughout much of its runtime suddenly finds itself utilising some very poor-looking CGI backdrop work right at the end. 

It’s a lowlight to an otherwise perfectly decent movie but Bullet Train isn’t the only culprit of late to spoil great practical action sequences with shoddy CGI overkill. Netflix’s The Gray Man is another serviceable action flick with some great practical action sequences but for this writer, the film squandered its hard-earned credibility at the midway point, going off the rails (sorry) when a runaway tram sequence resorts to some very questionable CGI, tarnishing the practical moments that had come before it and breaking the immersion of the film. 

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing abundantly clear: this is not an attack in the direction of the talented studios who produce CGI. The visual effects industry is in something of a tough spot at the moment, having been placed in an unenviable position by the naked profit-chasing of studios. Lack of unionisation, rapid growth and a monopoly of power and influence held by too few studios who hold all of the cards, has resulted in increasingly disadvantageous situations for VFX companies. 

Ryan Gosling in The Gray Man

The Gray Man

Along with stunt performers, you can make the argument that VFX studios are the backbone of the modern blockbuster industry yet neither profession is recognised or recompensed with any real degree of fairness. Back-end deals for example are practically non-existent for both industries, despite the fact that both stunt performers and VFX companies have just as much to do with the three billion dollar success of a movie like Avengers: Endgame as Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth. 

The Oscar-winning team behind Ang Lee’s Life of Pi’s VFX sequences memorably tried to use their awards speech in 2014 to highlight this growing problem, including the bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues, one notable VFX studio, when Lee reportedly demanded radical changes to the digital tiger for which Rhythm and Hues were responsible. The terms of the studio’s deal meant that it had to finance the changes out of its own pocket which in turn led to its financial undoing. Why don’t you remember that sterling Oscars speech? The Academy didn’t let them get three words out before they turned up the music and effectively yanked them from the stage. Classy.

Retraining expectations

In the years since, things haven’t improved with many headlines of late suggesting that  both Netflix and Marvel Studios are guilty of standardising such questionable behaviour across the entire industry. The problem here is that this is ultimately a zero sum game where nobody wins. As viewers, we end up with an inferior films that lose all sense of naturalism. Look at Marvel Studio’s She-Hulk for example, a brilliant show, full of humour and humanity, perhaps even the best MCU series since WandaVision, horribly let down by some terrible visual effects whenever the title character appears.

For studios, it’s not a sustainable strategy either. Granted, in the short term they might make a few more dollars cutting corners here and offering reduced rates there, but if the VFX industry continues to be treated as a schlocky and cheap shoe-in rather than the art form it clearly is, films will suffer (even more than they already are), audiences will lose interest and the blockbuster model (which at the moment is almost single-handedly holding theatrical exhibition together in some parts of the world,) will wane. 

Mad Max Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road

And most important of all, those working in the industry will be the biggest losers. Treated as an expendable resource, the dream of working on a major Hollywood movie turns out to be a reality of endless stress, unrealistic demands and never-ending crunch. Is it too late for the practical blockbuster to arrest this depressing slide? With Tom Cruise surely set to walk away from practical blockbuster exploits in the next few years, you wonder who will step up to champion this approach in his absence. The second part of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning arrives in 2024 along with two other films which may yet prove important. One is Furiosa, George Miller’s follow-up to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a project which is sure to remind audiences of the superiority of practical blockbusters. 

The other film is David Leitch’s take on The Fall Guy. That production is based on the 1980s TV show in which a moonlighting Hollywood stuntman gets involved in all sorts of adventures and as such, should feature some big stunt sequences. At one point, Leitch looked like one of the few candidates to continue in the footsteps of Miller and Cruise,  pushing for realism in blockbuster movies but with his last few films, it seems the director may have succumbed to advances of CGI and not for the better, we’d argue. Whether The Fall Guy opts for a solely practical approach remains to be seen, but frankly, we’re not holding our breath. 

A new train of thought?

Admittedly, to some degree this piece is a retread of oft-argued idea: that the rise of CGI is somehow bad for cinema. Whilst that’s an incredibly reductive summary that ignores all the brilliance that it brings us, the argument itself is something of a timeworn one. However, what is alarming here is the speed with which all of the pieces are moving into place to signal the sad decline of naturalism in blockbuster filmmaking.

They key here, we suppose lies with the creators, the David Leitchs, Chad Stahelskis and Russo Brothers of this world. Perhaps they need to show a little more restraint when studios are inducing them to up the scale of their ambitions to pull in audiences with big CGI-augmented ‘trailer-friendly’ moments. Maybe they need to stand firm when studios only offer them the green-light if they resort to cheaper CGI alternatives.

For sure, filmmakers need to do a better job of educating themselves as to how the VFX process works, so unrealistic demands and expectations become a thing of the past. Having mentioned Cats at the beginning of this piece, that’s just one of many examples of a film that was seriously undone by its director not really understanding the strengths and limitations of the visual effects that underpinned the movie he was making.

At some point, these filmmakers have to stand up and be counted. For this writer, Bullet Train didn’t really need that overblown sequence at the end, especially given how compromised its realisation was and especially in light of how it undid some of the film’s luscious production design up until that point. The same is true of the tram sequence in The Gray Man, but then again, when the Russo Brothers, who came of blockbuster age working on huge CGI-stacked Marvel films are overseeing production, is it really any surprise?

Cruise will eventually be gone. George Miller will be almost eighty years old when Furiosa releases. In their absence, who will champion practical blockbusters with the same vehemence that they have? With no direct live-action rival to be compared unfavourably to, VFX will be allowed to slide in quality as film studios seek to eke out further profits by squeezing VFX companies even more tightly than they are now. 

Naturalism in blockbuster filmmaking will be replaced by mushy pixels and those film students on Mars will never know the thrill of seeing a human being actually jump off the world’s tallest building. Nor will they ever taste the glory of a wonderfully madcap action sequence involving hundreds of real vehicles roaring through a real desert whilst a guy playing a guitar with flames shooting out of it orchestrates the wonder and scale of it all like some deranged virtuoso.

And whilst we didn’t quite envisage this piece ending with that particular strange description, you have to agree that losing unforgettable moments of cinematic naturalism such as that? Well, it works to nobody’s advantage, the very definition of a zero sum game.

Lead image: BigStock

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