Has CGI become unfashionable among mainstream filmmakers?

oppenheimer cgi
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Films like Barbie and Oppenheimer were (falsely) said to have been made without CGI. Are VFX artists being unfairly airbrushed from movie-making, Ryan wonders…

Poles apart in terms of story and tone though they were, last year’s Barbie and Oppenheimer were both partly marketed on their use of traditional filmmaking techniques and lack of CGI. Greta Gerwig and her team built physical (and very pink) sets for Barbie Town, we were told; Christopher Nolan had used untold barrels of fuel and good, old-fashioned pyrotechnics to simulate the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

For several weeks, outlets carried stories with headlines like, “Barbie Filmed These Scenes Without CGI,” (Yahoo) and such choice quotes as “It’s exactly as they’d have done it in the 1910s” – which came from movie historian Pamela Hutchinson, speaking to The Guardian last July. Vogue magazine ran a lengthy feature about Barbie’s production which stated, rather boldly, “There is no CGI in Barbie Land, which was built in and shot at Warner Bros Studios in Hertfordshire, outside London.”

In fairness, the claims were more-or-less true – Barbie and Oppenheimer really did use a lot of in-camera effects in their making. The bit that isn’t true is that neither film used any CGI whatsoever; a quick look at Barbie’s credits on IMDb will reveal that, like most other expensive 21st century films, the visual effects team comprised well over 200 people.

The desire to tout Barbie’s ‘no CGI’ credentials was such that the makers of its behind-the-scenes materials did something rather unusual: in all the on-set footage edited together for the home release’s making-of documentary, they made sure the viewer never saw a single blue screen background.

Credit: Warner Bros.

In a shot where Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are shown seated in a pink convertible, for example, they’re clearly on a soundstage with a blue backdrop behind them; to avoid showing this, the documentary’s makers have composited in the backdrop viewers would have seen in the finished film.

This odd editorial decision was first picked up by YouTube channel The Movie Rabbit Hole, and brought to this writer’s attention by another channel on the platform, Corridor Crew. In the latter’s video, they showed several clips from Barbie’s making-of featurette, including closeups which gave away the tell-tale signs of digital compositing.

As pointed out by Jordan Allen, a VFX artist who regularly co-hosts Corridor Crew’s videos, the whole idea of a behind-the-scenes documentary is to provide an insight into how films are made. If what purports to be on-set footage is digitally manipulated after the fact, then it no longer performs the same function.

“At a certain point,” Allen said, “there’s almost a responsibility, if you’re showing a behind-the-scenes, to be truthful, because so many people are watching these with interest in how things are made. And if you’re giving an unrealistic expectation of what the work is or where we are technologically, it’s very disingenuous.”

This subtle erasure of effects work – even if it’s something relatively minor, like compositing – is perhaps a sign of a changing attitude towards the use of CGI among certain sectors of the film industry. The 2023 Guardian article linked above talks about ‘CGI fatigue’, citing Marvel’s Thor: Love And Thunder as an example of a recent movie that relies too heavily on VFX to create its fantastical characters and environments.

That film is contrasted with the practical effects work of Barbie, Oppenheimer, Beau Is Afraid and Talk To Me, with their techniques compared favourably to the works of such filmmaking icons as Powell and Pressburger. There’s the vague suggestion here that these sorts of films are the organic, free-range alternative to the processed, hydrogenated fat-filled effects flicks made by Marvel and the like. That there’s something more down to earth, more honest, about movies that fall back on time-honoured filmmaking approaches.

From a movie-going person’s perspective, there’s perhaps a grain of truth to this. Denis Villeneuve’s decision to take his actors and film them out in real-world deserts, rather than capture their performances in a studio and add the sand in later, turn his Dune movies into tangible, immersive events – particularly when viewed in IMAX, when all that particulate detail can be truly seen and felt.

It’s also true that Marvel’s increased reliance on filming actors separately, then compositing them into one shot later, contributes to a growing sense of numbness and inauthenticity in its weaker output. Marvel isn’t the first studio to do this – George Lucas was comping actors from separate takes together way back in the late 1990s – but you only have to compare its earlier output, like Iron Man, with something like The Marvels, to see just how much CGI there is in its movies these days, and that the impact on its dramatic scenes is changed by this approach.

Even actor Teyonah Paris, who played Monica Rambeau, recently expressed a certain level of dismay about filming The Marvels’ post-credits scene, and only later finding out that her character had shared it with another famous comic book hero who was added in post-production.

Top Gun Maverick
Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Dialling back on the amount of CGI used in movies, and capturing more stuff in-camera, is potentially a good thing from a storytelling perspective. But pretending that digital filmmaking techniques, from wire removal to digital compositing and more besides, aren’t an everyday part of making movies is at best ‘disingenuous’, to use Corridor Crew’s word, and also disrespectful to the thousands of people who diligently work in post-production.

Barbie physically built lots of sets, but it still required digital techniques to bring its story to life. Christopher Nolan may love shooting on film and building miniatures, but the atomic explosion sequence still bears the hallmarks of digital compositing.

Top Gun: Maverick, a film heavily sold on its practical flying sequences, still used lots of CGI – in fact, the YouTube channel Creative Tech Digest reckons there’s about 2,400 VFX shots in Joseph Kosinski’s legacy sequel. Tom Cruise may have done a lot of impressive flying work in real jets for the film, but the suggestion that everything seen in it was captured in-camera is demonstrably false.

What unites these movies, and others like them, is that their VFX and footage merge so seamlessly that it’s often difficult to see the join. This, surely, is the gold standard for filmmakers – to make movies that use all the techniques we’ve acquired over the past 130 or more years, and turn them into something truly immersive.

At the same time, filmmakers surely ought to refrain from trying to minimise the work of VFX artists and post-production workers, purely because CGI has somehow too unfashionable to highlight. To quote VFX artist Jordan Allen again, “The biggest teams involved in productions should get a little more respect.”

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