Attack of the Synthespians

I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were a way to make movies without actors, George would do it,” says Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the 1970s Star Wars trilogy, in reference to director George Lucas.

In the self-serving documentary attached to the video release of George Lucas’ godawful prequel Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, various Industrial Light and Magic-employed computer geeks, their eyes glazed and pleading in typical hyping-the-company-line fashion, preach the gospel of their employer’s groundbreaking computer-generated imagery technology, which was applied unsparingly in Phantom Menace.

“The palette has been extended for artists to a huge level!” one of them boldly exclaims with the conviction of a true believer, or at least a stockholder.

Then Lucas smugly pipes in. “The process of filmmaking,” he intones, “has turned a corner that’s going to open up a lot of opportunities for people to fully express their ideas.”

At first glance, getting a “poly"-rigged, pidgin-English-spouting rabbit-man to step, believably, into a pile of digitally animated poo doesn’t seem to be too substantial a leap in cinematic artistry. But let’s face it—the nerds are right. These days, digital effects own the event flick-driven Hollywood that Lucas helped create; the entire edifice is fabricated from virtual “polygons"—geekspeak for the structural building blocks of computer graphics.

From the digitally rendered sets in X-Men to the disappearing act in Hollow Man to the killer waves of The Perfect Storm, computer-generated trickery dominated the offerings at cinema multiplexes this summer. But computer graphics are also infecting more “serious” fare, from the expanded coliseum set in Gladiator to digitally swelled crowd shots in Almost Famous.

Just what kind of impact is all this newfangled digital F/X technology making on the “product” cranked out by Hollywood’s mega-budget dream factories?

Well, for numbers-crunching movie studios, all of which are mere synergistic fingers on the entertainment-division appendages of globo-corporate behemoths, whose laser-like focus seems to be on the bottom line, CGI technology’s appeal is simple: risk management.

Think. Soon, there will be no need for a filmmaker to risk a potentially disastrous overseas shoot, because Paris or London backdrops can be digitally replicated in the studio’s computer lab. And why risk a stuntman’s life filming a dangerous, explosives-filled action scene when a computer can generate both the explosion and the stuntman?

While it’s high-minded to save lives here and there, ask yourself this: Is placing even greater “creative” control in the hands of these studios a worthwhile goal? The principal benefit to using computer-generated imagery seems to be that studios now can minimize risks. But considering the spineless “palette” of film franchises and event flicks that the studios are green-lighting these days, an even more risk-averse Hollywood doesn’t sound particularly appealing.

Adding to that middlebrow skittishness is the financial bloat attached to CGI technology. You might think a filmmaker with a larger budget might take more risks, but the inverse is often the case. And digital effects—despite all those projections that they would lower film costs—have actually helped send them soaring.

What’s most important, though, is what’s up on the screen. And, at this point, despite numerous advances in the field, CGI effects flat-out look like shit.WATCHING THE POLYGON SWELLS OF THE PERFECT STORM, the whooshing pod racers in The Phantom Menace or the digitally enhanced vistas of The Patriot, the effect is at once overstimulating and underwhelming. The addition of computer-generated images to a scene makes everything on-screen look gelatinously cartoonish. The images have a gleaming, liquid surfacelessness. Your eye can’t quite lock in on anything, and yet the effects are such a fidgety distraction that you can’t focus on anything else.

Sure, CGI effects can produce a volcano or a twister or a velociraptor with far greater detail and range of motion than models or optical effects ever could, but there’s also something about these images that’s far too polished to be taken seriously.

What they don’t express is the grime of life: In the original Star Wars, the model used for the Millennium Falcon was intentionally covered in dust and muck, but in such contemporary CGI spendthrifts as The Phantom Menace and X-Men, even the dirt seems to gleam and jiggle.

The chief mantra of these digital artists is that CGI is actually granting a new brand of artistic freedom to filmmakers—one limited only by their imaginations. Now, instead of compromising one’s vision to physical logistics and limitations, as Lucas claims he was forced to do on the original Star Wars, a filmmaker can reproduce it down to the grandest or most minute detail.

Instead of being stymied by a malfunctioning shark model on a difficult sea shoot, as Steven Spielberg was when he made Jaws, filmmakers can digitally manufacture both the shark and the sea, and get them to bend and flex to their will, as Renny Harlin did on Deep Blue Sea. Expensive and logistically backbreaking crowd shots like those in The Patriot or The Mummy can be created without having to wrangle thousands of extras or construct monumental sets, as D.W. Griffith and David Lean had to when they were making films.

CGI’s boosters tend to paint the technology as the top rung of obsessive Kubrick-ian control, one in which the filmmaker has the most specifically detailed control possible. In post-production, for example, they can add a sunset that wasn’t there, change the colors of an actor’s eyes or rub out a microphone that accidentally dipped into the frame line.

Sounds OK, but consider this bon mot from Phantom Menace producer Rick McCallum: “On Episode 1, we basically had more freedom than George ever had on the original Star Wars film, and that’s really due to digital technology.” So who says freedom is necessarily a good thing?

I would suggest that computer-generated imagery might actually handcuff filmmakers creatively, rather than unshackle them. If a director has been locked in to over 2,000 blue-screen effects shots before he or she even begins shooting, that doesn’t leave much room for lateral creative motion on the set. The director’s freedom to re-write and improvise at will, to work out a film’s kinks on the fly, seems severely limited by their F/X commitments.

This would help to explain the flat, awkward compositions in The Phantom Menace, which, with its wholesale reliance on computer-generated sets and interactive digital characters as well as its stiffly bewildered human presences, truly represents the future of Hollywood filmmaking. (Menace star Liam Neeson, perhaps sensing his encroaching irrelevance, retired from film acting after he completed shooting this self-baster.)

Unfortunately, even though there’s already an un-tactile lack of humanity to the digital images that’s disconcerting and even alienating, the rampant proliferation of digital technology all seems to be heading in one direction: “synthespians,” computer-generated human actors in live-action films. Many digital film artists consider them the Holy Grail of CGI film technology.

But in the end, computer-generated imagery, like any other artistic medium, succeeds or fails depending on the artist using it. As Industrial Light & Magic model-shop artist turned digital wonk Paul Huston commented to John Seabrook of The New Yorker magazine prior to the release of The Phantom Menace, “To me, it comes down to whether you look to the computer for your reality or whether you look out there in the world.”

You hearing this, Lucas?