In this post-Avatar, post-Lord of the Rings world, are we at the point where CGI characters seem “real” enough in live-action surroundings that our eyes can’t tell the difference anymore? And, if not, will we ever get there?
I ask because of seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost talk about the (CGI-ed) title character in their upcoming comedy, Paul. In a recent interview with Empire magazine, however, they talk about the worry that having a third of your main cast be CGI brings, and how they plan to get around the problem. “If people don’t forget that Paul is a CG character within ten minutes of meeting him, we’ve done something wrong. He should not be anything special. He should be one of the gang,” says Frost, while Pegg adds, “There are bits of dialogue where he just talks and does a lot of theorizing about religion and sexuality and he swears a lot. We’ve not seen a CG character do that before.” Reading that, I thought, “Wait, swearing is the important novelty value here?” And then I thought, “People won’t forget that Paul is a CG character.”
I doubt many people would disagree with me that Avatar is, by far, the highpoint of CGI at this point. There’s no doubting the amazing amount of work that went into that movie’s visuals, and countless shots are breathtaking in their beauty and complexity. And yet… Is it “realistic” enough to fool you into convincing you to ignore the technique and fiction of it all? The Na’vi look photoreal, yes, but there’s still something about them – And I think it’s the facial movements, and the fact that there’s something too smooth, almost, about them – that seems false, and it breaks the spell just enough for the doubt to creep in.
At the Avatar Blu-Ray junket a few weeks ago, it was suggested by WETA spokespeople that CGI technology was at the point where news footage could be convincingly entirely fabricated, if someone had enough time and money (and motion capture suits), and no-one would be able to tell the difference. I’m not sure that’s true, just yet, but I think that every new big movie with CGI interacting with live-action is pushing us further towards that (It’s actually one of the main reasons I want to see Tron Legacy, to see how the de-aged Jeff Bridges looks). Doing so, and seeing CGI aimed towards a seemless transition with reality underlines Avatar director James Cameron’s assertion that CGI should be a filmmaking tool, and not a gimmick – an idea I can totally get behind – but it also makes me feel as if we’re all missing the point, occasionally. Yes, I’m looking forward to the point where Harry Potter can jump onto his broom and not look as if he’s suddenly lost all bones in his body or whatever, but… is there anything wrong with Paul, a character who comes from another planet, looking unreal? More often than not, CGI is used to create that which doesn’t happen naturally – Instead of becoming obsessed with verisimilitude, can’t that just be one aim for CGI, with another, equally important, one being to push how far it can take our imaginations? Not everything has to look real, after all. And maybe some things would look better not looking real at all.