CGI, the unhuman, and the future of cinema

Some filmmakers think they’ll find the answer in CGI or 3D, but the very beating heart of cinema rests in the people we see on that screen.

—Francis Ford Coppola.[1]

Cinema does for us what campfire did for our ancestors. We sit in the dark, gathered around a flickering light, and tell each other stories.

And stories (whether silhouetted by fire or projected onto the silver screen) only work when we can identify with them. When the characters are people like us. When we can read ourselves into the plot. When the set locations remind us of somewhere we’ve been. That’s why film lovers are not escapists. We are realists. We want movies that expose the drama of our everyday lives. We want to see our lives, writ large.


We were built for storytelling. Photo courtesy of renu parkhi.

That’s why Lord of the Rings resonate so strongly, and the Star Wars prequels fall flat. Peter Jackson shot actual sets, real miniatures, and physical effects whenever possible. The world, though fantastical, feels real. Conversely, George Lucas eschewed physical sets. He filmed his actors on green screen, pasting them into entirely illusory environments later. If he could’ve gotten away with it, he might have have erased the actors themselves. As a result, the Star Wars prequels are astoundingly alien; they are ‘escapist’ fantasy, in the worst sense. They are unstories, populated by unpeople–wooden facsimiles hovering over papercraft sets.

Coppola is right. CG can’t compete with flesh-and-blood drama.

At least… not yet. Film technology continues to push past boundaries. Could Avatar mark a turning point–from digital counterfeits to lifelike imitations? Eventually, CG faces will no longer resemble reanimated corpses. Digitally-programmed voices will master the subtleties and timbre of human speech. When software can calculate (and conjure) convincing performances, will human actors lose their jobs? Will directors opt for digitized replicants over living primadonnas, with their fat contracts and luxury trailers and fragile egos?[2]

  1. Purported. The @FrancisFCoppola Twitter account has since been taken down.  ↩

  2. Then again, if you can replace the actors, why not the director (and everyone else), too? Couldn’t we perfect algorithms for writing scripts, choosing camera angles, or splicing together shots? Why bother with people at all?  ↩