Movie nerds sure do love to hate on CGI, don’t they? Since being introduced to movies around the 1990s or so, computer-generated imagery, or CGI, has become an essential tool for filmmakers….and a frequent punching bag for audiences and critics. Usually their criticisms aren’t without merit, as despite the advances made in the technology, CGI still has a host of problems. Objects and characters created with CGI will appear somehow “off,” lacking an almost indescribable sense of weight and mass. Characters will have a very subtle “wrongness” about them, a strange quality to the facial movements or the way light reflects off skin. CGI creations will look fake, lacking a sense of tangibility or depth.
They’re all valid complaints, and they all come from the same place: a lack of visual fidelity. CGI objects will all too often fail to look “real” in a convincing way. But there’s another problem that CGI brings to the table, or at least seems to foster. Rather than being a problem of visual fidelity, this is a problem of aesthetic.
CGI, now more than ever, gives filmmakers and designers a palette to work with that has no limits. Through computer effects, almost any visual you can dream up can be put to the screen, from fantastical alien landscapes to mind-bending cosmic vistas. There are no limits to what CGI can create, or at least very few. Designers are no longer limited to working with physical materials, subject to the laws of physics and the need for construction and maintenance. They can design whatever they want, free from any kind of practical limitation.
The problem is, this opportunity opens up the door to a very real aesthetic concern, which for our purposes we’ll call aesthetic overindulgence.
Not too long ago, a new photo was released for the upcoming Justice League movie, showing the entire team (minus Superman) about to head into action. Front and center in this lineup is Ray Fisher’s character, Cyborg, and you couldn’t ask for a better example of aesthetic overindulgence. Cyborg’s body is a sea of tiny details. Polygonal-looking geometric patterns, dots of light, and exposed cybernetic inner workings are all jockeying for the viewer’s attention. The result is that Cyborg’s body is made up of a sort of visual noise, an overwhelming deluge of detail and information. Nothing about it sticks out in the mind, because there are almost no striking, iconic aspects for the eye to catch on to. In the same way that someone could be said to “not see the forest for the trees,” in this case you can’t see the design for the details.
This “overdesigned” aesthetic is nothing especially new for Hollywood. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies have been emblematic of this problem from the get-go, and the Iron Man suits in recent Marvel movies have been edging towards it as well. Rather than striking out for a design that captures a memorable iconography, designers are overloading their creations with detail and visual information. They start designing a thing, be it a character, an object, or a creature, and never stop.
To lay the blame for the rise of this aesthetic tendency entirely at CGI would be reductive, but all the same, CGI’s hand in this shouldn’t be ignored. In the days when creations like Cyborg had to be physically built and filmed, designers had to work under the constraints of their medium. They were working with physical materials, and as such had to design something that could be easily built, maintained, and transported, something that could stand up to the rigors of a movie set, that could be easily touched up and repaired as needed. These constraints dictated, or at least influenced, the aesthetics of their creations. The medium, to one degree or another, always influences the aesthetic.
But objects designed and rendered in a computer follow no such constraints. With CGI you can create an object which would either be impossible to replicate with physical materials, or that would be an absolute headache to fabricate, maintain, and film. You can make a design as intricate as your heart desires. But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, designers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
CGI gives designers and visual artists the freedom to overdesign like never before, to detail their creations so intricately that an essential quality is lost. It’s opened the door to an aesthetic which is, purely and simply, ugly. Indulgent designs like Cyborg aren’t memorable because it’s literally impossible to easily process that much visual detail. And that detail becomes the aesthetic, rather than things that people can more easily remember like color, silhouette or the overall shapes and “gestures” of a design. The human memory simply isn’t clear enough for most people to be able to remember that much detail, and as a result the design just doesn’t stick in your head.
Now obviously, physical designs aren’t immune from this problem either. As materials and fabrication methods become more advanced, designers working in physical materials can become prone to this sort of design indulgence as well. Just look at Cyborg’s Justice League teammate, The Flash, whose costume is overloaded with panel lines and what look like pieces of baling wire holding the whole thing together. But even Flash’s new look is preferable to Cyborg’s aesthetic, which pushes well past the limits of visual restraint.
Had the design team behind Justice League been forced to design Cyborg’s look as a physical suit rather than an all-CGI creation, the design would have almost certainly been more restrained and less focused on detail, and would have in all likelihood been better for it. There’s no guarantee of course, because as much as this style is dictated and influenced by the medium it thrives within, it’s also an aesthetic, a trend, a fashion. This is just how a lot of aesthetic design looks these days. It isn’t exclusively because of CGI, but it can be argued that the ability to design objects in a computer has fostered and encouraged this aesthetic.
The good news is that this isn’t a universal problem. The last two entries in the Star Wars franchise have had fantastic visual designs, striking a perfect balance between detail and bold, iconic designs. Admit it; right now you can picture K2SO in your head more clearly than you can Optimus Prime or Cyborg. The bold, simple shapes, at once simplistic and expressive, the clean lines and memorable silhouette stick in your mind like a catchy tune, one built around a clear, well-defined melody. That’s what good visual design is.
CGI is fraught with many problems, ones that probably won’t go away very soon. But the problem of the visual fidelity is just one of the many hurdles that computer effects have yet to overcome. Another one, just as important, is how CGI removes many of the constraints designers working with physical materials had to work under. Though many doubtlessly chafed at these constraints, they also encouraged designers towards an aesthetic which ultimately served the audience: one of clean, bold visuals. The loss of these constraints is probably ultimately a good thing, as the range of visuals and stories that filmmakers and designers can now play in is virtually limitless, but the lessons learned from these constraints, lessons about what makes for interesting, memorable visuals, are showing signs of being lost. CGI is allowing movies and other visual media to move deeper into an aesthetic which does not serve the audience, one in which overwrought detail is taking the place of iconography. More than the discussion around visual fidelity, this is the discussion we need to be having about the problems CGI brings to the table.