VOTD: CG Effects Suck, Except That They Mostly Don't

We've made the point several times in the past, but there's always reason to make it again: the use of CG may be terrible, but on the whole CG is a great effects tool, especially when used invisibly. A new video collects some arguments against CG and a great many examples of great CG to make the point, in near-definitive fashion, that CG imagery is among the most useful filmmaking tools we have available — it just has to be used well. 

Here's the video, from Rocket Jump, which doesn't even include the excellent CG in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

OK, with that video out there let's approach this from a different angle.

Earlier this week I expressed love for a moment in behind the scenes footage of You, The Living, from Swedish director Roy Andersson. (His most recent film is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a "sequel" to You, The Living.)

Andersson is known for his detail-oriented, even fastidious, possibly even obsessive attention to production design. He builds very specific sets for each sequence in his films. For the most part, each set is meant to be photographed only one way. These films from Andersson rarely have traditional scene coverage. Most scenes are one single shot — no close-ups, no reverse angles, nothing outside one specific camera placement. Everything is built to work for one camera angle.

Here's the footage in question, featuring a simple outdoor location that is revealed to be location-turned-set in which well-placed practical artistry changes the space to Andersson's taste. Press play to see what I'm talking about. (Update: I've since seen this documentary footage on the big screen, and it's not even a location — it's a set entirely built in the studio, as almost all of Andersson's "locations" are.)

As someone who spent years building and dressing sets, I love that. The craft is wonderful. I've seen You, The Living on the big screen, and it never occurred to me that parts of that set were just small bits of painted wood or cardboard. It's so elegant, if not exactly simple. (And the city map that follows is incredible.)

But as crafty as that practical solution may be, for 99% of the films out there it could be achieved just as well, perhaps even better, with CG.

I'm not saying Roy Andersson should replace his very extensive set-building practice with CG. I love that he built a full beach set in the studio for Pigeon, for example, or that his team spent weeks building that city map in the video above. In this case, the time and expense used to create a set is in the service of Andersson's specific artistic approach.

For most filmmakers, however, this sort of thing wouldn't be an option, and it wouldn't fit their particular vision. It's what Andersson does, but for most other filmmakers such a location change would just be another minor hurdle rather than a massive set build.

There's every reason to champion practical effects, especially when used for a specific artistic or personal purpose, but there's just as much reason to embrace CG when used to make set design and production easier or better. That's what the vast amount of CG does, which is what makes most CG all but invisible.