Will digital effects ruin Hollywood?

The numbers behind the industry.
Dec. 12 2005 12:58 PM

The Schizoid Split in Movies

Will digital effects ruin Hollywood?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The uneasy marriage between Hollywood and the computer has come a long way since George Lucas made the original Star Wars in 1977. At that time, computer-generated imagery, or CGI, was so expensive that he could afford only a single 90-second sequence—a diagram of the enemy Death Star—which took a battery of computers three months to complete. But, with the doubling of computer power every 18 months, the cost of CGI came down so rapidly that by 1995, it was possible for Pixar Animation Studios to profitably make an entire CGI animated feature, Toy Story. Six years later, with another exponential increase in computer power, Sony largely erased the distinction between cartoons and "reality" movies by using CGI to create all the human-looking actors in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. (The film's digital heroine, Aki Ross, had enough sex appeal to earn her a slot on Maxim's 2001 "Hot 100" list—the first nonexistent person to appear on that list.)

Nowadays, CGI is commonly used to create most, if not all, of the big action sequences in Hollywood movies. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, more than 75 percent of the films, including about 200,000 soldiers, was created partly on computers. Even with advances in computing power, CGI remains incredibly expensive. In Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines, for example, the budget for computer work, including visual effects, creature effects, and special effects, was $28.2 million, which alone was more than four times the entire budget of the original Terminator in 1984. CGI is also such a time-consuming process that it is almost always outsourced to highly specialized companies, many of which are not in Hollywood. (Terminator 3 had its digital effects done by 11 different companies.)

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To accommodate this digital outsourcing, a movie is split into what amounts to two different productions: the live-action movie that's shot in a studio or on location and the CGI movie that's created on computers. During the live-action part, the star often works on a so-called limbo set, aptly named because the actor is in a sort of limbo stage, standing, for example, in an empty room, wearing a green spandex jumpsuit, and mouthing lines of dialogue—which will later be filled in at a looping session—while holding imaginary objects and reacting to imaginary dangers. The CGI production will "paint" elaborate costumes on him, fill in ornate walls and furniture behind him, and insert the object he is holding and the enemy who's threatening him. In the live-action phase of Sum of All Fears, for example, the actor Arnold McCuller sang the national anthem in a limbo set and, months later, CGI technicians created a giant football stadium, thousands of cheering fans, and a sky full of fireworks all around him.

The split in productions is most apparent when directors have to complete the live shooting, and sometimes even the editing of the live footage, before they see the missing CGI layers of the movie. Consider Jonathan Mostow's situation when he directed Terminator 3, which began shooting in Los Angeles in July 2002 and had to be delivered to Warner Brothers 11 months later for a scheduled July 4, 2003, release. Since the outsourced CGI part of the production would take subcontractors, such as Industrial Light and Magic in Silicon Valley, eight months to create on computers, Mostow had no choice but to have them do much of the CGI work from storyboards before he had finished shooting the live-action part. The schizoid nature of this feat is eerily reflected in the division of Schwarzenegger's face: The right side has conventional makeup, the left side is bright green. While Mostow directed the right side of Schwarzenegger's face in Los Angeles, the digital-animation supervisor in San Rafael directed the CGI that became the left side of the face. By the time the CGI was completed, there was no time (or money) to redo it.

"For a filmmaker that is the worst thing you can imagine," Mostow recalled on the DVD. "In the regular rhythm of making movies you shoot, you edit, you hone the editing, and then you add the finishing touches," he said. "Computer graphics turns the normal procedures of filmmaking upside down."

Hollywood studios would like to believe that digital effects are worth the cost, if only because they hold the prospect of a licensing cornucopia for toys and video games. But, alas, the studios also confront the less happy reality that even state-of-the-art CGI, if it gets out of synch with the story, does not create an audience either at the movie houses or on DVD. Sony learned this lesson recently with the $133 million sci-fi bomb Stealth, as did DreamWorks with its $120 million sci-fi bomb, The Island. Despite massive CGI and marketing expenses, neither studio earned back $18 million from the U.S. box office on these films. (Sony, at least, was able to repackage Stealth as part of a video game for its PlayStation Portable.)

To be sure, some directors, notably Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, George Lucas in the Star Wars franchise, and Sam Raimi in the two Spider-Man films, have succeeded brilliantly in overriding audience-alienating effects that proceed from the schizoid split of movies. But fewer and fewer directors have the clout with the studios—or the budget flexibility—to control, even if it means redoing, the CGI side of the production. If this new economy of illusion allows the CGI side of a production to overwhelm the director's ability to tell a coherent story in his live-action side, digital effects may prove to be the ruination of movies.

Correction, Dec. 12, 2005: The article originally stated that Sony gave away a video game of the movie Stealth with its PlayStation Portable. In fact, it added several Stealth-inspired levels and a soundtrack to a pre-existing game.

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