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Is CGI Still A Problem For Audiences?

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.


  • Jetstorm

    The level of reality of CGI should depent on the objective of the character / scene. if you mant two actors jumping from a plane, and having a shoot out in free fall. CGI should look as real as posible. If you want to make unreal aliens interact with humans, that could look as fake as the hulk in hte first hulk movie.

  • JohnLees

    One of the best examples of CGI I’ve seen was probably Davey Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”. Because at first I was incredibly impressed with the state-of-the-art prosthetics, before I realised it was CGI.

  • Jrau18

    “And yet… Is it “realistic” enough to fool you into convincing you to ignore the technique and fiction of it all?” that was a clusterk*ck of a sentence. Should have made it “Is it ‘realistic’ enough to convince you to ignore” or “Is it ‘realistic’ enough to fool you into ignoring” Convince or fool need to go.

    Also, I think we’re ready. We’ve haven’t seen modern CGI try to replicate a person. I think it can be done.

  • Cambuil

    Avatars cgi was great – for a computer game. But those stupid blue cat people are so obviously cgi you might as well try to convince me that the cartoon characters meshed seamlessly with the live action characters in Roger Rabbit.

  • Alex Dragon

    I’m pretty sure a movie with a realistic CGI person can be done because it’s done now and people don’t notice. In many movies a CGI person has been inserted and people couldn’t tell. They probably aren’t quite at the point were they could focus on a CGI person close up or for long periods of time but I predict they’ll be able to in a few years.

    One of the key things to pulling this off is to not actually tell people it’s a CGI person. If you tell people going in it’s a CGI person they’ll fixate on it and think they see flaws that don’t even exist. Many of the people who claim they can spot CGI effects only can do so because they know where to look and probably wouldn’t notice on their own.

  • something

    I could honestly care less about cgi effects or things looking real. Give me a movie with a terrible script, terrible actors and terrible effects and I’ll be happy. Birdemic seriously made my year, I couldn’t stop laughing.

  • Derrick Fish

    All in all, a really good article, but I disagree that it was the faces in AVATAR that broke the illusion. Personally, I think the facial animation was hauntingly realistic, to the degree that I was completely lost in each actors performance. (Particularly, Zoe Saldana who I had the benefit of JUST watching in Star Trek, so her manerisims were very fresh in my mind.) I think it comes in the motion of the extended, stretched out bodies. CGI isn’t particularly suited at replicating the bending and contorting of human limbs, and I think this show in Avatar. Especially in the slow motion shots when Jake is being chased by the big panther monster thingy. In slow motion, all I could see was the flaws and it pushed me slightly out of the experience.

    Of course, it’s all subjective to the viewer and what their expectations were going in. You used the term “verisimilitude”, and I think that’s the perfect word because it requires both realism and TRUTH. Truth doesn’t require perfectly perfect perfection, just believability. If you can allow yourself to believe in a character regardless of how it was created because the CHARACTER compels you to through it’s performance, then it wont matter if you can tell it’s CGI any more than we could tell Christopher Reeve was on wires in front of a blue screen. He was Superman and he flew.

    P.S.: I do agree with JohnLees that the work on Davy Jones in “Dead Man’s Chest” was probably the most realistically convincing CGI character work. I was quite stunned to learn it was 100% cgi, as I also thought it was simply the best prosthetics work ever.

  • Sijo

    I’m pretty sure this will happen- SFX technology has advanced far beyond what I believed just years ago. My problems with this are: why use hundreds of millions of dollars to do something you could do with real actors/? And also: do we REALLY want technology that could fool us that way? Could we then trust anything we see on the news? Imagine a fake broadcast of an incident like 911. How much could we be manipulated by it?

  • Sonofspam

    I thin directors have more problems with it than the audience.

  • comic relief

    Referring to my experience with the Hulk; I would like to say I can suspend my visual perception and my imagination will correct, accept, or clarify everything that is not perfect. But I do not think this is so.

    Actually I accounting for Gollum’s fakeness drew me out of the story in every scene he was featured in Lord of the Rings. Jar Jar Bink’s character had the same effect on me in Star Wars. Friends told me they had the same reaction to the Incredible Hulk. For some reason I wasn’t nearly as bothered with Roger or Jessica Rabbit. I’m wondering whether this perception issue is will ever be completely solved.

    One day when I watch a movie from beginning to end and later some tells me one of the main characters was CGI. Then I think I will believe this challenge can be surmounted.
    This is a great topic.

  • Josh

    I thought Avatar wasn’t that good as far as CGI goes. It looked like a video game. Red Dead Redemption looked better than Avatar. I think CGI works best when it’s used sparingly and only to enhance things; like how Nolan uses it in the Batman movies.

  • stealthwise

    It’s the Uncanny Valley; there’s no way of solving it.

  • ramjet

    CGI will never replace good story telling, acting or directing. Avatar was a complete piece of crap and there was not one point in the movie that it looked real to me.

  • Jason Grasso

    Wait are people actually still complaining that the Hulk looked fake. And now i’m seeing references to Jar Jar and Gollum?


    They are fantastical characters that shouldn’t look real. They’re otherworldly. There shouldn’t be a human, real basis for these characters as they are not human. (Or not entirely human.) If you want someone dressed up as Gollum or Lou Ferigno back as the Hulk, so be it. Then don’t complain when those movies tank because they look stupid.

    And as another posted said….Uncanny Valley. Sometimes you have to pull back and make sure it doesn’t look too real. You know, the Robert Zemeckis School of Creepy CGI.

  • Cforshaw67220

    The problem is not with the advances of technology, but with the audience’s own sense of reality and suspension of disbelief. As the British comedian Frank Skinner once pointed out, he doesn’t enjoy fiction because it will start by saying, for example, “Adam entered the room.” And Frank Skinner would immediately go, “No, he didn’t, because he isn’t real.” Whilst that is an extreme example, the fact is that the majority of audiences familiar with the idea of narrative film as fiction have to suspend their disbelief right from the start – after all, how many times in your life does a series of events start with super-imposed titles? The start of every film immediately juxtaposes the idea of the events of the film being somehow real, along with the fact that they aren’t real by drawing attention to the fact that all the people are just actors.

    In that context the problem with CGI becomes quite obvious – right from the word go we are told that what we are watching is not actually real, so when we see something like ‘Avatar’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ we become further distanced by the fact that we are also seeing something so far beyond our own day-to-day experience that we would immediately reject what we see as false, even if it we did see a Na’vi walking down the street in real-life. You immediately assume that these grand CGI creations, as amazing as they appear, are false.

    It has nothing to do with the quality of what is seen, and is instead about our own ability to accept what we see – and the only way we can really do that is when things begin to become boring and mundane. That is why, whilst the amazing CGI we see on screen appears so false, whilst the hordes of airbrushed celebrities are something we are so eager to accept. They are normal human beings, but have been manipulated none-the-less, and yet most people have a seriously hard time spotting the techniques that fashion magazines employ to make people look beautiful.

    Or, to put it another way – we are more likely to accept CGI in a low-budget thriller where it is used as part of a car crash, an event we accept and understand as something that occurs in the real-world, than we are to accept CGI about a guy who gets sucked into a computer or who fights for the rights of an alien species, because they are not things we can relate to or understand or find a visual reference for in our own memories. It’s all about suspension of disbelief, not quality of technology. After all, the first cinema audiences all thought that train was going to burst through the screen because they believed that was what trains did. We laugh now, but that is only because of the experiences we have had of the images staying on screen when we watch films now. The recent popularity of 3D has shown this to be true – in this new model of cinema, when people first saw how effective the 3D could be, they again resorted to the same impulse that most people had when they saw that train: they jumped because everything appeared to be popping out of the screen, even though they knew it wasn’t possible for that to happen. Then they laughed to ease the tension. The suspended their disbelief. End of.

  • Cforshaw67220

    I couldn’t tell which scenes were Brandon Lee and which weren’t in ‘The Crow’. I state this to help back up your point.

    That said, really bad special effects are just like really bad gaffs in films – like when a boom-mic appears at the top of the screen. It is just something that drags you out of the reality.

  • Cforshaw67220

    I think it is because the visual reference of Roger and Jessica Rabbit is something you are familiar with. We had all seen cartoons of that kind before, and the brilliant scene at the start where we see Roger filming a cartoon kind of draws the curtain back and allows the audience to ease itself into that reality through the one they were more familiar with. But it gives you a frame of visual reference. It also helps that Roger is a sympathetic character, too, I think – there is something familiar about his manic nature, but underneath all that he’s just a poor guy stuck in circumstances he can barely understand, desperately wanting to trust his wife, but never sure he deserves her. Roger Rabbit, is, ironically, a very human character. I think there is a definite correlation between believing in the character, and buying the CGI.

  • Cforshaw67220

    The problem with the Hulk is that in a solo movie he would be better kept in the shadows. In the comics he works as an action character, but in the movies he would be better played as a tragic hero/rampaging villain. As I said elsewhere, you need to believe in the character as much as you believe in the CGI. Take Jar Jar… The problem wasn’t the CGI so much as the fact that there is no real reason for the Jedi to rely on him for help – he was a hinderance as much as he helped them out, and he caused more trouble than he was worth. Had they just found out where the city was and said, “Hey, Boss Nass, we’re two Jedi and you’re a fat fish. Do the math.” Had it been Mace Windu there, he would have done that, but he would have also killed Jar Jar and then said, “Muthaf*&%a!” As for Gollum, I didn’t want him to be real, given that he was so degraded and horrible. In the end, making him all CGI did seem more of a vanity move than common sense – but the CGI on the Hobbits was astounding. I bought the fact that they were that small for the entire film.

  • Evil_s2003

    I’m tired of CGI ‘effects’ I miss the days when people would actually go out and create something and made it look real.
    Nowadays you can tell when someone is looking at a CGI character and you can tell when a background is fake. Which is in just about every movie these days, apparently going on location is no longer valid. Why use a real forest when you can create one and have everything look fake?
    I tend to not really get into movies that use a lot of CGI because it just isn’t fun. Action movies that use CGI lessen the thrill of the movie because there are no stunts. Horror movies that use CGI blood just look sad.
    I know I’m in the minority but I prefer real effects over CGI. It has it’s place but should not replace everything.

  • Grant

    I thought Gollum worked pretty well but LOTR had a distinctive visual look that didn’t look quite real through out. And also benefitted from a memorable performance from Andy Serkis. Gollum had a distinctive personality. Same deal with the Monsters from Where the Wild Things are.

    I think the problem with Hulks so far is there doesn’t seem to be a lot of acting with the Hulk. Ang Lee stood in for the Hulk in the first movie and I don’t think he would have made the same choices Eric Bana would have made. The second one was a little better because I think Norton contributed a bit to the performance but the Hulk didn’t demonstrate much of a personality throughout the movie. There’s little flashes here and there but you don’t really feel for the Hulk as much as a character. I’m hoping that’s something Whedon and Ruffalo try to figure out in the Avengers movie.

  • Anonymous

    I do feel that having Clu be CG is going to hinder my appreciation of Tron.

    Sure we can create entirely original characters in CG, and people not be bothered by their appearance, but I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we can duplicate an actual person and make it look convincing.

    The fluidity of young Kevin Flynn in the trailers have really killed my enthusiasm for the film.

  • Hamdinger

    The problems with the 9 foot tall smurfs in Avatar and Gollum is not the facial expressions and textures, it is movement. The movement of musculature and anatomy. Go in front of a mirror, take your shirt off and raise your arms strait up into the air and your belly will move up and flatten out no matter if you are skinny, fit, or overweight.

    In the mirror extend your arm out and make a fist and flex all the muscles in your arm, shoulder and back. Then pull your arm back once like you are rowing. You will see not only your tricep and deltoid flex and move and strecht and contract as they change shape but also the upper back move and flex particularly in the area where the muscles connect the arm to the body.

    The CGI Navi and Gollum have these muscles drawn but they do not move with the body, the muscles stay in one position even if the limb or torso is moving. So even though the CGI muscles have texture and mass and light and shadows it still creates that “Uncanny Valley” effect because of the lack of proper movement. Folds and wrinkle and how cloth moves is another big issue in CGI. It is only a matter of time before these problems are solved though.

  • Jeg

    $2,7 Billion dollar gross that Avatar made says the answer to the question is NO

    I don’t see how this is still even a question anymore honestly.

  • Joe H

    Personally, I’m still not a fan of CGI. I think the models used in the original Star Wars trilogy and other films like Sayonara Jupiter look tons better than the crap used in the new Star War trilogy. But if it’s used effectively like in LotR then it’s much easier to forgive.

  • Jason Grasso

    If ever a character should look CGI, it should be a character that is LITERALLY computer generated.

  • Jason Grasso

    Your test only works if you’re a real Navi or Gollum, Otherwise, what will a human going in front of a mirror gain by trying to compare themselves to the muscles and anatomy of something they are most decidedly not?

  • Jason Grasso

    Your’e not in the minority. In fact you can see a lot of directors of genre films are starting to go back to real location filming and less green-screening. Christopher Nolan is probably the best example, but he’s certainly not the only one. Unless you’re trying to create landscapes that don’t exist (i.e. Avatar, some parts of LOTR), it does come off as lazy. I think that viewers have gotten such a trained eye now that we perceive total CGI creations to be banal and overly fake. I prefer the sensibility of that growing crop of directors who only choose CGI when practical means won’t allow an effect.

  • Deejoo
  • Danalemon

    You do realize the logic flaw to your statement right? I valley has another side. You just need to get there. The “Uncanny Valley” is not an end.

  • Mwedmer

    when it comes to any character who does not look completely human and natural, there will always be a disconnect for the audience.
    It has nothing to do with the cgi, but with our own subconscious need to understand something.
    That is why the Incredible Hulk, who looked like he should got complaints from people. We all know there is no such thing as a 12 foot tall Green man.

    Gollum worked because he looks completely human. Just malnutritioned. But in his case, people can fill in the blanks better.

    cgi used for backgrounds and things like that are used in all manner of films and entertainment and go virtually unnoticed. Especially when dealing with real world things.

    People are accustomed to the idea of Grey Aliens, so Paul may work because of it.

    Iron Man works because its supposed to be a guy in a suit of Armor. We can buy into that.

    CGI has already acheived a level of quality that can fool the eye. What it needs to focus on though is fooling the brain.

  • Mwedmer

    RDR looked better than Avatar?
    What??? sorry man I have both and as good as RDR looks, it is nowhere close to Avatar
    not even the same century.

  • stealthwise

    I was making a 30 Rock reference. In that same arc, Tracy Jordan actually solves the problem.

  • Plhostetler

    People will always be able to tell what’s CGI and what isn’t because it’s usually blatantly obvious. Twelve-foot tall cat person? must be CGI.
    Mack Truck turning into a giant robot? Must be CGI.
    Ghost pirate ships fighting in the middle of a typhoon whirlpool? Must be CGI.
    The white city of Minas Tirith? Actually, it’s hard to tell. They actually built a scale model and filmed it, inserting it digitally into the movie. It’s believable because it actually existed. They just finagled it, like a magic trick.

    People will always be able to tell the difference between what’s possible to capture on camera, and what must be artificially invented on a computer. Eventually, film makers will catch on and start making movies using practical effects again.

    When you’re allowed to do anything, everything becomes boring.

  • Mastadge

    It doesn’t matter one whit whether “our eyes” can tell the difference between a special effect and reality. All that matters is whether our imaginations can accommodate the distance between the effects and what we think what the effects are trying to represent would actually look like.

    It’s just a matter of willingness to suspend disbelief. As George Lucas said, “a special effect with a story is a pretty boring thing.” If we have a good story, a good script and interesting characters whom we care about, we’ll accept best-effort CGI characters, even if they’re a little too smooth, or move a little too fluidly, or whatever. The problem is that too many people get so caught up in the spectacle of the latest effects technology and spend so much effort on the inevitably not-quite-perfect effects that they forget that the effects should be supplementing a story worth our time and imagination, rather than be the raison d’être for the story.

    Another factor is familiarity: I know what it looks like when roaches skitter when the lights come on — as, presumably, do millions of other people. I know what a flock of birds taking flight looks like. As humans, we’re wired and trained to read human faces very well. So a CGI face needs to be a lot closer to perfect than a CGI spaceship. And I still think the giant bug effects from Starship Troopers look great, whereas I’m jerked out of a movie every single time CGI roaches skitter and it doesn’t look like real roaches skittering.

    And obviously, too, people have different mileage for these things. Obviously a bazillion and a half people were utterly entranced by Avatar and perfectly happy to suspend disbelief and enter that cinematic world. Equally obviously there were plenty of other people who felt otherwise. That wasn’t a function of the effects being better in front of some audiences, or some people having more acute eyesight. It was a matter of being involved enough in the story to suspend disbelief for the effects.

    Special effects will never be perfect. We know going in to any film that it will be a fiction. All of the elements of the film need to work together to engage our willingness to suspend disbelief, to partake of that fiction. If we are engaged, we will believe the effects, or at least not mind that we don’t quite believe them. If not, we won’t.

  • Hamdinger

    Wrong, they have biceps, triceps, abdominals, arms and backs etc.

  • Hyattmarc

    I think as a benchmark to forget Avatar et al, The Social Network provided the highest level of acting ability couled with CGI and practical events. I went in to the movie knowing the techniques used but forgot with in seconds due to the performance and the quality of the effects

  • Wayne

    At some point, yes, we’ll have generated output that is totally indistinguishable from real life. We already have that for everything but close-ups of people – no-one can spot high-quality CGI done for non-moving, non-living things — take a look sometime at just how much CGI is in any TV show with outdoor city scenes.

    Within my lifetime, there will be no uncanny valley, and the only people talking about it will be those who know the film is, in fact, CGI. They’ll be like the people who’d look at footage of real sharks in Jaws and complain about how obviously fake they looked.

  • Alex Dragon

    It’s like I mentioned before, when the viewers know something’s CGI they fixate on it and find flaws that aren’t even there. 95% of the examples given in this thread are clearly CGI creations and it’s easy to look and them and look for flaws…when you know where to look. But many movies use CGI and most people aren’t able to tell because no one points it out to them. The people who actually put the movie together say sometimes they forget or can’t tell were practical (real) effects stop and CGI begins so it’s kinda unlikely the average movie-goer can.

    I call it the “toupee effect”. Some actors go for a long time wearing toupees and no one notices. Ss soon as the word gets out that the actor wears a toupee some people who were fooled before suddenly upon knowing it’s a toupee proclaim it the worst toupee ever or says “It looks like a dead squirrel on his head!” and act like if anyone else can’t tell it’s a hairpiece they must be blind…meanwhile, before they were told they were totally fooled.

  • Anonymous

    But if Clu SHOULD look CG sense he actually IS, than the rest of the cast should look that way as well, since they’re ALL CG.

    Even the people that get beamed into the game, sense their bodies have been converted to digital.

    Realistically, the entirety of the Tron computer world should be CG.

  • Anonymous

    I personally don’t have a problem with CGI. I’m not taken aback by things that are animated instead of being done with props or make-up. In fact, in most cases I prefer it (Yoda and The Thing from FF should’ve always been CG; sames goes for ships & aircraft).

    I only dislike the use of CG when it is superfluous & unneeded (like it’s extensive use in the Star Wars prequels), or when it is rendered abysmally.

  • Brian from Canada

    There’s a wonderful article written over a decade ago — forget the title offhand and don’t have my reference guides handy, sorry — that goes into the developing value of CGI using Forrest Gump. Gump, at the time, was celebrated for its use of computers to insert Tom Hanks next to John and Yoko, but the real celebrity effect was the feather that floats before the camera at the beginning of the film because you have no idea that the feather’s fake.

    Today, I use the Smallville pilot to prove that. Everyone knows the special effect of Clark Kent running really fast, or things shattering when they hit his body. But what nobody really notices is the fact that the corn fields had to be altered digitally, and that the snow had to be removed from every shot because Vancouver had snow all around at the time it was shot.

    But the point still remains that there are now two types of filmmakers. On the one hand, you have people like James Cameron, George Lucas, et al. who are looking to CGI as a tool for making visual the imagined and not real. It’s a tool for getting the thought out of your head.

    And on the other hand, you have the smaller number using it to fix a scene so that the visuals are right without having to painstakingly recreate the shot point by point. Like a modified background that hides buildings built after the date, or adding something in the background.

    (But, no, I don’t count Nolan in this second category because his Batman sequences are all about the striking visuals rather than the actual narrative. It’s like you have Jackie Chan right behind you saying “In real life, he’d be bruised and walking slowly now….”)

    It all depends on the movie you’re making and the effect you want to communicate. If the audience is able to become involved in the movie, then the effects help it; if not, they become an obvious hinderance.

    Will the time come when we accept CGI characters as separate and real? I think Max Headroom’s separate identity from the actor he’s modelled on proved that twenty years ago!

  • Anonymous

    “They are fantastical characters that shouldn’t look real”

    Real, defined as “physically there”. Mixing CGI and physical shots is by far the most difficult of all CGI work so far. Pixar and most of the animation companies have gotten their CGI down to the point that the characters look like real three-dimensional things. They are not “real” in the sense of they truly exist, but in that they appear to extant objects in a physical room.

    Adding a CGI character to a real set is more of a challenge. everything has to match-lighting, sharpness of focus, sound levels, etc. If they don’t, the added in item sticks out and feels “unreal”, much in the same way that poorly dubbed lines don’t sound natural. The fact that the character is a unicorn isn’t the “real” we’re talking about.

  • Sept_28_2003

    I don’t hate CGI, but I don’t like it’s over use either. You know you can still do things with make up and animatronics. But I’m not a vehement hater and realize that CGI is here to stay. My only other minor quibble is poor CGI. If you have time, money, talent, and a director who knows what he wants, you get the best monster film ever, The Host. If not, you get a million laughable monsters like the ones seen every week on SyFy’s various premiere movies.