Just Because the Computer Can, Doesn’t Mean the Computer Should
This headline might be a little less believable if the nightmare-level special effects in the new Ant-Man movie hadn’t just gone viral. I don’t even follow Marvel movies, and I still saw the screencaps and memes about the absolutely awful CGI rendering of Modok from “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”.
If you‘ve somehow missed it, feel free to Google it – or just take my word for it. The villain looks ridiculous and the CGI, despite being featured in a $200 million Disney-backed film, is visibly shoddy in a way that I generally associate with movies like Scooby-Doo (2002), which are both old enough and lighthearted enough to make the VFX (visual effects) charming. But in recent years, the VFX in movies has gotten steadily worse – which doesn’t really make sense, given that time and new innovations usually herald better work. So why is this?
Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t have anything to do with the CGI itself. The problem is that Hollywood is misusing CGI beyond the limits of what it’s good for, as well as cutting corners financially that result in unfair labor practices and poor work. This sounds like a stretch, so let me explain by talking about my favorite topic of all time: the original “Lord of the Rings“ (2001-2003) movies.
When the LOTR movies first came out, they were a marvel of special effects. An intensely dedicated practical effects team working in tandem with the most cutting-edge CGI work of the time created a visual masterpiece that still holds up today. The army-simulation AI/animation program “Massive,” which is now practically the industry standard for large-scale battle scenes, was created by Stephen Regelous specifically for the Lord of the Rings. When I watch “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), it doesn’t feel at all like I’m watching a movie made in 2001. The age of the movie and the VFX don’t hinder the story at all, because, 22 years later, the VFX is still some of the best there is.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the follow-up Hobbit (2012-2014) trilogy. I could pontificate for many hours about why the “Hobbit“ movies are bad, but I’ll spare you that rant, for today, at least. It’s a sort of universally acknowledged truth that the “Hobbit” movies just aren’t as tight visually as the original trilogy – and there’s a reason for that. By the time the Hobbit trilogy was being made, practical effects weren’t being used as much anymore. The use of practical effects has been phased out in favor of CGI over the past twenty years, and the result is movies that just don’t look as good as they used to.
The costumes in “Fellowship of the Ring“ were painstakingly created by a team of experts who went so far as to hand-distress every inch of silk used for Gandalf’s robes – after dyeing it by hand to reach the perfect shade of grey. Can you tell I’ve read the making-of-book cover-to-cover more than once? But I digress. This is a far cry from current Marvel movies, where the majority of costumes aren’t ever even physically made. If you watch behind-the-scenes footage, 50% of Scarlet Witch’s clothes aren’t real. They’re motion capture dots on a simple base costume, and the actual details are added in post-production.
Unfortunately, CGI hasn’t reached a point where it’s quite believable yet. There’s something just barely on the wrong side of the uncanny valley about Marvel movies that creates a disconnect from the viewer – and it’s that almost nothing on the screen is real. The original “Lord of the Rings“ trilogy was a visual masterpiece because it successfully married practical effects with CGI, using CGI to fill in gaps that couldn’t be physically filled, but using the real thing whenever possible.
So why have studios stopped using practical effects? The answer is the same as the answer to most rhetorical questions in my articles. Money. It’s not that much cheaper to CGI everything in terms of raw materials. However, it is much cheaper to put a non-union worker on an impossible deadline than a union worker, and that’s the rub.
Most practical effects workers are unionized. Costumers, makeup artists, and other practical effects fields are mostly unionized. This means that studios have to pay certain amounts, adhere to certain labor practices, and generally make sure the workers get a fair deal for their work. VFX workers, on the other hand, aren’t unionized. There’s way less regulation, and when a company can get away with exploitation – well, they’re probably going to. Right now, VFX workers in Hollywood are working to form VFX-IATSE ( Visual Effects International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), which would be the first-ever labor union for VFX workers.
For the moment, however, there is no specific protection for VFX workers. This – similarly to the fashion industry, as noted in my last article – creates a vicious cycle where people are barely compensated for the work they’re already doing, which limits their abilities, and produces lower-quality final products. VFX workers are being mistreated already for doing the bare minimum, so it’s no surprise that movies that forgo a costume crew for an abused CGI crew end up looking worse.
A 2022 Gizmodo article published interviews from multiple different VFX workers who had worked on Marvel projects and experienced firsthand the consequences of this. Marvel movies are shot in such a way that anything can be changed, even at the very last minute, which gives artists very little to work with in the beginning, much less on an impossible deadline. Sam, a VFX worker discussing his experience with Marvel, told Gizmodo, “I didn’t have a day off for five weeks. And those were not eight-hour days. They were ten-plus-hour days. And that was because they did a reshoot a month before the show was due. So we literally got shots in at the end of December for a show that was due at the end of January.”
Unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, and a general disregard for workers’ well-being seem to characterize the complaints of current and former Marvel VFX artists – not to mention every other huge media franchise. The focus is no longer on making good movies or making good art. It’s on making rich CEOs richer and churning out mediocre film after mediocre film. When was the last time you watched a superhero movie that you actually cared about? When was the last time you left a theater thinking, “Wow, that Marvel movie was really well done and compelling.”? If you’re anything like me, it’s been a while. And a part of the reason for this is that production companies are trading good work for more money, and artistic vision for shoddy half-measures.
This isn’t true of every movie, particularly the ones made by smaller studios. But mainstream giants, like Disney – and the innumerable franchises they now own – are doing away with practical effects, and it’s not because VFX is better. It’s because they don’t want to adhere to union-standard practices like IATSE’s required minimum base salary, financial penalties for denying workers breaks/meals, and fair overtime pay. You know – the most basic rights.
Movies are getting worse, and it’s not the workers’ fault. Modok wasn’t a CGI mess because Marvel’s engineers are incompetent. The reason movies – a primarily visual medium – just don’t look as good anymore is that corporations don’t care about art or stories or making a good movie. They care about the most amount of money they can get for the least amount of effort and everyone – from film workers to the average consumer – is suffering for it.