Film: Digital monsters? No fear

Why are computer-generated special effects still so unconvincing?

WHAT IS it about Computer Generated Images that switches off the critical faculties? When Antz opened last year, reviewers fell over each other to be amazed by it, and the PR people had their pick of gushing superlatives - "Astounding! Breathtaking!", that kind of thing. A Bug's Life - another CGI feature about an ant colony - opens in London next week, and the notices will be even better. They've already gone mad about it in the United States: "A masterpiece," raved The Wall Street Journal. "No film has ever created a more palpable fantasy world."

A Bug's Life is the product of four years' work by Pixar and Disney - the collaboration that produced Toy Story, the world's first all-CGI movie. In financial terms, the film has already squished Antz - it took $46.5m (pounds 28m) in its first two days, breaking box-office records for the Thanksgiving weekend. True, its animation is furiously inventive, but the real secret of its success is the imaginative scrip. In truth, A Bug's Life still looks like an electronic technology incursion into a physical-and-chemical medium. Like Antz and Toy Story, it has a visual texture that, after 90 minutes of staring in the dark, gives you a slight eye-ache in the way that Lady and the Tramp never did. The CGI feature is often hailed as the future of cinema, but it has a long way to go before it produces an aesthetically satisfying experience.

This becomes most noticeable when digital images are combined with live action. In Hilary and Jackie, a scene in which Emily Watson acts her socks off performing the last stages of Jacqueline du Pre's multiple sclerosis is horribly undermined by the phoney digital hurricane outside. And James Cameron's Titanic may have pitched and rolled like a real ship, but the vessel was even less substantial than the script. It looked like a moving version of a Thirties Art Deco P&O poster - only with sickly New Age add- ons such as a flotilla of fake dolphins.

Indeed, CGI replicates some of the shortcomings of more old-fashioned trickery. Like the Daleks before them, computer-generated monsters abhor rough terrain, preferring to glide across smooth, uncomplicated surfaces: the adolescent Godzillas who patrolled the corridors of Madison Square Gardens; Jurassic Park's raptors, who loved tripping across kitchen floor- tiles; those spider-crab creatures in Lost in Space, whose legs seemed to float an inch above the metal floors of their spaceship. Directors often choose to sidestep this problem by using CGI to create emphatically insubstantial objects (go-faster green jelly in Flubber; liquid metal in Terminator 2; Casper the Friendly Ghost) or flying things that don't have to make contact with human actors (airborne robotic guns in Star Trek: Insurrection; asteroids in Armageddon).

But the results aren't convincing. If you want to see how dreadful CGI can be, take another look at the souped-up Star Wars special edition, in which frail computer animations are superimposed on to rich, gritty Seventies film stock.

Of course, CGI has not yet evolved into its most efficient form. But that only makes things worse - you can see it dating before your eyes. "If every film isn't better than the last one, the audience get up and leave the theatre saying, `that sucks'," says Heather Kenyon, editor-in- chief of the Hollywood-based industry journal, Animation World Network. "The comment I heard most often about Godzilla was that there was nothing new in it, nothing that they hadn't already seen in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. These things become passe in a fortnight."

However, according to Kenyon, the rubber puppet dinosaur is due for a comeback. "The smart people have realised that models have a warm, organic quality that CGI can't replicate," she argues. It's a heartening recognition that digital technology will never completely replace physical effects techniques. King Kong may have been just a hunk of latex, yet he and Fay Wray formed one of the great romances of cinema history. And though it's difficult not to giggle when Susan Penhaligon gets flapped at by a glass fibre pterodactyl in The Land that Time Forgot, at least the scene implies that she might have got a nasty jab if the puppeteer had shoved it at her too enthusiastically. The digital Godzilla posed no such threat.

`A Bug's Life' opens on 5 Feb

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit