When unreality bites can we turn to 'real films'?

As movies heavy with computer animation dominate the box offices, Geoffrey Macnab proposes a campaign for real films

Is it time to begin a campaign for "real" films? The question isn't as far-fetched as it might appear. Cinema is fast moving into a new, digital (and some would say ersatz), era in which actors are becoming secondary to special effects and are even being replaced altogether with computer-generated simulacra.

Judging by box-office figures, the transformation has already begun. The top-grossing films of last year were either animated (Ratatouille, Shrek the Third) or were so reliant on visual effects (Beowulf, I Am Legend, Spider-Man 3) that it is questionable whether they can be called live-action movies.

Speaking at a Screen International conference in London earlier this month, the Sony Pictures special-effects supremo Yair Landau spelled out what he clearly saw as a brave new digital future.

"Visual effects and animation dominate the movie-going experience like at no time in history," Landau declared. He predicted that the lines between animation and live action, already blurred, will come close to disappearing. Soon, film-makers will use digital techniques as a matter of course. Meanwhile, animators will borrow more and more freely from live action as they attempt to give their cartoons an air of verisimilitude.

Landau was closely involved in developing the Spider-Man movies at Sony. "One of the things that make Spider-Man a seminal property is that the audience feels as emotionally connected to Spider-Man when he is a superhero as they do when Peter and Mary Jane kiss," he suggested. In other words, audiences don't distinguish between the scenes that are done using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and those using old-fashioned live action.

The first Spider-Man (2002) movie used 20 minutes of CGI. By the time of Spider-Man 3 (2007), more than half of the film – around 70 minutes – was animated. Landau suggests that the most affecting moment in the entire movie was done using animation, not human actors giving vent to feelings. This is the scene when Sandman emerges out of the sand and reaches for his daughter's locket. "You actually feel for a pile of sand."

In I Am Legend, the extras originally hired to play the mutated, flesh-eating human characters lost their parts. Instead, the "infected" were created digitally. The director, Francis Lawrence, reportedly decided that actors in prosthetics weren't up to the job and that CGI-created bogeymen were much more effective.

Asked whether there was a prospect of digitally created movie stars, Landau suggested that they already existed, citing examples such as Buzz Lightyear and Mr Incredible. He also tub-thumped on behalf of Robert Zemeckis movies like Polar Express (with Tom Hanks playing multiple roles) and Beowulf, which have used "motion capture" technology originally developed for the games industry. The upside of this technology is that it allows film-makers to achieve effects they could never have afforded using conventional live action. The downside is that the actors end up looking as if they are made from wax, not flesh and blood.

Landau's presentation was impressive and confidently delivered but – at least for old-fashioned film-lovers – deeply alarming. "High-level visual imagery" is all very well but Landau's vision of the future seemed to leave precious little space for film-makers like, say, Billy Wilder or Max Ophüls, who relied on dialogue and performance rather than digital chicanery. It is a moot point, too, whether the new technology makes for better or more imaginative film-making. Just as Hollywood reacted in the 1950s to the threat of TV by offering "glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and stereophonic sound," the studios today are again looking to hi-tech spectacle to lure audiences into theatres. We may be able to download films onto our computers and cellphones, but who wants to watch on matchbox-size screens? This is the question put by exhibitors asking us to buy into the 3D experience all over again. They promise that the technology is far superior to that used in the 1950s, when audiences would suffer crashing headaches while watching kitsch B-epics like House of Wax or Bwana Devil through their funny specs.

So, 3D has gone digital, but has that much really changed? Unless you are a die-hard U2 fan, sitting through the new U2 3D Imax concert film is a dispiriting and disorienting experience. Wearing your 3D specs, you have the illusion that a dinosaur-sized Bono is on top of you, sweating profusely as he warbles on about world peace and speaks in pidgin Spanish to his young audience in Buenos Aires. You turn around to ask the people behind you to shut up but then realise the muffled conversation you are hearing in surround sound comes from the audience in the movie. The film-makers are using state-of-the-art technology to allow you to get far closer to the band than any real-life concertgoer has ever but the end result is strangely artificial. This may be the real Bono and the real Edge but they look as if they have been conjured up by some digital slight of hand. U2 3D doesn't have any of the rawness or intensity of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense.

By contrast to U2 3D, it is intriguing to see Noah Baumbach's new feature, Margot at the Wedding. This is just the kind of determinedly low-tech film that campaigners for "real" cinema are bound to embrace. It is the filmic equivalent of organic food. The very modesty is its selling point. It has sensationalist elements (for instance, Nicole Kidman masturbating) but its real emphasis is on character. We are not asked to feel an emotional affinity with a pile of sand, as in Spider-Man 3, but are invited to infer what characters feel from the way that they behave.

It's a messy family drama about two sisters (played by Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh) who heartily loathe one another. In keeping with its subject matter, the film-making is rough and pared down. An underwater shot of a character almost drowning in a swimming pool is as close as Baumbach comes to special effects. Nonetheless, the film feels real in a way that, say, Spider-Man does not.

Cinema-going in future looks likely to be more and more about big, spectacular Hollywood "tentpole" movies. No-one is suggesting that these films are going to eclipse traditional live action drama. Look at this year's Oscar nominations and it is apparent that the Academy voters still prefer "real" film to the CGI-driven movies that Landau champions. The evidence, though, is that audiences feel otherwise. Films like Atonement, Juno and No Country For Old Men may be in the running for Best Picture awards, but their box-office receipts are a fraction of those earned by CGI-driven films like Transformers and I Am Legend.

In the future, CGI won't just be the preserve of wealthy Hollywood studios making their big-budget epics. "A lot of this [digital technology] will be coming to a desktop near you. A lot of people will be using these same techniques to create their own animation and their own stories," Landau predicts, but adds that "mass escapism [in cinemas] will continue to be dominated by higher and higher and more extreme versions of this and more incredible stories. That is what the world wants from Hollywood... if you can imagine it, we can create it and make it feel real."

So where do human beings fit in this new vision of magical, effects-driven movies? Landau doesn't quite say that they will be dispensed with altogether. "We all want to see humans being humans. We want people looking at each other in the eye and emoting. The question is how many CGI characters will they interact with? Will you have a love-affair between a human and CGI character where you [the audience] feel more strongly for the CGI character than for the human? I think that's definitely the case... it will happen relatively soon."

'U2 3D' opens on 22 February; 'Margot at the Wedding' opens on 29 February

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