The Case Against CGI Overload

Do you ever encounter younger people who have no respect for the way older, classic movies were made? Blame it on the CGI craze.

I was on YouTube the other night, watching the infamous "chestburster" scene from Alien, and while watching poor John Hurt writhe and scream in agony, this comment from the thread caught the corner of my eye:

"Isn't it fun to sit and laugh at how poor and crappy special effects were back then. I mean, you cannot take a killer alien seriously when it moves like THAT!"

And just like that, I heard the record player needle scratch, the sad trombone play its "wah wah" tone. Everything stopped for a moment, and after the stupidity of the statement I just read was done sinking in, I couldn't hold myself back from firing off a scathing reply. It went something like this:

"Listen to me, you ignorant PUNK. You obviously have no respect or appreciation for the movies I grew up with. This scene is still scary and disturbing and giving it a CGI makeover, since that is the only visual effect you are familiar with, would ruin it and be a kick in the crotch to the special effects team. Now go burn in hell like the other piece of crap loser kids who think that nothing good was ever made until after they were born! Otherwise, I'm hunting you down through the Internet and giving you something to cry about. You drinking my sake, kimosabe?" 

OK, I didn't quite go that far, but you get my drift. I have a ton of respect for the special effects, makeup, and set design crews who work on movies. They are the unsung heroes who do a lot of the hard work behind the scenes to make something appear as believable as possible. I watched a documentary on the making of the movie Alien and as you can imagine, there was quite a lot of logistics involved in this particular iconic scene to get it to look as horrific and realistic as possible. I couldn't possibly fathom it getting a computer generated makeover. It's the fact that people with imagination physically built the baby alien and guts and figured out how to make it look like it was exploding out of John Hurt's chest that blows my mind away. Recreating it on a computer would look phony and stupid. What would be the point?

"Poor"? "Crappy"? Really, kid???

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we should unplug the 3D animation and revert to old school stop motion animation (although I think stop motion animation is really cool.) I think the technology is amazing and it definitely serves a purpose, especially when a fantastical landscape is created. There are definitely instances where building a physical set (or dinosaurs) would be impossible, and that's where CGI comes in. However, like other technological advancements, it's often overused today and used in everything. One cringe-worthy example that comes to mind is Tim Burton's remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (renamed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after the book's title.) The 1971 original is my favorite childhood film, and the colorful psychedelic sets still dazzle. The chocolate room contained a REAL "river." The boat was real. The room full of flowers and mushrooms made out of chocolate were real, physical props. When Charlie and his grandfather tried soda pop that made them float in the air, they were suspended by wires, which you can actually see in some shots if you look closely enough (but so what?) 

By contrast, the remake was mostly CGI, even the Oompa Loompas. Forget giving a bunch of little people a shot at Hollywood fame--in the updated film, they were created using just ONE actor dressed as an Oompa Loompa, multiplied by the magic of computer special effects. It looked lame. 

In my opinion, what's needed is a happy medium. In the movie Pan's Labrinth, the fairies and other elements were computerized, but the creatures were still actors under makeup and prosthetics or robotic. It works well.

Carlo Rimbaldi with E.T. Photo via
CGI can also cost moviemakers more time and money than creating a physical prop. Carlo Rimbaldi, a special effects guru who designed E.T. (and who just passed away at the age of 86) had this to say about the CGI craze and its effect on the movie industry:

“The mystery’s gone. It’s as if a magician had revealed all of his tricks. Digital costs around eight times as much as mechatronics. E.T. cost a million dollars and we created it in three months. If we wanted to do the same thing with computers, it would take at least 200 people a minimum of five months."

Agreed. Special effects done the physical way have always left me wondering, "How DID they do that?" By the way, E.T. was made out of steel, polyurethane, rubber, and hydraulic and electronic controls. It's been said that the creature was to Rimbaldi what Pinocchio was to Gepeto.

Needless to say, it really gets my panties in a wad when someone from Generation Me, Myself and I thinks that CGI is the bomb and anything made before the year 1998 is lame.

So like Aretha Franklin, what I'm asking for is a little respect. Don't be lame and make fun of the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, not caring that the film was made in 1939 for Pete's sake (sadly, there are misinformed knuckleheads on YouTube guilty of this as well.) Don't make fun out of Georges Melies, who pioneered early visual artistry in movies such as 1902's A Trip to the Moon. And never, ever dis the folks who worked on Alien. Otherwise, I'm having them mail a facehugger to your home. 


  1. Bravo Pam! I feel the same way you do and I'm glad to see that others out there have respect for the old school way.I recently watched "Super 8". I enjoyed the story but the CGI effects (including the intentional over the top train wreck)left me feeling cold.When I saw "Batman Begins" a few years back,I was very pleased to see some actual model work.Another fairly recent movie that uses some old school effects is "Moon".

  2. Wow--Retro Pam is on a rampage! Well said & I couldn't agree more--I think CGI technology has jaded many of us as I can remember going to see "Alien" when I was 16-17 & hearing the audience cry out when poor John Hurt's stomach erupted-you wouldn't get that same reaction today :(

    I just watched "Tora Tora Tora!" a few weeks ago & marveled at the attack on Pearl Harbor, knowing they fllmed this "old school". Gives you a new appreciation for this older stuff--as it should be for ALL pre-CGI moviemaking!

  3. Thanks, Doug and Dug! I should probably point out (juuuuust in case it offends somebody) that I'm not stereotyping all younger people as ignorant to old school ways BUT now that I'm older I definitely see more and more comments like the one I read on YouTube. A fellow blogger and friend told me recently that Saturday Night Live won't reference any pop culture older than 3 years old in its sketches. I guess that kind of reflects society's attitude in general towards older pop culture.

    Doug - I saw Super 8 and loved it. I think it would have been difficult to recreate the alien in robotic form, but I totally get what you're saying about the "coldness." Some moviemakers do CGI extremely well, and others do a poor job at it.

    ApacheDug-- The Alien documentary said that when people watched that scene in theaters in 1979, that they actually backed away from the screen to the end of the theater, because it was that scary and intense. They then showed it to current viewers who covered their eyes. By the way, I love John Hurt...he's probably my favorite British actor (and very underrated in the States.) He's gonna get a blog post soon, which is why I was watching the clip (although I think Alien is my favorite horror movie along with The Shining.)

    I should watch Tora Tora Tora...oh damn, I forgot to mention The Towering Inferno in my blog is amazing to me how they did the special effects for that movie, and I honestly thought they looked real!

  4. Pam you've had me thinking about this all morning--yes, Towering Inferno is a good one (all that fire!) but then you look at stuff like the original "Planet of the Apes" or even "Wizard of Oz". It's like you said in your post, part of the fun of these movies was "How did they do this?" and now for the most part, that's gone.

    And FYI, I LOVE JOHN HURT! It's precisely because of "Alien" I went to see "The Elephant Man" (which is now in my top ten all-time favorite movies). I'll be looking forward to reading that! :)

  5. Doug, I haven't seen The Elephant Man in about 20 years, but in the past week I've watched three John Hurt movies online, and I think I'm going to review all of them here. Did you ever see the BBC series "I, Claudius"? If not, I highly recommend it...John plays Caligula in it and is unbelievably hysterical and absolutely brilliant as usual. I have always loved his distinctive voice...I'd let him read the telephone book to me over the phone. :)

    King Kong (the original) is another film getting a beating by a few young 'uns on YouTube...I don't understand it. I grew up watching old movies and always had an appreciation for how they were made considering what movie makers had at their disposal right now. Like Rodney Dangerfield, there's just no respect.

  6. One of the quintessential sci-fi films of all times, in the AFIs Top Ten, is Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey". While not everyone's cup of tea, the non-CGI effects of spaceflight hold up even today, especially in HD.

  7. Fantastic! CGI is totally over-used today. You have to give real credit to the SFX teams and their movie magic in the past, it definitely begs to wonder 'how did they do that?'
    Today I just find myself rolling my eyes at CGI and saying, "That's so fake."

    The tornado in The Wizard of Oz still gives me the shivers!!!

  8. Fantastic! CGI is totally over-used today. You have to give real credit to the SFX teams and their movie magic in the past, it definitely begs to wonder 'how did they do that?'
    Today I just find myself rolling my eyes at CGI and saying, "That's so fake."

    The tornado in The Wizard of Oz still gives me the shivers!!!

  9. First of all, I am surprised that CGI is more expensive and takes more time than the old school effects. In fact, I am flabbergasted! Also, the fact that that kid thought the old school effects were unsatisfactory is part of a sensationalism trend that has been washing over us for a couple of decades - once a subtle hint was enough to scare or arouse and now you need the full on visual and over the top gore. Its as if people have forgotten how to use their imaginations to round things out. CGI is part of that.

  10. Well said, young lady!

    I went back to school and when I was in the freshman-y classes I took a film class where we watched Blade Runner. Someone said he thought when the actors eyes had a flash a red (which was meant to indicate they were not human) was just because they didn't have good camera filters back then.

    I was shocked. I actually said, "Did you know we lived in grass huts too?"

    It's infuriating. I remember being young and REALLY liking modern stuff, but I also watched Leave it to Beaver and had a huge crush on Dana Andrews who was in his 70s when I was a teenager. His movies from the 40s and 50s were stunning. How sad would it have been to missed out on The Best Years of Our Lives because it was in black and white.

    Sorry, I'm getting off the subject. Yes, I like and miss the old days of special effects. As a horror movie nut, I have say that movies like Friday the 13th were stunning and all the more horrifying because of the SPFX. I'm sure when Tom Savini and Rick Baker read this they will want to marry you! :)

  11. New isn't always better, that's true for film special effects and a lot of things (remember "New Coke" in the early 80's). I remember being pretty spooked by the flying monkeys in "Wizard of Oz" as a child and I wasn't the only one. Lorna Luft (Judy Garland's Daughter) says that when she saw the movie with her dad (Judy was not in the theater with her as she was filming another movie at the time) that the scene terrified her and she immediately called her mother. Lorna was in tears thinking the monkeys had really gotten her Mom!

    I also remember being spooked by "The Exorcist". I saw it again about two years back and it still looked pretty well done to me from an effects standpoint. Movies are a reflection of the time that they were made and people need to remember that.


    If you like stop motion animation you may get a kick out of the below link. Around the turn of the 19-20th centuries, Thomas Edison was already doing some experiments with it, this short film is called "The Enchanted Drawing". Probably filmed in 1900.

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Stay-at-Home-Dad -- I agree, A Space Odyssey would have an influence on Alien and other sci-fi films that came after it.

    Voyager G -- thanks for all of your comments on the blog this weekend; I was glad to know (as you gave a hint to your age on another post) that you were not offended by this particular's nice to hear that someone born in the 80s has an appreciation for the old school special effects.

    Ruth -- I was surprised, too. You would think the technology is so popular because it's saving money, but it's actually the opposite. Totally agree that movie audiences have gotten spoiled throughout the years and now expect more and more.

    Amanda -- Thank you; that comment that a student made about Blade Runner and your response cracked me up. I know people older than me who won't watch anything in black and white; go figure.

    JZ -- thanks for the Thomas Edison clip; it was thoroughly charming and I honestly didn't expect to see the elements in the drawing to become physical objects.

    Those flying monkeys are still creepy today! My friends and I were just talking about The Exorcist the other night and how scary it still is.

  13. I agree that the Computer Generated movies are too much. And enough with the 3D already....Perfect example of a movie that could have been better was that Mel Gibson movie about Crop Circles. If they left the aliens up to your imagination it would have been better but as soon as the alien appeared it was so stupid.

  14. Right on! CGI can be used to some marvelous effect, but to fall back on it all the time just seems lazy and without passion. Even when old-school effects work calls attention to itself I find it appealing - I'm thinking of Tim Burton in his early years and the stop motion/puppet work in 'Beetlejuice' and 'Pee-Wee's Big Adventure'. Good times...


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