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The 7 Most Common CGI Screw-Ups (Explained)

If you've watched movies in the past 10 years, you've probably at some point complained about horrible CG, because you movie viewers are ungrateful little jackanapes.

Every time CG goes well and blends seamlessly into the movie (I bet you didn't know it was used in Brokeback Mountain), people rave about the amazing acting performances and the wonderful storyline and maybe the great soundtrack, and every time it goes wrong, everyone talks about how CG is terrible and is ruining movies.

Youtube
I'm not joking, watch the video.

But that's OK, whatever, it's a job, nobody says thank you to accountants and insurance underwriters either. I can't brag to anyone about having worked on The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, but it put food on the table. But you know, as long as we're criticizing crappy CG, I thought maybe you'd like to know more about the details of how each terrible disaster unfolds behind the scenes, and more importantly, who to point fingers at.

Here's some of the more common complaints:

#7. Skin Looks Like Plastic

One of the creepier CG sins is to make skin look like plastic. This was only one of many many things wrong with the Scorpion King character above, who actually only appeared in scorpion king form in The Mummy Returns and not in any of the three movies actually named The Scorpion King, because Hollywood likes to confuse us. (Yes, it had two direct-to-DVD sequels. No, nobody watched them.)

When moviegoers say skin "looks like plastic," it can mean a few things. Sometimes they mean faces are rigid and motionless, as if they were made of hard plastic like some kind of creepy doll, which is usually a rigging problem, which I'll talk about later. Sometimes they mean the skin has the texture of plastic, like their face has been shellacked.

Sure, this was 11 years ago, but let us note that the Rock lent his face to this hilariously shameful visual effect the same year that the first Lord of the Rings movie came out.

They hadn't reached their full potential yet (Gollum comes along in the later movies), but clearly, plastic-Rock-head-pasted-on-monster was not "the best you could expect from CG at the time" by any means.

One of the (numerous) things they would do to make Gollum look much, much less like a bad video game character than the Scorpion King was to make his skin not look like frickin plastic. The person responsible for this is the person who writes the shaders. When a character is modeled, or "sculpted" in 3-D, at first it has no color. When modelers show their work for approval, it usually looks like a statue made of dull gray clay.

In fact, freelancers will sell models at this stage. This one is going for $275 on TurboSquid:

Turbosquid.com

A shader writer is a person who writes a program that tells the computer how to "paint" the model -- not just what colors, but how shiny or dull, how bumpy or smooth, how transparent or reflective it is, depending on a bunch of factors, like whether it's facing you or you're looking at it at an angle. Lots of science.

Skin is made of a lot of layers, so it's really complex, and they were really far from figuring it out back when Toy Story was made, for example, which partially drove the decision to make the movie about a lot of plastic toys and not about humans with skin.

The big breakthrough was a thing called subsurface scattering. Read that linked tutorial if you want to find out more about it, but basically, it accounts for light bouncing around through all the layers of the skin so your character stops looking like the picture on the left and starts looking like the picture on the right:

3dtotal.com

When they finally figured this out, they used it on Gollum, The Incredibles and everything else. Any skin that looks like plastic today doesn't have the "we don't have the technology" excuse anymore. Some asshole is dropping the ball or skimping on the budget.

#6. Character/Vehicle Looks Retarded

In the case of Anaconda 3, I mean this literally. The snake looks like a snake that was born, through no fault of its own, with significantly impaired cognitive function compared to other snakes.

Now, Anaconda 3 clearly had a budget of about five dollars, and for most people, that's reason enough why the CG would suck. But that makes it sound like all the problems are technology problems, like they couldn't afford computers good enough to magically make a snake that is shaped like a snake, for example. Technology and money are needed for a lot of things, like complex shading and rendering of skin and water and that kind of thing, but it doesn't take money to make a snake shaped like a snake, it just takes a person who knows what a snake looks like.


Not like this.

There's a couple of people who might have dropped the ball. One is the art design team, who usually draw up 2-D drawings of the characters they want to make for the film. These drawings get handed off to modelers, who then "sculpt" the characters in 3-D on the computer. Their finished product is the gray-clay-looking models pictured in the previous entry.

The art team might have drawn a shitty snake, or the modeler may have bungled the attempt to create a 3-D model out of it or, considering the movie we're talking about, both of them were probably the same person, the director's nephew who just got out of animation school or something along those lines.

Sometimes the blame goes a bit farther up, as there is usually a chain of command that has to approve the art team's designs, as well as the resulting models. Here's a couple of widely reviled vehicle designs courtesy of Star Wars Episode I and Star Wars Episode III:

There's nothing wrong with the execution by the modeling team -- they are very well done and realistic-looking models of stupid vehicles. The drawings were shown to the art director and the VFX supervisor, and probably went straight to the director/producer -- I don't have time to look up who that was -- and he approved it.

Ang Lee's The Hulk is going to come up a lot, because it was a VFX abomination, but one of the biggest complaints was about the unrealistically bright green skin on the title character (Jennifer Connelly). People heap a lot of scorn on the VFX team from ILM (Lucasfilms' award-winning Industrial Light & Magic) for this, but what they don't know is that their original tests had more toned-down, realistic versions of the green Hulk skin, but when they showed them to the director -- again, I don't have time to look up who directed Ang Lee's The Hulk, but you can probably find it on IMDb -- he nixed it and said, "No, it needs to be more green!"

The director's word is law, so they have to do what he says, and now everyone thinks ILM's VFX team doesn't know what skin looks like. Now people think Rhythm & Hues' team (on 2008's The Incredible Hulk) is just smarter than them.


ILM's 2003 Hulk is on the left, obviously, and R&H's on the right.

The lesson is that if you have a director or art department with no taste, there is not a thing the dozens or hundreds of CG artists can do about it, except follow orders and make the awful things.

#5. Looks Like It Was Done in Photoshop or MS Paint

Well, while we are talking about Ang Lee's The Hulk, why not set your eyes on these beauties.

This scene actually happened in a big budget blockbuster done by ILM. Seriously, watch it. He really has that white outline around him and he really freezes in midair like he is in the end credits of an '80s sitcom, while the fire moves behind him.

I get that Ang Lee was trying to imitate the look of a comic book in the movie -- it's pretty clear from the millions of distracting, terrible split-screen effects he put in every other shot. Unfortunately, I don't think he understands that comic books have a lot of still poses because they are, you know, drawings, and not because comic book fans like all their action scenes to be a series of frozen poses. Comics fans are actually very happy about watching their heroes come off the paper and move around.

Another gem from the same movie:

Did you say to yourself, "That looks like a Photoshop filter"? Because it looks like a Photoshop filter. I think it might literally be one. I did not do anything to that image, it is a direct screenshot from a movie that cost $137 million to make. Have a closer look.

When you see this in a movie done by ILM or some otherwise respectable VFX house, there is only one explanation. The director has gone insane.

The director is always the final word on VFX, and this absolute power means they can take a group of professionals responsible for things like Jurassic Park and direct them to apply a Photoshop filter to a scene where Nick Nolte inhales gas from a vacuum hose. You usually don't see the consequences of such a drastic gap between a team's knowledge of VFX and a director's almost negative knowledge of the same because you usually don't take a guy who directs historical dramas about repressed societies and tales of longing and make him absolute dictator of a Marvel comic book movie.

(I assume for Brokeback Mountain, they reduced his level of input on VFX dramatically, because the sheep all look like sheep.)

But seeing the problem at its extreme in The Hulk kind of makes you think about how many other movies you might have been blaming the VFX team or "bad CG" in general for when the director or supervisor just happened to be an idiot.

#4. Characters Move Like They Are Floating or Spastic

I never watched Blade II, I've only been referred to it for "some of the worst CG ever," and those people did not steer me wrong. It's the herky-jerky animation in particular that really stands out, which obviously you can't see in a still photo, so you'll have to watch the clip (check out the beginning and 2:12):

The person to point and laugh at here is the animator. After the character has been designed and the modeler has built the model, it's the animator's job to move the model around and make it run or jump or have facial expressions or, in the case of Blade II, bend and snap erratically like an unevenly weighted slinky dog.

Blade II came out the year after Jurassic Park III (skip to about 1:30) ...

... which contained raptors that moved like real animals. But again, animation isn't a technology or budget thing. Things like gravity and mass and acceleration and human anatomy haven't changed for, I don't know, like 6,000 years, since the earth was created. People have understood how to re-create it through moving drawings since the beginning of the 20th century.

Being able to animate is like being able to draw. It's about observation, study and talent. Having a low budget might mean you get bad animation only in the sense that you can't hire good animators, but there's no computer magic to animating a back flip correctly, just a guy (or girl) who knows what a back flip looks and feels like. There are cheap one-man movies with amazing animation (that one got him hired by Pixar) and expensive blockbusters with beautifully rendered, but spastic, characters.

That's why I'm calling out Jumanji, even though it was made in 1995. That might excuse the monkeys' fur and faces looking fake, and them not blending well into the scene, but it doesn't explain why the monkey coming out of the store with a monitor looks like a stormtrooper from a 1930s newsreel:

While we're here, also enjoy some American Werewolf in Paris (try 5:14 to 5:29):

I know it's hard to focus on the bad animation when there are so many other things wrong with this clip, but if you watch it enough times you'll pick it out or maybe become suicidal, one or the other.

And finally, I don't have a video to link to, but maybe a screenshot of this Star Wars Episode I scene will bring the memories flooding back:

Just like money can't buy you good dialogue, it can't buy you natural animation either.

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Christina H

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