By the time the space-smoke cleared in 2009 and Avatar had somehow become the most successful film of all time, it left an odd phenomenon in its wake. Dedicated fans were having trouble coping with the soul-pain of being stuck here on Earth, rather than being able to live inside the cartoon dreamscape of Avatar’s Pandora. Little did they know, however, that Hollywood itself was also hoping to relocate to Pandora–which it demonstrated by creating all-CGI worlds in one movie after another. Now when audiences get depressed because of special effects, it’s for a different reason.
A new video created by movie-obsessed YouTube channel StoryBrain offers a rational explanation for the bludgeoning cumulative impact of so much CGI in contemporary movies. “The WETA Effect, or, Why Special Effects Peaked in the 90’s” posits that a fairly recent change in effects capabilities has drained the magic out of movies.
It used to be that only a single computer-generated component in a scene could be integrated with live-action shots. Think about the era of Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park, where amazing things happened in familiar settings. Somewhere around 2004, though, the makers of the video argue, software reached the point where users were able to insert any computer-generated object into any computer-generated background, creating a blitz of CGI-squared unreality. (The video singles out Peter Jackson’s King Kong as an early adopter.)
A technological advance that began with the intention of removing the jarring contrast between what’s real onscreen and what’s fake quickly lost its way and opted for mostly fake. Now that filmmakers can invent incredible things happening in incredible backgrounds without having to build sets, they’re in danger of forgetting the Spielbergian sense of wonder that comes with relatability. Will they ever start engaging the brain again in other ways besides dazzling it? Forget it, Jake–it’s Avatartown.
Let us know in the comments below any time recently where the CGI was so well-developed it took you right out of the movie.