Believable CG Spaceships

Posted By Martin McEachern on June 23, 2009 11:00 am | Permalink
Tags: CG
Categories: Martin McEachern
Star Trek had a stellar opening this spring, raking in over $222 million in just 31 days. While the crew is new, and the franchise has been stripped of its usually weighty themes, in favor of an action-packed thrill ride replete with shaky camerawork, Dutch angles, and lens flare galore, an old truth remains: computer-generated spaceships don’t look real.

No matter how realistically rendered they are, CG spaceships seem to defy our instinctive knowledge of physics; they lack the weight, physicality, and tactile reality of the miniatures from the original Star Wars trilogy, for example.

I always find it fascinating what rocks the suspension bridge of disbelief and what crosses it easily without question. We don’t want to see actors swimming in front of a green screen, like they did throughout the Star Wars prequels. Yet, if they’re passing through a real Shire, or a real castle, as was the case throughout The Lord of the Rings, we’ll accept the digital mountains or raging fires of Mount Doom in the background.

As far as I’m concerned, there are few effects in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—from the digital prairie dogs, jungles and flying saucers, to the endlessly, digitally color corrected sky—that comes close to the beauty and majesty of the practical effects of Raiders. But those days are gone now, at least as far as ILM is concerned, which has recently sold off its model shop.

Digital characters are a different story. We’ve seen great actors like Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson look completely stunned in scenes with Jar Jar Binks, while scenes between Gollum and Frodo remain riveting, mainly because those exchanges were well-written, charged with conflict, and laden with subtext. As a result, they produced genuine emotion.

It’s the new generation of directors, like JJ Abrams and Christopher Nolan, who grew up with the practical magic of the original Star Wars, Star Trek, and Terminator films, who believe those genuine emotions must be supported and nurtured by surrounding the actors with as much reality and as little CGI as possible.

Abrams built as many physical sets as possible for Star Trek—the huge hangar set comes to mind—while Nolan has already publicly lamented the overuse of CGI, saying “modern blockbusters have become more and more like video games.” Indeed, he pushed practical effects and stunt work to the max on the Dark Knight, while using CGI to enhance, rather than replace reality. Audiences have been so bombarded by unbridled CG effects over the years that they’re inured to the sight of exploding buildings, flying cars, hover jet fighter planes cruising down highways, and attacking hydro poles. Yet, when we see Batman driving a real tumbler in the Dark Knight, or astride a real batpod bike duelling with a real truck on the streets of Chicago, we’re suddenly agape with wonder. And when a real building explodes, though it may not have been a real hospital, our jaw drops.

After all, it’s the truth between the actors that audiences cling to, and if that truth is corrupted by the green tennis balls they’re staring at or the green sea around them, audiences suddenly find themselves sitting back in their seats—the veil of reality torn—rather than immersed in the world onscreen.

Some directors have taken this philosophy to an extreme, like Darren Aronofsky and Gil Kenan (Monster House) who constructed huge physical sets and puppets in lieu of CGI for The Fountain and City of Ember respectively, albeit to lukewarm critical and commercial reaction. Perhaps audience sensibilities need to be reeducated, to accept what it would normally perceive as a breech in the veil of reality.

The final word on CG spaceships and the credibility of immersive digital worlds, including their power to hold actors and suspend our disbelief, may be written by James Cameron, whose Avatar is purported to be 60% digital. Heavily mo-capped, Avatar was filmed in a studio with hundreds of cameras mounted on the ceiling, through which Cameron could view the action from every imaginable point-of-view and speed. A more unreal setting for an actor I can’t imagine. Still, the cameras give the actors instant feedback through a crudely rendered image that replicates what will appear on screen. He says the image looks like “an 80’s video game” right now, but in the future, it should look like the final render while they're filming on set.

His team is saying that Avatar’s fusion of live-action and digital effects will be akin to the introduction of sound to cinema, and promising that anyone sick of fake-looking CGI will be converted. Reportedly, the effects are so advanced, they were inventing technology throughout most of post and pre-production.

Insiders have waxed rhapsodic, saying, “it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” and it’s the “perfectly executed unbelieveable.” Cameron also claims to have developed a new method of moviemaking that’s so revolutionary that the importance of surrounding actors with reality, so crucial to directors like Nolan, will become irrelevant.

At a recent screening of The Abyss, he was asked about the challenges of drawing good performances from actors acting opposite a tennis ball. He said that on his next film, he should be able to create a rig that allows an actor to interact with a monitor that could provide a virtual acting partner.

It’s hard to imagine a digital actor replacing a real one. I can already hear the interviews. “My virtual acting partner was soo generous, not like my costars, who gave me nothing! We improvised scene after scene!”

All I know is that Avatar will be filled with digital spaceships. And if they look real, maybe Cameron could prove everyone wrong.