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CGI; it’s not all good m’kay?

I’ve been watching Japanese anime and American ‘toons’ since I was a kid, and now years later I’ve really developed an appreciation for meticulously crafted hand drawn animation.  As a child of the ’80s, I spent vast amounts of time watching such shows as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Starzinger, Robotech, Moomin, BraveStarr, Bionic Six, The Real Ghostbusters and so many more.  The ’90s were no different with Freakazoid, Biker Mice from Mars, Darkwing Duck and Ghost in the Shell topping my list.

Are you old enough to remember BraveStarr?

For decades, Disney animation has been bringing joy to children and adults alike with their hand-drawn marvels such as Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and the AristoCats but eventually Disney started to integrate CGI into their films such as with Rescuers Down Under, the first Disney film to use the (then) new computerized CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) process.  CAPS was used for digital inking and paint as well as compositing, as a result Rescuers Down Under was the first film to be fully assembled within a digital environment.  CAPS allowed artists to create more sophisticated animations and this paid tribute to the film’s wonderful visuals.  In 1992 Disney released Aladdin, which integrated CGI amongst the traditional hand-drawn cell animation, as did the 1994 production The lion King.  At the time, the CGI segments in the aforementioned films were quite awe-inspiring as CGI was still in its infancy and people had never really seen such things.  It was James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) that kick started the CGI revolution, it proved that CGI did indeed have a place in cinema, for this reason Steven Spielberg abandoned the go-motion technique he had intended on using for Jurassic Park (1993) and opted for CGI.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day kick started the CGI revolution.

In 1995, a small animation studio named Pixar released the first full length CGI animated film entitled Toy Story.  Since then Pixar has continued to release one successful film after the next, with A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and the Incredibles to name but a few.  Their most recent film, Up, is a sight to behold with wonderfully fluid and detailed animation.  What sets Pixar apart is that the quality of the storylines mirror that of the animation.

Pixar's Up is a work of CGI genius.

As CGI became more prevalent in film, Disney basically abandoned the traditional hand-drawn cell animation in favour of more cost-effective CGI.  As hard as it is to believe, the advanced computer generated techniques are actually far more cost-effective in most cases, than their hand-drawn counterparts as production time is greatly decreased since computers are capable of halving the workload.  Not only does Disney have Pixar under its belt, but all of the studio’s own films are now created using CGI as well, such as Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt.

Fully CGI animated films are not the exclusive domain of Disney or Pixar, other studios like Dreamworks, have released films like;  Kung Fu Panda, Shrek and Monsters vs Aliens which have been hugely successful, though in my opinion Dreamworks studios aren’t on the same level as Pixar.  The problem I have with CGI is that because it has become (relatively) inexpensive, other small companies are abandoning hand-drawn animation and while CGI may be more cost-effective, it’s still expensive nonetheless and since the indy companies don’t have huge budgets, the productions they release like; Donkey Xote, Impy’s Island and Farm Kids look shockingly bad.

I love animation in all forms and believe that the CGI animated films can be just as good as the traditional hand-drawn counterparts but it saddens me to see how cell animation is slowly dying.  Just because you can use CGI doesn’t always mean you should.

For a time I thought that Japanese anime was a refuge as most animation studios in the country are relatively poor and as such they stick to traditional hand-drawn animation (due to the fact that the studios dont have millions of dollars to purchase the render farms they’d need for the animation), and most of the studios in Japan still do to this day however, I’ve noticed that even anime isn’t safe as more and more CGI is starting to intrude.  In 1995, Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, was a true sight to behold as it integrated many new computer generated techniques that looked absolutely fantastic.  Ghost in the Shell was one of the key inspirations for The Matrix (1999), a film that revolutionized modern cinema with the advent of its ‘bullet time’ special effects.  Sadly in 2008, Ghost in the Shell 2.0 was released and had ‘improved’ CGI segments.  Not only was the CGI of poor quality, but it was also few and far between and rather than render scenes like the tank battle in CGI (which might have been pretty awesome), the creators decided to redo scenes like; Motoko scuba diving.  The animation looked completely out-of-place and they ruined a perfect film with invasive CGI.  Steamboy followed a similar path as Rescuers Down Under, whereby the traditional-looking animation was all done on computers.  I don’t really have a problem with CGI being used to emulate cell animation, If I can be tricked into thinking it’s hand-drawn that’s fine, but when they try integrate a 2D character into a 3D background, specially if there’s rotation involved, oftentimes it looks pretty bad.

The animation in the original version (as seen left) fits in with the rest of the film but the new 'improved' CGI additions (right) look out of place.

Can someone please explain to me how replacing the signature green hue and replacing it with orange makes Ghost in the Shell somehow better?

A new anime entitled Blassreiter, has been released and its overuse of CGI (horribly bad CGI to boot) is completely off-putting, so much so that I couldn’t even get through the first five minutes of the show.  Other popular franchises that have been given the CGI treatment include Appleseed, which uses a cell-shaded (2D-looking polygons) technique to emulate traditional animation, unfortunately the characters look like cardboard cutouts and the ‘realistic’ movement can look quite jerky and stiff at times.  Even the more traditional anime companies, like Studio Ghibli, have integrated CGI into their films.

Cell animation isn’t the only endangered technique; stop-motion animation, as seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas, is pretty much dead as computers are able to easily and more cost effectively replicate the technique.  Flushed Away, created by the people who did the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animations, was a CGI film that deliberately copied the stop-motion style, down to the jerky speech movements.  Since water plays a large role in Flushed Away, it was deemed too complicated and expensive to animate water using stop motion techniques so the studios opted for CGI.  Even the latest ’stop-motion’ film, Coraline was basically entirely done using computers.

Even stop-motion films aren't immune to CGI takeover, such is the case with Coraline, a film that used many computer-based techniques.

It will only be a matter of time before CGI replaces Hollywood actors, or at the very least, reduces all of them to voice-actors.  As CGI becomes more sophisticated, the realism will increase to the point where the animation is indistinguishable from their real-life counterparts.  It’s already happening in the industry, Square-Enix have proven that realistic 3D models can be used with their CGI films; Final Fantasy – Spirits Within & Final Flight of the Osiris and while most live-action films contain some form of computer generated imagery, films like; The Matrix Reloaded (2003) employed techniques that enabled a hundred copies of Hugo Weaving to be on-screen at once, and while certain scenes do look a bit dated and artificial now, other films like Spider-Man 2 (2004), though CGI heavy, used CGI models where you’d least expect it, including the final scene where Doctor Octopus descends to the depths of the harbour; a completely computer generated Alfred Molina was used for that scene and when I found out I couldn’t believe it.

How long will it be until human actors are replaced by CGI?

On the plus side, when CGI does finally replace all cell animation, it’s nice to know that there’s still a stockpile of traditionally animated anime that would literally take a life-time to get through.  I believe that CGI is essential for modern live-action cinema, and that fully CGI animated films should be able to co-exist with cell animation, rather than replace it because once it’s gone, future generations will miss out on something truly extraordinary although luckily we have plenty of digital storage methods to preserve the classics.