The last decade, although most notably marred by our inability to think of a better name than ‘The Noughties’, saw a worrying phenomenon of expensive, CGI-laden films dominating the box office. There are a number of culprits, but perhaps the finger can most aptly be pointed at a superb piece of Hollywood filmmaking: The Matrix.
Ever since the Wachowski’s masterwork made its way onto our screens, Hollywood shoot-outs have forevermore consisted of a slo-mo shot of each bullet sluggishly drifting through the air in all its CGI-enhanced, 360-panoramic glory. At the time, of course, this new kind of slow-motion action sequence – ‘bullet time’ – was quite revolutionary (and was, in fact, achieved by painstakingly setting up cameras around the scene and triggering them simultaneously, so that the camera appears to orbit the objects in action.) This, coupled with its digestible pop-philosophy and storytelling, had it rake in $463 million.
The moral of the story? Big budgets pay. Lazy imitators could pull off ‘bullet-time’ and similar effects with ease by replacing its innovative techniques with expensive, garish computer graphics. Thus, special effects became the new order of the day.
There’s no doubting that CGI has given us some magnificent films. Since the 1970s, studios had flirted on-and-off with adapting the Lord of The Rings only to arrive at the conclusion that it was unfilmable, until Peter Jackson and Weta effects came along. After all, without CGI the best attempt at creating talking, walking trees would probably have ended in lanky actors gawkily jammed into green piped rubber suits. Similarly, James Cameron waited 15 years for the technology to catch up before forging the lush, detailed landscapes of Avatar.
But for every truly stunning computer-generated spectacle, there’s another ten over-indulgent and utterly pointless CGI-fests. Transformers, with its charmless computer game sensibilities, pulled an unfathomable box office. The same goes for 300, taking the whole bullet time philosophy to ludicrous new levels – we’re made to wait a whole 10 seconds for a slow-mo whip to crack – surely if the whole film were sped-up to real time, there would only be twenty minutes of footage?
And what does this studio penchant for big budgets mean for the little guy? Well, the really little guy, it seems, will get off OK. If you’re pumping next to nothing into your films, you have little to lose, and potentially a lot to make. See the recent Paranormal Activity for proof – made for a mere $15,000, it grossed $65 million. But the sting will be felt by the mid-budget films: the unobtrusive but adept Revolutionary Road’s; the hilarious but cut-priced In The Loop’s; or the cheeky In Bruges’. These are the films that pay for an adept cast or fine screenwriter, but skimp on the production costs and effects. Such modest delights are losing favour with Studios because their rate of return simply doesn’t compare to high-budget films, and so, unfortunately, we’ll be seeing much less of them.