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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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How CGI Became the Main Character in Hollywood Movies & Do We Care?

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

In a Screenwriting Galaxy Far, Far, Away, the Writers Guild Foundation ( once held “Words Into Pictures,” a series of conferences that brightened the years 1997, 1999, and 2002, with debates about everything from character development to story-craft. Around about 1999, David Koepp (writer of Jurassic Park, The Panic Room and more) and Stand By Me’s Rob Reiner got into it over VFX vs Storytelling.


You could say this was a friendly pre-Milliennial, though heated, discussion that foreshadowed what we have today. That is: the assumed visual gorgeous display virtual effects and post pixel management provides us as moviegoers. 


Consider the match-up - Koepp is reported to be the "fifth most successful" screenwriter/director in film history with nearly $2 B USD in gross BO receipts. Rob Reiner, son of Carl, has directed crowd favorites, from The Bucket List (2007) to A Few Good Men (1992) to When Harry Met Sally (1989)... to Spinal Tap (original and sequel).


Koepp, a proponent of technology even to the degree that his Panic Room was shot specifically for the Digital Realm (in terms of lighting and post), was go-go VFX. Reiner was almost frothy is his conviction that the footprint of all these fruits of wonder in the pixel world would land squarely on the neck of storytelling. 


You only have to look from James Franco’s perspective in Oz The Great & Powerful to see what a marvel VFX can perform on screen. Even Ridley Scott’s bleak 2011 opus Prometheus (the sequel of which - Prometheus 2 is now being filmed), shows promise for world-building via VFX.


Whereas the Wachowski’s thrilled with early VFX in the Matrix franchise, as does the X-Men franchise, you then get the 300 series, which makes blood-letting and execution down to the very last exploding pixelated Pointillist drop.


We’ve come to expect this from our ticket price, haven’t we? 


Think of it as a buffet of All-VFX-You-Can-Eat. In fact, this is the culmination of years of R&D, thousands of hand-hours of programming, and copious breakthroughs in the technology of movie-making itself. 


Many minds have been at work on this. Going back as far as 1984, Wavefront Technology partners Larry Barels, Bill Kovacs, and Mark Sylvester, had a vision for using graphics on screens large and small. In the 1990’s Wavefront reached into Asia, and in 1993, they bought a French venture called Thomson Digital Images (TDI). Next they merger with Alias Research, became Alias Wavefront, and jumped in with Silicon Graphics. You get the digital convergence going on here, right? 


This is without even casting an eye on the Big Player called Autodesk, which back in 1982, had designs on reconfiguring the way we watch movies via the Digital Era. By 1989, at the defining industry conference (still) known as SIGGRAPH, they unveiled some awesome 2D tools. And later just continued the WOW Factor into 3D, and other breathtaking insider heights of derring-do like the current standard suite of tools known as 3DS MAX. 


And, individuals made their mark on this trail to the nirvana in visual imagery. Pixar’s Edwin “Ed” Catmull is one of brains behind RenderMan, the software that makes reality possible at “80 million polygons per frame.” Alvy Ray Smith, the genius behind the “80 million polygons” quote, can still blow your mind with papers like this ( The full title is “Digital Humans Wait in the Wings,” which Smith wrote for Scientifc American BACK IN 2000!


He posits the notion of a “Camera-less Movie,” which begs the question… When will there be an actor-less movie? And, this follow-up question: How have actual humans depicted on screen fared? (You can pick sides, a Reiner-ite or a Koepp-ian…) 


Take the AVATAR franchise, James Cameron’s all-time money-shaker; add Spike Jonze’s 2013 release HER, about Singularity (which means the point where machines eclipse humans); plus LUCY (2014), another Scarlett Johansson starrer by Fifth Element’s Luc Besson, which bows in July, and throw in the Edge of Tomorrow, with our favorite international American movie face, Tom Cruise.

What message are we Mere Humans taking away with our empty popcorn tubs?

Blue Tail envy, as the British news outlets claimed at AVATAR’s release? The urge to DATE OUR APPS, the sensibilities of which far outstrip our carbon-based counterparts, as in HER? Or Kill Me Now, because as a learning-curve-based animal… its gonna take a while, as in our Tom Cruise being whacked a la Groundhog Day by wiley Emily Blunt in that particular war-torn kakotopian (yes, it’s a real word, look it up) future?

The Rob Reiner-ites in Hollywood want to keep putting those pesky human foibles front and center in story craft, like in his seminal film The Princess Bride (1987). As the film lays out, we don’t really want to be consumed by the amazing/superanumerary actors and even thespian icons being blown to smithereens by some fantastic plot…

What we really want - wait for it… is...

Is to learn a little bit of something about Ourselves.

So ask yourself: what are we learning from AVATAR? X-Men? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reboot)?

Whether you side with Rob Reiner or David Koepp in that long ago, now echoing debate, the real question is - Do these big franchises all feel like parts of the same movie, with the same kinds of visual stunning moments, that all overshadow character?

Summer Blockbuster Season is here, it’s the perfect time to see whether it’s the Fault in Our Stars or the TRANSFORMERS that make us more human.


# # #



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About Quendrith Johnson

Johnson Quendrith

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