The first fully computer-generated character in a feature film, I believe, was a knight in 1985's YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES. It's been all uphill from there -- or downhill, depending on what day you ask me.
CGI wasn't invented in the '90s, but it sure took hold then. James Cameron dabbled with it in 1989's THE ABYSS, but the movie that really showed the mass audience exactly what Digital Domain could do was Cameron's TERMINATOR 2 in 1991. Since then, there's been no turning back. Stunt players are in danger of being marginalized and even outmoded -- Cameron sent dozens of digital humanoids plummeting and bouncing to their deaths in TITANIC. How long will it be before no humans are needed at all? For better or worse, CGI has changed the face of movies this decade.
In the '90s, almost every director has played with the new digital toys to a greater or lesser degree. You don't make an action film these days without some form of CGI augmentation. Some directors use it strictly as a sort of Photoshop cover-up -- if you've got an airplane in the sky, fucking up your shot of a 14th-century battlefield, just digitally wipe it. Even Kubrick used it in EYES WIDE SHUT to cloak all those offensive copulators at the orgy; if he hadn't been forced to do it for American prints, his entire filmography would've been pure and free of CGI -- well, except for the optics at the end of 2001, which predated CGI by almost 20 years. (If Kubrick were making THE SHINING today, would he have simply created the Overlook on a Mac? Probably not, but the technology did interest him -- he was said to be looking into it for his would-be project A.I.) Other directors, like Cameron or Robert Zemeckis, use it to achieve effects inconceivable without CGI -- Gary Sinise without legs, a man bouncing off a rudder, Goldie Hawn with a hole through her torso you can see right through.
Not that the digital age has limited its influence to CGI. For a good part of the decade, directors have simply saved their footage on a hard drive and edited it digitally. This makes the task somewhat less arduous -- the process of fondling celluloid and physically splicing it has pretty much gone the way of the rotary phone -- but it also makes it a whole lot easier for movies to be much more "cutty" than they absolutely need to be. The rapid-fire, Cuisinart editing in such films as ARMAGEDDON, BATMAN AND ROBIN, or your choice of caffeinated summer fare makes it damn near impossible for you to see anything or to follow a narrative unless you've been raised on the ADD flailings of MTV and Japanese anime. I'm not against fast editing -- Spielberg and his master cutter Michael Kahn know exactly when and where to snip, and Oliver Stone managed to make NATURAL BORN KILLERS frenetic yet still readable -- but too many directors go for flash over coherence and even routine comprehension. With some of these cutty films, you wonder what flaws all the whiplash editing is hiding. And in the '90s it's been easier than ever to de-emphasize bad performances and bland compositions with an Avid.
Combine fast editing with cold CGI, as in SPAWN or GODZILLA, and you have a mess. CGI has changed the face of movie fantasy, and not always for the better. No matter how accomplished it gets -- and it's gotten pretty damn accomplished since Robert Patrick morphed his way through T2, whose effects seem almost quaint today -- CGI will never lose that untouched-by-human-hands look and feel. As I noted in my GODZILLA review, a monster built by hand might look cheesy, even rubbery, but it still has a tangible quality of having been worked on, molded, painted, forged by hand; it exists in actual space, and you can't match that with the work of twenty guys tapping away at keyboards for a year. Spielberg knows this better than anyone: his forays into CGI -- the JURASSIC PARK movies and some of the more impossible stunts and deaths in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN -- are a seamless blend of digital whizbang and good old-fashioned rubber and Karo syrup. And compare the latex Jabba in RETURN OF THE JEDI to the flamboyantly shitty-looking CGI Jabba in STAR WARS: SPECIAL EDITION and PHANTOM MENACE. (This is why Spielberg, to his eternal credit, has sworn never to digitally tweak E.T. for any subsequent re-releases.)
CGI toons don't do it for me, either. Same thing: Compare a character that someone actually sat down and drew, versus a character created on a Mac and inhabiting a universe also created on a Mac, and you see the difference. When I finally forced myself to watch TOY STORY, I loathed it, absolutely couldn't wait for it to be over; it had a ghastly shiny quality that I couldn't deal with. It was like watching a video game stuck on demo mode for 90 minutes. ANTZ, a DreamWorks production, had a scrappier, more naturalistic look, so I was able to enjoy that more, but A BUG'S LIFE was more of the same Pixar plastic. The characters may be designed on paper, but it's a lot of ones and zeroes that make them move.
CGI has even crept into Disney toons, providing the backdrops and in many cases the motion sequences in movies from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to TARZAN (not to mention the CGI magic carpet in ALADDIN). It makes for less work; it also makes for less imagination, and often less beauty. FANTASIA, after all, managed to be stunning 50 years before CGI. (I'm not terribly optimistic about FANTASIA 2000, whose trailer is full of awful computer animation.) However much the software companies might like to tout it, a digital background cannot have the same splendor as a background painted by hand. It is the difference between handwritten calligraphy and a font produced in Adobe Photoshop: One has personality, the other doesn't.
Even in live-action films, sometimes entire sequences are digital monsters or vehicles inhabiting digital space. In GODZILLA, the sorriest example of this, we sat for minutes at a time watching a computer-generated Godzilla chased by computer-generated helicopters through a computer-generated New York City. David Denby, in his review of GODZILLA, said it best: "Such imagery is thrilling at first, but when it's repeated again and again, we begin to notice that the shots have the glib, too-easy virtuosity of an advanced video game. In movies, computer-generated animation may be a double-edged sword: You can do anything with it, but if you leave plausible, photographed reality too far behind, the thrill evaporates instantly."
Not to mention the herky-jerky motions of some of the cheesier CGI creations -- the animals in JUMANJI, the ridiculous werewolf in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS (in every way inferior to Rick Baker's latex lycanthrope in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), and even Jar Jar Binks, who moved smoothly but was nevertheless always in motion, always drawing your eyes to him, never for one moment credible as an actual living thing occupying actual space. Capering and goofing alongside his static human costars, Jar Jar was like a Ralph Bakshi character pasted into a Kubrick film.
SPAWN was the most glaring example of "Let's stop the movie stone dead and show off some more CGI." Not since THE LAWNMOWER MAN had so much painstaking work accomplished so little. I was not surprised to learn that the director of SPAWN, one Mark Dippé, had worked on the CGI for JURASSIC PARK and T2. This is what happens when you let tech guys behind the camera. It happened with WISHMASTER, directed by Robert Kurtzman of the special makeup team KNB -- entire scenes were devoted to gory, sometimes imaginative makeup effects. In both cases, I wished the skill and craftsmanship had been put in service of better scripts. And in both cases, what you see is the masturbatory work of tech guys who focus on their first love -- CGI, makeup effects -- to the exclusion of boring stuff like acting and a script. The effects become the tail that wags the dog.
CGI is like any other tool: It can be used well or badly. We've all seen it used badly, and not only in movies. For instance, the cheapjack commercials that plug vintage movie footage of Fred Astaire or John Wayne or Bogart into a spot for beer or soda or vacuum cleaners. Ironically, the stupidest one -- the Astaire vacuum-cleaner ad (which Astaire's family approved ... still, it doesn't make it right) -- was the one that came off best, because it had no dialogue. You might be able to make John Wayne look as if he's interacting with Lee Ermey, and pretend that he's talking about beer, but his voice still has a different sound quality from Ermey's. Similarly, in FORREST GUMP, some of the trick shots of Gump interacting with, say, John Lennon were marred by unconvincing digital dubbing -- making the lips move to conform to new dialogue. In a way, it's comforting that such high-tech grave-robbing can't be seamlessly accomplished ... yet.
Neither can a photorealistic computer-generated human character be realized ... yet. You keep hearing about how the tech geeks are cranking on it, working towards that day when a CGI actor that looks and moves exactly like a flesh-and-blood actor will rise from the laboratory table. It's alive! Uh, no, it's dead, Jim. Some of us will never be able to watch a CGI-created character and think of it as anything more than a CGI-created character. It's a very expensive way to take us out of the movie. I can't imagine that a fully computer-generated "human" actor would be anything more than a distraction.
Unless, of course, some of our biggest stars are actually CGI and we just don't know it yet ...