The Delicate Nature of Effective CGI in Film

I like movies. I like ’em a whole dang lot. I like movies that make me think, that give me something to chew on long after the credits roll. My favorite films are the ones that I can have late night conversations about with friends because they somehow unearthed a topic that I probably never would have thought of otherwise. Good films can show you perspectives you’ve never really considered. And great films can change your mind completely. All this to say, I love me a good ol’ immersive piece of cinema.

So what is it that makes a film reel you in (pun intended, no shame), that pulls you into a place where you forget what’s real? Well obviously it’s pretty complicated, involving stuff like an interesting story and a script that will hold up against an audience that’s made up of more than just teenage girls. A film’s concept is crucial. However, the visual side of things is equally as important. What we see affects what and how we think. If your film looks like you just threw a bunch of stuff on the set  in the hope that your final product is going to look really cool, you’re gonna be disappointed. The best filmmakers display the talent of knowing how to find the balance of revealing information without overwhelming the audience.

So lets talk about CGI, the great cinematic tool of our day and age. Specifically, I’d like to address the perils of CGI abuse.

Jackson posing with film set
Peter Jackson posing on the Helm’s Deep set, which was built from scratch. Source:

For the purpose of this blog, let’s focus on the works of Peter Jackson. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a magical combination of a flawless story, a talented filmmaker, and the wildly stunning landscapes of the New Zealand wilderness. These movies hold up in every way, even more than a decade after they first were considered revolutionary. Jackson’s use of CGI was impressive, yet not overwhelming. He managed to balance the real grittiness of the story with that of the animated effects that created the fantastic mythical world of Tolkien.

Look at The Hobbit trilogy. Now back at LOTR. Now back at The Hobbit. Sadly, this newer trilogy fails to hold up to the expectations of its stronger, wiser, and overall better-looking older brother. Peter, I know you tried to make it cool, but…wow. I remember sitting in the theater to watch The Battle of the Five Armies and trying not to laugh at how ridiculously over the top most of the effects were. If you sit down and actually compare the visual effects of LOTR and the Hobbit films, it honestly just seems like someone left Peter Jackson in a room with a lot of expensive stuff to play with.

So what makes one of these films incredible and the other lackluster? Where does the distinction lie? I would argue that The Hobbit does a bad job of providing enough realism to pull the audience in.

Comparison of characters from LOTR and the Hobbit


Take a look at the picture above. On the left we have an Uruk-hai from The Fellowship of the Ring, and on the right is Azog the Defiler, a goblin from The Hobbit. The creature on the left was created through the intricate use of prosthetics and makeup, and the result is honestly terrifying. Like, this guy freaked me out as a kid. Azog, however, is completely the result of CGI. There is no man behind the action, there is only animators. The visual difference is clear when they are compared. No audience is going to be fooled into believing that what they are looking at is real in any capacity, and no matter how good the CGI is there is still the problem of the physics behind it. Look at the distinctively different ways that the light plays off each character’s face. The difference is obvious, and it doesn’t fool anyone.

CGI sequence in The Hobbit
CGI in The Hobbit. Source:

Audiences are smarter than most filmmakers give them credit for. We notice the subtle things, even if we sometimes have a hard time expressing them in words. It’s ridiculous for a filmmaker to think that they can distract viewers with explosions and impossible athletic feats enough to draw attention from what the film lacks in concept. CGI can be an incredible tool that can enhance the filmgoing experience by allowing us to experience things we never would have thought possible, but if overused all it does is make us roll our eyes. If we tried to create films with meaning rather than films with unrealistically impressive visuals, I think that the entire filmgoing experience would change for the better.


So please, use CGI responsibly. For all our sakes.

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