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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Less is more.

In recent weeks I've stumbled across a number of articles dealing with one of my favourite pastimes, the creature feature; the articles in question wondered aloud whether or not CGI monsters are as scary as the old-fashioned man-in-a-suit. One such article, written by the folks over at @denofgeek argued that no, they probably are not, and in a quasi-response to that article the people over at @moviesdotcom in a sense underpinned that conclusion by listing the few instances in which a CG monster did manage raise a few shackles.

I think any film lover in his right mind will find it hard to disagree with the point these two articles are trying to make and I am no exception. However, I've decided that I do have something to add to the discussion (if you can even call it that). Plus, it's my blog so I'll pontificate if I want to.

So here's my two cents.

People are often quick to express their dissatisfaction with computer generated imagery -whether it's the Transformers, the aliens in Signs or the gophers in the latest Indy- and that is of course perfectly alright; the appreciation of films and the characters, situations and backdrops therein is entirely subjective. That being said, when discussing this with fellow film geeks I often detect a subtle yet vital fallacy in their reasoning. In very broad terms the fallacy is this:
Most monsters in films are crap. Most monsters in films (nowadays) are CGI. Therefore it follows that CGI monsters are crap.
Even if the conclusion at the tail end of that non sequitur seems to have some merit (most monsters are crap), I find this reasoning to be too easy and slightly unfair.

Here's what I see as the crux of monsters in modern-day cinema: detail. An excess of it, to be precise. And while this excess of detail may be a result of CGI (CGI allows filmmakers to be detailed), I don't think it's fair to dismiss computer generated imagery on the whole as a result of it*; CGI is merely a tool and just like you cannot fault a hammer for hitting you on the thumb you also can't fault CGI for making monsters less scary. It's the persons wielding the tool that are responsible. To illustrate I must make use of an example, a recent creature feature that both the aforementioned articles mention as a good example of CGI usage, Attack Of The Block.

The creatures in Attack Of The Block are the perfect illustration of that old adage, less is more. In the film -which takes place on a single evening so darkness prevails- the creatures are hinted at rather than shown, and when they are shown, they are perfect in their simplicity. What makes these creatures so singularly menacing is their near invisibility; they are little more than a hole in your field of vision, a black gap in the fabric of space. It's the approximation of a monster rather than an actual one; it's almost as if the filmmakers used negative space to create these creatures. The fluorescent blue teeth are a golden touch that seal the deal.

Juxtapose this exemplary use of CGI against, say, the vampire-zombies in I Am Legend. CGI allowed the makers of this film to show even the smallest detail; every fold of skin and every bristle of hair is rendered in perfect, High Def detail. Seeing the claws on its fingers and the menacing look in its bloodshot eyes does not (necessarily) increase the fright-factor, in fact it is often detrimental to it. By rendering a monster so crisply and so clearly you also render it sterile and in a way, harmless, no matter how angry it looks. The suggestion of terror lurking in the shadows is replaced by this beige creature that screams unnecessarily loudly and unhinges its jaw in a way that, well, kind of makes you giggle.

But I'm rambling. My main point is simple: it's not because of CGI that monsters no longer appear to be frightening, it's because of the filmmakers employing CGI. Less really is more, especially when you wish to instill fear in the viewer. Just because CGI allows you to show everything doesn't mean you have to. In fact, please don't. Because if you don't, the viewer's mind will fill in the blanks, and it's that reflection of one's own psyche that makes a monster truly terrifying.

The monster under the bed is only scary for as long as you refuse to look under the bed.

* I am not implying the two aforementioned articles dismiss CGI on the whole but I do often detect this tendency when the topic comes up.


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