The Harrison Ford vehicle ‘Call of the Wild’ is out in cinemas this month. It is based on a novel of the same name which apparently is an American household staple. Being British, I had never heard of the book so have no preconceptions about the movie. What I do know is that it is about a dog. So, one assumes, the filmmakers must have gone to some trouble to find some similar looking dogs and train them so that th- oh, no, they just CGI-ed it. And they didn’t just CGI it, they made a guy dress up in a motion capture suit and crawl around on all fours. While it’s funny to watch Benedict Cucumberpants do it, that was at least justified by there being no live Dragons around to cast as Smaug. So an adaptation of this famous, beloved, Yukon-set, century-old story about a dog losing the shackles of his enforced domesticity… doesn’t have a dog in it. Oh and it wasn’t shot in the Yukon either. In fact it wasn’t even shot on location. What few location shots there are were shot in Santa Clarita California, the rest were against green screen. When the Yukon still exists (though for how long is now up for debate) and so do Dogs, yet a film that is largely about those two things features neither, we are left to wonder: why?
It was the same question most audience members had when leaving the theatre after watching, or even after seeing the trailer for, Cats. Why were they all CGI? Understandably they did not use real cats for it — there’s a reason we use the phrase ‘herding cats’ after all — but the stage show got by with representing the felines with costume and make up. Not satisfied with this however, the filmmakers decided blurring the lines betwixt man and beast further was needed and it resulted in a motion picture produced in the depths of the uncanny valley. The list goes on. Why did we need a digital version of Peter Cushing in Rogue One? Why did we need a ‘photo real reimagining’ of The Lion King? We have accepted different actors playing the same character at different ages before, why did we need the de-ageing of The Irishman? Everyone knew 1917 was not done in one shot and many of the supposed ‘hidden’ cuts really aren’t that well hidden, so why not just have a few conspicuous but less noticeable cuts instead of digitally stitching together the movie’s 10 or 12 long takes? This is not to say any of these movies are bad because of these factors (though the world seems united on the Cat-astrophe) but what it does question is what the purpose of CGI in movies is.
Cinema, like most mediums that tell fictional stories, has always been about the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, meaning that we enter into the world and rules of a given story when we sit down to watch it. We think “I know there’s no such thing as lightsabers but it’s part of the world of the story.” And “No of course a man can’t fly but he’s Superman so I’ll buy it.” Despite knowing none of this is possible, if the story is well told and with enough conviction, we go along with it and, 90% of the time we love it. It’s why we love telling stories, they make us think about our lives, feel deep emotions in a non-judgemental or damaging way, inspire us and make us realise we aren’t alone. This is as true for live action as it is for animation. Ask anyone and they’ll be able to tell you how, why and when the last time they cried over an animated film, whether it was watching a cartoon deer get shot or something similar. For me it was the end of Toy Story 3… *takes steadying breath* But this is because we are doing the same thing as with every other story, we are making a leap of logic. In short, a lot of the work for these films is being done in our head. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with CGI and it has come in for some hefty, and unwarranted, backlash over the years. The folks over at Corridor Digital are making sure people are aware of just how hard it is to be a Computer Graphics artist and all the effort that goes into a single frame of CGI, so I am absolutely not arguing that digital technology in film is bad or shouldn’t exist. What I AM arguing is that it isn’t a solution to making films.
Technology has taken over our lives. A statement that was as true in the 17th Century as it is now. We have always lived through a technical medium since humans first invented tools. We interact with the world through all sorts of technology. When some patronising twerp tells people to put down their phones, get away from technology and go for hike or whatever, their condescending message is undermined somewhat by the fact that they probably used a car to drive to their hiking point, listening to the radio or Spotify on the way, paid for their food they ate for lunch with a card, slept in a tent, checked their location with a compass — or more likely GPS — then checked the time with their watch, all while looking at the view through their spectacles. If you really wanted to live without technology you’d be dead within 48 hours. However this does NOT mean it is the answer to all life’s problems, something the Silicon Valley, ‘there’s an app for that’ methodology of the tech-bros don’t seem to understand. Technology isn’t an apt conduit for more human concerns like emotions or human connection. You need only look at social media’s stratification of individuals as we become less willing to interact with each other as evidence that, far from unifying, having access to everyone in the world doesn’t mean we’ll all get along. Similar to the way that humanity has struggled with the philosophical implications of the ‘Trolley Problem’ for generations whereas tech companies have skipped that question completely when they decided (for us) that driverless cars are the way to go. Algorithms are seen as the answer to everything, in that they are unbiased and therefore totally fair. ‘Machine learning will make everything easier’ we are told, to the point where stock markets are now driven by algorithms. All ignoring the fact an algorithm must be programmed by someone and therefore is intrinsically biased at its core. You need only go on YouTube and start clicking through the ‘recommendations’ to see how poorly algorithmic machine learning understands human’s desires. In the same way that Elon Musk spent millions on a submarine that wasn’t fit for purpose and arrived too late to save those children in the cave, the tech firms that have more money than most countries and certainly more political sway, believe technology is the answer, whereas it was a group of experienced divers who actually saved those children.
Which brings us back to Call of the Wild. The solution to ‘how do we tell the story of a dog on film?’ should not automatically be: try and make an obviously-not-a-dog look and act like a dog. After all they made an adaptation of this book in 1935 with, you guessed it, a real dog. They also filmed it in Mount Baker National Park which is still admittedly on the American West coast but at least borders Canada and is in the same general area that was the centre of the Gold Rush the time in which the novel is set. I haven’t seen either of these films nor read the book so I cannot attest to how faithful either adaptation is nor whether the original story is worth retelling, but that’s not the point. Technology is getting to a point where a computer generated dog might fool an audience visually (though apparently there has been doubt cast on that) but the more ‘real’ the dog gets while still doing outlandish things the quicker that ‘willing suspension of disbelief slips’ away. We know it’s not a real dog so while we may on the surface engage with the story it’s harder to emotionally invest. And even then we’d still spend half the movie thinking ‘is that a real dog? No. Can’t be. Is it?’ The point is, digital technology has been pushed as the way we can ‘tell these stories properly this time’. All these endless remakes of classic Disney animations as ‘live action’ extravaganzas, despite being 80% — 100% animated, along with photo-real human-cat hybrids of Cats, misunderstands that which it is desperately trying to re-energise: the much vaunted, Movie ‘Magic’. That feeling of awe in the cinema that people described seeing the chariot race in Ben Hur, or watching that Star Destroyer engulf the screen for the first time, or the T-Rex appear from its paddock. Those moments were ‘movie magic’ and it wasn’t because they all utilise special effects. They all used technology, special FX, even CGI, but none of those moments relied on them. The important part is they brought you into the story, they didn’t drag you out of it.
As most digital artists will attest, the best CGI is when it is invisible. For me, I was convinced for years Gary Sinise didn’t have legs after watching Forrest Gump. A combination of clever editing, shot choices, a brilliant performance and one or two bits of excellent CGI convinced me totally Sinise was paraplegic. I had entered into the world of that film totally. Whereas, far from convincing me Peter Cushing had filmed some additional scenes not used in A New Hope that had been edited into Rogue One, I was instead bounced right out of the movie by his rubber-faced digital clone. The problem is not how photo-real something is, it is what we’re willing to accept. If they had simply used the actor used as performance double for the scene (Guy Henry jsyk), used a bit of makeup and just called him Tarkin in the movie no one would have batted an eyelid. We subconsciously accept Cushing is long dead, so the movie just needs to say ‘here is the same character played by someone else’ and we’ll go along with it. It’s worked fine for James Bond. The harder it tries to convince us it IS Peter Cushing the further away we are pushed from engaging with it. Charlize Theron’s literal transformation into real-life TV personality Megyn Kelly for the movie Bombshell that earned her an Oscar nomination was convincing to the point my jaw dropped when I saw the trailer whereas if she had been CGed no one would have bought it. The question for computer graphics should not be ‘can it be done?’ Because the answer is normally, Yes, it will take a bit of work but we can do that. The question should be ‘why are we doing it?’ What story are you trying to tell? What are you trying to get the audience to invest in? Because you can tell the same story of Call of the Wild without the CGI and it would probably have cost less money and shortened production time. Because it is worth remembering at the same time CGI is advancing so is plenty of other technology. Cameras have got smaller, stunts are getting safer, advances in animal training and safety are increasing, crews have got smaller due to automation (not a great thing for film studio labour but great for the people signing the cheques), every technology has got a lot better, not just computers and graphic software. There was a great movie to be made here that could have been shot on location with digital enhancements and with a real dog that occasionally swapped for a digital one when the animal’s welfare might be in danger, but instead 20th Century Fox (as it was during production) decided to let a group of people in an air-conditioned office in front of computers dictate the nuance of the wilderness.
There is nothing inherently wrong with CGI and many talented, hard working people are getting dumped on when disasters like Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog are forced into walking back on their work due to poor decisions by studios and producers. Far from allowing filmmakers to be more creative or create more ‘magic’, an over reliance on the ‘fix-it-in-post’ mentality of modern Hollywood is having a seriously damaging effect on how we watch movies. This is not to say a more luddite approach is needed. Just shooting on film and only using practical effects doesn’t automatically make your film good either, rather a focus on the story you want to tell should dictate how you want to tell it. And personally, if I wanted to tell the story of a dog returning to the wilderness in the Yukon, the first thing I’d do is draw up a budget of how much it costs to shoot in the Yukon and get in touch with the best dog trainers in the business. In the same way tech isn’t going to solve world poverty, global hunger or the climate crisis, nor is it pushing cinema into particularly great places if any of the recent CG disaster movies are anything to go by. Digital imaging is a really useful hammer, that doesn’t make every script a nail.