Over the past few years, we have been treated to a new phenomenon in filmmaking -- real actors performing inside totally computer-generated backgrounds, accomplished by extensive filming in front of blue screens. Beginning in 2004 with the exceptionally bad "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," the process was honed by later (and much better) films, including Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City" and "300." The technique has been used to emulate comic book landscapes and ambiance that cannot be replicated by traditional live-action special effects or set design.
Now we have three distinct ways to use computer images (realistically or fantastically) in films: (1) computer generated actors in real backgrounds (See "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Jurassic Park"); (2) real actors in fake backgrounds (see above); and (3) fake actors in fake backgrounds ("King Kong" and "Shrek"). Each of these techniques have added a richness to modern day film, whether it is to make special effects more realistic or to actualize unrealistic stylization. However, directors are beginning to push the limits, with mixed results.
For example, have you seen the trailer for Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf?" Zemeckis is employing the same model that failed so tremendously in "Polar Express," in which the computer generated characters look exactly (or attempt to look exactly like) the actors voicing them. Though at first glance this might seem just like any Pixar film, the use of the actors' images in the CGI seems to conflict with the purpose of using CGI in the first place. If Tom Hanks' character looks like Tom Hanks, and you're employing Tom Hanks to act, then why not just have Tom Hanks act?
Another potentially unnecessary use of technology is currently being employed for new-look backgrounds. The Wachowski Brothers, famous for giving the world the "bullet-time" 360 degree images in the "Matrix" movies, is now working on "Speed Racer," a live action version of the well-known cartoon series. A story on Collider.com reports:
A few months ago I heard this crazy story that The Wachowski Brothers were filming "Speed Racer" with a new type of camera that was revolutionary and the final film would look like nothing we’d ever seen before on a movie screen. But try as I might, I couldn’t second source the info and find out exactly what was going on. . . . Then, a bit later, I heard more specifically what they were doing. Supposedly they were going to make the entire frame always in focus. . . like a cartoon. I had heard that the reason for the long filming process was not due to the extensive blue screen work, but due to this new look that they were going for and, once again, I still couldn’t second source it.
OK, now, I haven't seen the movie or the trailer, so I don't know how this is going to look. It might be a really cool effect -- I don't know. But if it just does what the article reports, then it just seems to be an unnecessary use of technology. If they want to make the whole movie look like a cartoon, then why not use animation for the background? I reserve judgment temporarily, but I'm cautiously pessimistic.
I am not saying they shouldn't be doing it. Film is art, and artists should be able to create whatever images they envision. I'm just saying it doesn't make any sense. If all of the characters look exactly like the actors that voice them in "Beowulf," why film it in complete CGI animation like a Pixar film instead of like "300?" It doesn't look better than "300"-- I've seen the trailer and it just looks like Angelina Jolie with stiffer expressions. Similarly, if the special camera that's producing an effect where everything is in focus like a cartoon in "Speed Racer," why not just replicate the background with standard cartoon animation (see "Who Framed Roger Rabbit")? I just think these directors are getting a little to cute for their own good.