CGI Versus The Horror Film!

Like almost all genres of film, horror hinges on the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Often the most important job of a director is keeping our suspension of disbelief alive no matter what is happening on screen.

With the heavy use of CGI in horror films in the last 20 years, keeping this belief alive is becoming all the more difficult, as our eyes and brain are trained not to believe what is impossible. It is the director’s responsibility to choose how best to use CGI to create the effects, or even whether to use it at all.

Throughout film history, we have been asked to believe some impossible and ridiculous things. The great horror directors have a certain talent for making us believe these images long enough for the film to be effective. While practical effects are more restrictive than CGI, they are, however, physical and therefore easier for us to believe. Our minds know that the extraterrestrial from Alien is not real, yet because it is an actual physical object, we more easily ignore this fact.

John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece The Thing, provides us with an example of near-perfect special effects. The film holds nothing back, in fact, special effects are at the forefront showcasing a refreshing level of confidence.

The practical effects by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, are still some of the most impressive ever put on screen. It is fair to say that if those effects had been made with CGI, the film would have been an utter disaster. The reason the film is so effective is the fact the creatures are all practical. They have a weight and look to them impossible with computer effects. It turns what we would look at as ridiculous, into something legitimately unnerving and terrifying.

Over the last 20 or so years, the monster film has hit a significant decline. While I wouldn’t just blame CGI, I think it is fair to say this is part of the problem.

The success of a monster flick hinges on the reveal of the creature. If the reveal falls flat, for the most part, the film does too. A great example of just this is the 2007 blockbuster I Am Legend. The first half is a great suspenseful horror film, while the second half is a third rate action monster movie. Somewhere along production, a decision was made to use CGI “vampires”, and this decision ruined the film. The film creates a certain level of tension that once the monsters are revealed goes out the window.

We have seen this same problem in countless recent horror films, from Signs to Cloverfield. It is always the same, yet producers and many horror directors don’t realize that they need to cut back on CGI.

Of course, CGI can be a great tool, in fact there are many examples where it is used to great effect. Guillermo Del Toro is the obvious example of a filmmaker who understands how to use it to amplify a monster or effect. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro used CGI to remove part of the legs of the “pale man” making him impossibly skinny. What we get is, in my opinion, one of the most disturbing creatures in film history. While what is on screen is actually physically there, we also know that what we see is impossible and the effect is brilliant as a result.

While it certainly has a place in cinema, horror directors need to be careful with their use of CGI.

CGI allows for everything to be possible, practical effects forces creativity to create what is impossible. With directors like Del Toro using CGI to improve practical effects, there is a solid, terrifying horror future ahead, if more directors follow suit.

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31 Responses to CGI Versus The Horror Film!

  1. Carl says:

    Totally agree, I think the use of CGI in all films needs to be toned down. Del Toro’s films look more real because he doesn’t need to slather them in CGI. This is why I think LOTR is so successful visually. They used a ton of special effects, but also a lot of costumes and miniatures, which enhances the reality of the film.

    Good post, even if I rarely watch horror films.

  2. John says:

    AMEN. Good article. I have dedicated a whole blog based on this subject.

  3. Apathygrrl says:

    I agree completely.

  4. Nick says:

    Totally agreed, although with Cloverfield I can understand why they went completely CGI (small budget, time constraints).

    I’m a fan of the Japanese Godzilla series and I’ve always felt that the monsters and effects had a more realistic FEELING than any CGI creature. Yes, they aren’t perfect, but you can see the craftmanship put into those effects.

  5. joao says:

    Pan’s Labyrinth is not really a good example to defend your theory, as real horror is not about disturbing creatures. Monsters used to scare the audiences on the 50s.

  6. John says:

    Dead on about I Am Legend!! My friend and I still talk about this! I have never been so torn about a movie in my life. The first half of the movie was great, and then the CGI took over. Totally ruined the movie. And I don’t know why directors can’t get that trying to “CGI” real things doesn’t work. Such as in I Am Legend, with the CGI deer in the beginning of the movie. Less is more should be come law when using CGI in movies.

  7. mitchsn says:

    Absolutely agree. The Thing has always been one of my favorite horror movies and theres no way CGI could improve on it. At best it would end up looking like a Corman Syfy channel movie of the week.

    CGI should not replace all special effects.

  8. Logan says:

    I have had this issue with most movies as of late. It’s amazing how a movie like “I am Legend” started to have a great idea that fell short because of the overuse of special effects.

    I think what makes special effects really amazing nowadays is when I’m trying to tell the CGI creatures from those that are people in costumes. Silent hill did this very well, Half of the time, I was convinced that most of the creatures were CG, but were Cirque Du Soleil actors moving in ways you only see in CG creatures.

    However, to agree with your point, their is a time and place for special effects, but overindulging in how they work does detract from what you are supposed to feel when you watch it.

  9. Parker Johnston says:

    Could not agree more, especially for specifically citing I Am Legend. I was really enjoying the first third or so and then it became one of maybe three movies I’ve EVER just turned off and not finished when the first “vampire” appeared. Stupidest use of CGI ever. Upcoming films that could’ve been good, like Case 39, look like they’ve committed computer-generated suicide too.

    It’s also been ruining key moments in a number of non-horror movies as well, such as Superman Returns, when they inexplicably used a full-CGI Brandon Routh for shots of a prone man suspended in mid-air that legitimately looked more convincing in Donner’s film from the 1970s.

  10. specimanYak says:

    I totally agree with your view, CGI is just another tool in a directors arsenal to be used sparingly, when the technique becomes more important than the content the film just feels fake and looks flat. When an actor can actually ‘act’ or ‘react’ against a prop or physical effect the difference is immediate as opposed to staring blandly at a green-screen.
    I am of course referring to the worst 3 CGI-ed horror films in history, i’m looking at you George Lucas, those prequels gave me nightmares, for all the wrong reasons.

    • The Star Wars prequels are a whole other subject. Those films have not aged well, especially Attack of the Clones which looks horrid today.

      • specimanYak says:

        Very true, as time moves on and years pass, the CGI that was once state of the art looks incredibly worse and dated, i can barely watch the SW prequels now as it’s hard to ‘disconnect’ from the shoddy visuals. (Sorry for bringing up the SW prequels in a horror thread, but a young boy does turn into the galaxys most feared monster and it’s the worse use of CGI i can think of).
        On the other hand, i could watch Evil Dead at any time, the inventiveness, creativity and use of simple props, make-up and camera angles still makes me wonder how they managed to make it look and feel so real, decades later.

      • Bryan Dawson says:

        Attack of the Clones didn’t look good back then. I still remember sitting in the theatre and watching a piece of bad CGI fruit floating in the air.

        I think, even though it’s not a horror movie, one of the best examples of the use of CGI is probably Jurassic Park. It was one of the first to use that much, yet it still used animatronics.

    • When I was younger I saw a documentary about the making of Jurassic Park, and surprised me. They were talking about the early stop motion tests they did for the film, and then they heard of something called CGI.
      By that time I was so use to everything being CGI that I didn’t even think about the fact if it had been made two or three years before, it would have had to of been stop motion. Jurassic Park’s special effects certainly do stand up, they still look great.

  11. Jason says:

    Great article! CGI has made many horror film makers lazy. The stunt people running around in “28 Days Later” where much more effective than the CGI “vampires” from “I AM LEGEND”. My favorite horror films are the ones that could actually happen such as Jaws, Psycho and Halloween (the first one).

  12. Very good points, all of them. It’s amazing how quickly I can be pulled out from a horror film because something looks fake. The “vampires” from I Am Legend could have easily been human, but they chose to do CGI because the monsters breathed a lot and might hyperventilate. They should have just animated their chests to look like they were breathing a lot and kept the rest real, a la the Pale Man.

  13. SCY385 says:

    I have said for years that CGI should be used to enhance special effects. They should not be the total effect because the result is often not convincing. The Haunting was another prime example of CGI overkill.

  14. Dan West says:

    Well said.

  15. Nick says:

    I am Legend didn’t fall apart because of bad CG (which indeed the creatures are crap). The movie was great till Sam’s death (the dog). After that he finds the girl and the kid and the movie dies. The title I AM LEGEND refers to the fact that in the book Neville (Will Smith’s character) IS THE ONLY HUMAN LEFT. So the same way vampires are mythical beings of legend for us, so is he for the vampires. He is the legend, the monster that needs to be eradicated, the anomaly.
    And in the book he indeed is the only one and he does some terrible stuff to the vampires (who are intelligent, not zombie-like) so the vampires are afraid of him and want to kill him (like we would be of a vampire in our world). Thus, the moment the girl and the kid appear in the movie, he is no legend any more. They try to fix this up by adding that awful voice over where the girl says “he discovered the cure and so became a legend.” That movie should have cost 30 million and have the ballsy storyline and ending of the book. But they turned it into a 200 million film and had to compromise to bring more people in the theaters.

    • You are completely right. The film had many problems, for the most part all of which are more prevalent in the last half. They took a premise and changed it so much that they completely took the meaning of the title away. The book’s story is so great and interesting, a true horror classic could be made from this idea, sadly, this was not it.

  16. poorfour says:

    What amazes me about horror directors (and the same goes for fx in general) is the apparent inability of the entire industry to learn one very basic lesson: let the human mind do the heavy lifting.

    Both Jaws and Alien were *meant* to have an earlier reveal and much more screen time for the monster. In both cases, the director – famously – didn’t trust the effect, and cut down how much you see, and pushed back when you see it. Result: the human mind fills in the blanks and scares itself silly on suggestion alone.

    And yet the number of films that totally ignore this lesson, even 30 years later, continues to astonish. Ring (the original Japanese version) nailed it, cranking the tension to unbearable levels while repeatedly refusing to give us the big (but cheap shock) until the climax. Terrifying. The Blair Witch Project went too far; lots of tension, no payoff. But most recent horrors just go for giving us a cheap fright every ten minutes, with the result that we repeatedly end up with dross like Cloverfield. Which, in the final analysis, is basically a loud, humourless remake of Shaun of the Dead.

    Shocks are not scares, and neurons are still smarter than computers. Why can’t directors learn?

  17. Mauricio says:

    True Story:
    I once had a discussion with Stan Winston (R.I.P) while he was promoting Jurassic Park 3. My question was: Why do some Mega Budget movies Special Effects look crap and some great (The CG in Jurassic Park 1 still beats some modern CGI).

    His basic answer was. “It´s up to the director”, if the director says it looks good then it looks good enough. Who is the animator/compositor to argue? The director sets the bar, especially when dealing with things that don’t really exist (Tranformers, Dinosaurs etc).

    For example: Michael Bay has shot like 100 car commercials, so he knows how to light a car/robot and instructs the CGI folks (and Bad Boys 1 was fun).

    Stephen Sommers and Jan De Bont….. don´t get me started…


  18. boogerbluebeard#2 says:

    thanks for repeating something I’ve known forever.

  19. Philbonius says:

    CGI can be great, as good practical effects. A good example of this is District 9. What they accomplished in that film on a relatively small budget was incredible and would have been hard to pull off in any other way.

  20. Rob_B says:

    Excellent article, couldn’t have put it better!

  21. CppThis says:

    It probably helped that those classic horror films also featured actual plots and interesting characters rather than just 90 minutes of monsters jumping out of the shadows and killing the shit out of random people. As good as Bottin et al were, if their effects were *the entire focus of the movie* we’d be arguing that they too sucked, not for any technical reason but just because it made for a boring movie. Sure films like Alien had a fair amount of that stuff going on, but they also had a story to tell.

    CGI isn’t the problem, lazy storytelling and direction is. B movies didn’t die, they just went mainstream.

  22. mad hiddy says:

    holy crap I was beginning to think I was alone on this subject! this is such a breath of fresh air. thank you!

  23. TrueClassicHorror says:

    Nothing new. The same arguments about CGI today were being made about animatronic and physical effects thirty and twenty years ago, that filmmakers were so enamored by new technology and big budgets that they forgot all about story and subtlety and a lot of those arguments still hold up today. Just compare the original Cat People to the remake. The first film is a masterpiece where the horror is almost totally conveyed through shadows and suggestion; indeed, the whole point is that, until the end, we don’t know if the woman is really imagining that she’s turning into a cat. The remake is a ghastly affair with convincing but tasteless effects that totally stop the film dead and just turn the viewer right off.

  24. These are truly wonderful ideas in about blogging.
    You have touched some nice points here. Any way keep up wrinting.

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