The Power of Pixels

Computer-Generated Imagery. CGI. For most people who make no secret of their disappointment for Episodes I-III, this is one of the biggest berserk buttons. The prevailing theory is that I-III lacked “soul” and “energy,” because they eschewed practical elbow-grease for flashy computers for all their visual effects.

Of course, this attitude is complete and utter bantha poodoo. I myself have written two (here and here) articles about the sheer number of practical special and visual effects that the three films employed, the second with photo evidence, and many others have thankfully been jumping on this bandwagon in the wake of JJ Abrams’ calculated mentioning of practical in the lead-up to the newest film. The truth is, just as with IV-VI, Lucas and his teams used every tool at their disposal and even invented a few to bring us the best films they possibly could.

And yet, the attitude still prevails, because no matter what way you slice it, CGI was in fact used extensively in I-III and featured prominently. Proving that practical effects and elements were used just as much if not more is only half the battle, and my mistake has largely been paying only lip service to the other half:

The fact that CGI is not in any way, shape, or form a BAD thing.

CGI is a tool. If done right, it’s a very effective tool. Now, there are times when CGI is misused. We all know what bad CGI looks like. And it may be an overused tool, especially in the realm of animated features.

But the CGI in Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III? Not bad by a long shot.

I’ve always viewed the CG used in I-III to the general visual effects in IV-VI. The Phantom Menace and A New Hope were truly groundbreaking. The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones were still impressive, but not as much as the techniques were more readily available. Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith were well-done, but baseline for the time and no longer as innovative in that respect.

And that, to me, is where the hypocrisy in this sentiment is so evident. The Phantom Menace set a standard for CG visual effects in fantasy/science fiction blockbusters that almost every movie in that genre has enjoyed in the sixteen years since, and the only complaints on any with comparable quality and saturation that I’ve heard being even close to what we got with I-III was from the first Hobbit film a few years back – interestingly another long-awaited prequel to a successful film franchise that was a bit more lighthearted on its surface compared to what preceded and followed it. It’s also sad to me because Gollum, the gold standard on photorealistic CG performances and motion-capture, looked ten times more real in Unexpected Journey than in all his previous incarnations.

As much as Gollum should rightly be considered a benchmark for visual effects, the characters in The Phantom Menace should be given credit for the most realistic CGI since the dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park. By that I mean, while they may not have had the photorealistic translucent skin of Gollum, they had a real weight to them. I felt like I could reach out and touch them, and feel that texture. Watto may have looked like a Muppet, but he looked like he was there with Liam Neeson. The same goes with Jar Jar and Sebulba, at least in 90% of shots – nothing’s perfect, and this was pushing the envelope at the time.

So the more I hear someone complain about the CG in I-III and turn around and praise something like Guardians of the Galaxy which is, again, of comparable quality and saturation to Phantom Menace (a film fifteen years its senior, by the way), it becomes clear to me that CGI is yet another scapegoat. The same with the dialogue, story, and performances, all of which are easily comparable to 90% of the most popular “geek” films since the movie that was once simply Star Wars blazed across the silver screen shy of four decades ago. Will the haterbase ever realize that, rather than anything Lucas and his team did, the reason they don’t connect with I-III is something more personal and subjective? Alas, the self-unaware will always be a factor. One can only hope that the influx of young adults for whom I-III WAS their life-changing film experiences will soon overwhelm those who are still stuck in the early 1980’s. Then, perhaps, history will be kinder to these true marvels of filmmaking.

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Adam lives with his wife in Providence, Rhode Island USA (a wife who was gracious enough to allow “Across the Stars” as their wedding processional). Adam plays World of Warcraft, writes and manages the self-indulgent blog “Nilbog’s Storybook Land”, and attempts (often in vain) to complete his novel. He secretly hopes that the production of the new Star Wars films will lead to open auditions.