Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has revolutionized the world of filmmaking. The majority of films today feature some sort of digital effect, many of which are not obvious to the viewers. Nevertheless, digital effects in many blockbuster Hollywood films become the selling point. The control filmmakers have in postproduction is vast and has opened many doors and brought many stories to life, but what does this control mean in terms of mise-en-scène and storytelling?
Mise-en-scène refers to the physical items on stage or, in a film’s case, on screen. Mise-en-scène is crucial in creating depth and meaning in a film; it comprises the little details that say so much. As students of cinema, we celebrate the filmmakers who take note of the smallest details. Directors such as Stanley Kubrick were notorious for their meticulous obsessions when it came to filmmaking. Kubrick’s relentless obsession to every detail is well documented, and while not every filmmaker is as obsessive as Kubrick, there is something important in his attention to detail. Hours and hours of time are spent creating a single shot, a single frame; but with today’s technology those meticulous frames can be altered in a heartbeat. This ability to change or create a new image empowers many filmmakers. Visual effects open doors to abundant possibilities. In addition to giving directors the ability to transport an audience to any time and place imaginable, these computer generated effects also allow for the often unnoticed application of image control. In post-production, filmmakers can easily remove unwanted elements such as power lines or road signs, and almost as easily they can impose new elements that didn’t appear in the original mise-en-scène. In this sense, the art of mise-en-scène no longer falls in the hands of the production team, but now becomes the responsibility of those involved with post-production.
In his book Digital Storytelling, Shilo T. McClean argues, “the development of digital visual effects arises out of our narrative demands.” There is no doubt many of the films flooding the theater today would be much different without the technology of digital visual effects. These effects have changed the way films are made. The postproduction process no longer involves merely cutting film, but includes pre-visualization, animation, visual effects, compositing, and color grading in addition to the actual picture edit. Any craftsman wants as many tools at his disposal as possible, so why should filmmakers be any different? CGI and special effects have opened doors and allowed filmmakers to tell stories in ways never imagined. Mise-en-scène in the digital world becomes something that can be altered in a few clicks of a mouse or strokes on a keyboard. But does this mean something is lost or gained in this new system?
A part of me scoffs at the notion that if something is not precisely the way we like, we can just “change it in post.” Where is the artistry? Do you think Kubrick would have asked his visual effects team to paint out something in post simply because after seeing it in the editing bay he decided against it? I like to think masters such as Kubrick or Fellini would be so in tune, so aware of what is going into each frame that the phrase “we can fix it in post” would ever be uttered. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these filmmakers would make use of these new tools like everyone else. Better yet, maybe they would tell stories in a new way, in a new light never before afforded to them. It is easy to watch many Hollywood films today and see a mess of camera movements, lens flares, CGI, and anything else one could imagine, and think storytelling through movies is dying or being corrupted by the use of special effects. Yet a select few restrain themselves from creating something big, loud, and void of any sense.
We’ve seen films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, There Will be Blood, and Children of Men use visual effects in ways that complement story and character, rather than hide behind it. With Eternal Sunshine, the filmmakers made a choice to use both practical effects and limited CGI. The digital effects used in Sunshine may be crude, but they are the right choice for the film, adding to the oddity of the situations our characters find themselves in. The special effects are used to showcase the chaos into which the characters, and thus the audience, are thrust, through such effects as cars dropping from the sky. There Will be Blood utilized digital effects to eliminate physical icons from the modern world, which would have ruined the illusion of the time period of the film’s setting in the early 1900s. The film also used many non-digital, real stunts and practical effects. Though these practical effects and stunts were supplemented during post-production, the filmmakers knew what they wanted from the outset, rather than relying completely on digital technology. Children of Men is another film that utilized a mix of digital and practical effects. Where the creators of There Will be Blood knew they would be able to rely heavily on practical effects, Children of Men’s filmmakers knew CGI would be the best way to round out the world of their story. The CGI supported the world of the characters by bringing to life the dystopic future. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a marvel of technological advancement. The film’s star, Brad Pitt, does not actually have a live performance until more than fifty minutes into the film. Instead, the film utilized a number of body actors, whose faces were subsequently replaced with a Brad Pitt’s face via numerous special effect techniques. These films used CGI and special effects in ways that complemented their stories rather than becoming the story. The effects create additional layers, adding texture to the films’ stories and emotions.
Upon its release, audiences marveled at the many visual effects and camera tricks of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; yet there is something deeper than the simple spectacle of — to take one example — watching a woman walk upside down. The effect wasn’t merely delightful or amusing, it was right for the film. These practical effects had the specific and pre-planned purpose of bringing Kubrick’s audience into deep space. The production built actual rotating rooms, giant centrifuges, and miniatures, creating some of the most memorable shots in film. This careful application of special effects prevents the film from becoming a spectacle of effects, but rather creates meaning with the mise-en-scène.
Perhaps it is too much to expect filmmakers to be able to restrain themselves with these new technologies. It is like giving them a golden ticket to Mr. Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: we all know that somebody is going to get into something they should not have. The best uses of mise-en-scène involve meaning and emotion coming together, embedding themselves within the image. It should be no different with CGI and special effects. These effects have the ability to become part of the image, allowing us to see something more than is visible outright in the acting, set design and camera work. When a film becomes centered on the spectacle of itself, it can lose credibility. The magic of movies lies not in their ability to enthrall us with bright, shiny, colorful spectacles, but in their ability to connect with us and speak to us.
CGI has breathed new life into the science fiction and fantasy genres. To be a Trekky or a Tolkienite was to be a nerd, but today such identifications are embraced by popular culture. CGI has changed the way we see films. The laughable effects of years past are gone, and everything that once seemed fake is now all too real. Most blockbuster films feature some sort of fantasy aspect, whether it is a Wizard, an Ironman, or even a great and powerful Oz.
But the leaps forward in these spectacle-driven genres come at some cost. Dudley Andrew points out that CGI has pushed classic stories to the side. In his book, What Cinema Is!, Andrew writes, “Apparently, many today feel that the world and the humans who inhabit it have been sufficiently discovered, that no new revelations await, at least not in a medium dominated by entertainment and advertising.” Maybe the problem is less a matter of how CGI is ruining storytelling, and more a matter of how it is no longer leaving room for good stories. The question becomes, how do we utilize CGI to complement genuine realities, as opposed to films that are simply about the spectacle? The broad theme in Kubrick’s 2001 about man and his tools – their advancement and dangerous potential – is relevant to the problems we face today with these new technologies. Now that filmmakers have a seemingly endless toolbox, they now must commit to using the right tools for the job, rather than always grabbing for the biggest and baddest gadget in the workshop.
Calvin Johnson recently completed his MFA degree in Film & Television at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is working for a company specializing in the preservation and restoration of classic films. He has aspirations of teaching college-level film production and has plans for several other film projects that are currently in pre-production.
 Shilo T. McClean. Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film. (Boston: MIT Press, 2007).
 Dudley Andrew. What Cinema Is! (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).