Purposeful CGI: When CGI Serves the Story

I rewatched The Matrix the other day and was impressed by how purposeful it was with its CGI. And not just it’s CGI, The Matrix integrates all its ideas seamlessly into the story. Here’s a movie that wants to build a dystopian future, incorporate philosophical concepts, be the first North American film to have fight choreography from Yuen Woo-Ping, popularize a technique that manipulates how viewers perceive space and time in a camera’s frame (that they coined “bullet time”), and incorporate anime and cyberpunk influences.

And somehow, amidst these varied and bold initiatives they manage to make each and every single element serve the story as well as making an entertaining action movie. This helped me remember that good CGI has more to do with serving the story than it does with looking cool. There are a number of reasons CGI might look bad (low budget, time constraints, conflicting information between directors and producers), but unnecessary CGI is the greater crime.

Here are three examples of where CGI serves the story well and three examples where CGI serves the story poorly.

Walking Dead: Why Storytelling Takes Time

With the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, “Swear,” fans are starting to get restless.

I’ve had a fortunate background with The Walking Dead. I only started watching just before Season Five, so I was able to binge watch the series up until that point. This meant that if the show dragged for a couple of episodes, I didn’t have to wait long to get to the “solid episodes.” But you notice something when you watch the series all at once; it’s clearer to see that the “slow episodes” are actually building something. Something of value. We all experience the highs of The Walking Dead and those moments aren’t because Rick is stuck in tank and we’re not sure how he’s going to out, it’s because there are themes and ideas the show is trying to convey while simultaneously getting you to care about its characters and where they are going.

And slow as Season Seven may be (so far), I think it’s helpful to look back at previous seasons to remember that the season has a destination in mind and we’re going to be delighted somewhere along the path to that end point.

Superman III: Revisted

Superman III revisited. In this series I re-watch a movie I haven’t seen in a long time to look at it with new eyes, and (hopefully) more experience. This time I revisit Superman III.

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I haven’t seen Superman III since I was a kid and couldn’t really remember much of it. Re-watching it again, I can see why it wasn’t worth remembering. The basic plot is that tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) has ambitions to dominate more global markets. Webster discovers a talented computer programmer, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), and Webster forces Gorman to use his programming talent to manipulate the world and to combat Superman (Reeve).

The opening sequence of Superman III is a series of mishaps: A blind man’s dog runs away, the dog knocks over a lady, the blind man mistakes a street lane painter as his dog and starts following it. Somewhere amidst this chaos, a man gets trapped inside a flooding car and Superman must save him.

I wondered what kind of story this was establishing. Is this a story about all the things that go wrong in the world that Superman can’t fix? Is it a story about him struggling to decide between who to help and who to abandon, even if that sometimes means between choosing who lives and who dies? This was me giving Superman III too much credit. Superman III is a Superman story told as a screwball comedy. It is a strange movie. It is a boring movie. And I didn’t think it was a funny movie.

Here are six thoughts I had when revisited Superman III.

Smallville: Skippable Episode Guide

Awhile back I offered to make someone on the Smallville subreddit an abridged guide to Smallville that skipped all unncessary episodes. My offer was ignored, but another user recently found my post and asked me if I would still be willing to make the guide. So here it is! The following is my skippable episodes guide to Smallville.

Please note that I created this guide to cater specifically to that reddit user’s request, who was only interested in the main storyline. This creates some problems because typically when you make a skippable episode guide you only include the best episodes (in addition to ones that follow the main plot) and Smallville‘s main storyline episodes aren’t the best episodes. For example, the Season Four episode “Sacred” is a terrible episode. But in that episode we learn about an important set of stones that are integral to the season. Following the main storyline also skips over a lot of great episodes, like the Ryan episode in the first season (which I snuck in anyway) and the Alicia episodes in the third and fourth seasons (which I also snuck in anyway).

Smallville is also unusual in that it continuously reinvents its history. At first we learn about how Clark fits in with the Native American legend of Naman. Later we learn about how Clark is also known among the Veritas group as The Traveler. By the time we’re learning about The Traveler, the Native American legend is hardly referenced again. So is the Native American legend really part of the main storyline? What I decided was that each season focused on a particular story or villain and I tried to include the episodes that developed that story.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I’d consider reworking this in order to make the best possible list for the most number of people. For example, if you think the will-they-won’t-they, on-again-off-again Lana storyline is essential, I’m willing to hear that argument. Or if you would just prefer a list of the most pleasant Smallville episodes, let me know.

Final note: If you’re a first time viewer watching the show, I’ve separated the article into two parts: The first part is spoiler-free list of the episodes you need to watch, the second part is spoiler-heavy description for fans to explain why I cut what I cut.

Here is the abridged guide to Smallville that let’s you know what episodes you can skip.

Doctor Strange: Imagery and Storytelling Through His Hands

While watching Doctor Strange I noticed a considerable focus on Doctor Strange’s hands. Because Doctor Strange’s journey begins because he damages his hands, they are a big part of the story’s purpose and the camera spends a lot of time on his hands as he progresses through the story.

Here is a quick breakdown of how images of Doctor Strange’s hands are used to describe his mindset and where he is in his journey.