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.

The Good


The Matrix

As Neo reaches out to touch the mirror, his fingers dip into the mirror as though it were viscous. When Neo pulls is fingers away, part of the mirror remains stuck to him and begins to spread and slowly cover his entire body.

This effect doesn’t just look cool, it also represents the precise moment when Neo truly starts to question his reality (as does the audience). And the CGI effect of the viscous, seemingly alive mirror helps Neo (and the audience) question his reality in a way that Morpheus’s words cannot. It is a visual presentation of a concept that is difficult to understand with words alone, which makes it an excellent example of where CGI is used to serve the story.


Jurassic Park


Sometimes CGI is used to tell a story practical effects simply cannot. Jurassic Park used a variety of dinosaur models throughout the movie, but there were certain scenes where practicals would not work. Any of the CGI sequences in Jurassic Park would serve as great examples of using CGI to tell a story, but the scene I’m going to focus on is the T-Rex jeep chase:

There are a lot of CGI scenes in the movie where dinosaurs are terrifying, but for me this one stands out. The T-Rex is so close to them — hunting them. Here the characters get a real sense of what it would have been like to be the T-Rex’s prey as the T-Rex sprints toward them; its eyes gleaming a demonic yellow and our heroes inches away from the T-Rex’s treacherous maw.

Perhaps if they had the technology to do this with animatronics they would have, but since they couldn’t this CGI scene does a great job of illustrating what other, more tense scenes do not, and that is the adrenaline of survival one might experience if the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park got out of their cages. Which is what Jurassic Park is all about.


The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

This scene is a layered example; it’s a CGI sequence of a CGI character talking to themselves. Because Gollum is a CGI character, there’s no scene he could be in that didn’t involve CGI. However, it’s a great way to illustrate to the audience that Gollum has two personalities warring inside him: his former self, Smeagol, and the new persona, Gollum.

There are many sequences where we see Gollum’s personalities talking to one another and each sequence is different. In one, he’s standing in front of a stone and we see the conversation framed from different angles as Gollum switches between personalities, and in another he’s curled up in the fetal position sobbing as Smeagol and comforting himself as Gollum. They’re all excellent, but the example in Return of the King is probably the clearest presentation of two different personalities because we see one from the reflection in the water.

This perspective is important to the overall story because it shows us a clear example of how far the ring can distort and destroy its keeper, which helps us better understand Frodo’s burden.

The Bad


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This brief CGI sequence of gopher popping up isn’t wildly unnecessary. After all, it’s only a few seconds long. However, I believe it’s indicative of a much larger problem in the film and that’s that the CGI is noticeable and used in unnecessary excess.

Let’s anaylze this sequence. My best interpretation of the scene is that based on the trailers and our Indiana Jones history we expect something ominous to emerge from that sand; an artifact, an alien, a spaceship maybe. But it’s just a little gopher. Then a group of teenagers speed by in car and a cheerful tune starts to play. I believe this little gopher scene is a misdirection. While you might think this movie with an older Harrison Ford is going a little more dark or serious, it announces from the outset that it’s just here to have a great time.

I can support that outlook. What I have trouble with is the gaudy CGI. Just because you can use a shotty CGI gopher to introduce your intentions, doesn’t mean you should.

I’m sure a lot of people probably expect me to talk about the monkeys, but honestly the monkeys don’t bother me as much as the fact that I never really feel like Indy and friends are going to fall off that CGI cliff. It’s too apparent that it’s CGI and it didn’t need to be.

On an adventure story we want to thrilled. To cheer our hero as he just barely makes that impossible leap. To fret whether or not he’ll fall off that cliff. If we can’t believe where the hero is, we can’t be a part of the adventure.


Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Special Edition)

When George Lucas was making the Special Editions of Star Wars, he said he wanted to re-do the musical number in Jabba’s palace because it has always intended to be a larger number. However, notice change in tone of the two pieces.

In the original there is a bleak and disturbing quality of the scene. As the dancer begins to plead for her life, the tone of the music being played changes and becomes more frenetic. In the original sequence it is more clear that Jabba’s Palace is dangerous to everyone there, even those closest to him. This makes us fear for our heroes more when they enter the Palace.

In the Special Edition the song is so upbeat that the dancer being sacrificed is secondary and simply interrupts the song. The ominous feeling is gone.


Doctor Strange


In a lot of ways the CGI in Doctor Strange has a similar effect to the scene from The Matrix described above. When The Ancient One alters the world around her, or when Doctor Strange gets his astral form pushed out of his body, these are excellent examples of CGI being used to visually alter the character’s (and the audience’s) sense of reality.

However, as the movie goes on and the audiences’ minds have already accepted the film’s reality, what purpose do these elaborate CGI sequences serve? My guess is that in prepartion for the film, the filmmakers needed a way to make Doctor Strange look cool. If you look at the comics a lot of Strange’s escapades are kind of weird.


Big floating eyes, magical shackles, demonic powers, and lots of spells shooting from fingertips. I can appreciate that that might look weird on film and be too fantastic for an audience. Imagine if all of the effects in Doctor Strange were like his fight with Dormammu. That scene works better because it’s hilarious, but the context of Doctor Strange heading to another dimension to talk to a gigantic, fiery demon is a bit weird and I don’t think the whole movie could be like that. So the filmmakers needed something fantastic that was also tangible and comprehensive.


And that’s why I think we have these city-altering fight scenes. Because they look cool while having some grounding in reality. People who watched the film talk about how awesome those scenes were. But once we’ve accepted the film’s reality, are the city-altering scenes necessary in terms of storytelling? No; they are simply “cool.”

  1. Reply raptor10001 December 8, 2016 at 8:03 pm


  2. Reply automaton December 9, 2016 at 12:16 am

    While I think using Lucas films is cheating a bit, there’s no denying that he’s the master of unnecessary CG. On the other hand, without his over-use, we may never have even had blue/green screens.

    But that gopher at the beginning of the Indy 4 clip is something I never really noticed before. I wonder who thought that was a good idea, and why.

    I also fully agree with Dr Strange being in the ‘bad’ use of CG. I thought the movie wasn’t bad, but the CG was over-done. It’s funny because Inception basically had the same thing, but I liked what they did there a lot more, and I have no idea why.

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