I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of CGI effects. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I feel they have threatened to diminish the ingenuity of some of my favorite cinematic visualists—including Terry Gilliam—by encouraging them to cut back on the clever, makeshift effects they once would have used that added much of the charm to their films, to say nothing of how CGI effects have allowed them to overindulge their prodigious flights of fancy. However, it was while seeing the most recent Harry Potter movie that I was reminded of what I find most problematic about CGI effects: they rob the cinema of magic.
Sure, I was impressed with the effects in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2—most of the scenes with the dragon were quite spectacular, and the battles toward the end of the film were appropriately terrifying in scope. But the problem with CGI effects is that when they’re successful, the creatures they bring to life seem to be very much of the reality of the world in which they appear. Granted, as often as not they look awkward, but in part that’s because of how close to reality they can actually appear.
Me? I prefer good old-fashioned stop motion animation. The effects never got so close to appearing real that their limitations looked wrong as CGI effects do. Instead, they occupied a place across a gulf from reality, appearing like visitors from another world, which they often were—enormous scorpions, armies of skeletons, dinosaurs, gorgons, giant gorillas, etc. I had the fortune this past spring of seeing Jason and the Argonauts in a movie theater, featuring stop motion animation by one of the form’s masters, Ray Harryhausen. Except for the stop motion sequences, the movie was fairly execrable. But those effects were often breathtaking.
One scene that exemplifies how powerful the weirdness of stop motion’s distance from reality could be: the attack of the harpies. In the scene, Harryhausen set himself a double challenge. Not only did he have to bring the harpies to life, but they also needed to fly. The effect is eerie. The harpies don’t fly so much as flicker, the flesh made lambent, not only feeding on their prey, but offering their prey a glimpse into the nature of their own flesh, seemingly solid but never really quite where it appears to be. It’s a glorious and strange image that would never be permissible in the achingly literal world of CGI.