Why Photorealistic CGI Bums Me Out

Connecting D23, BRAVE NEW WORLD And WALL-E.

This weekend at the D23 Fan Expo Pixar showed off some shots from The Good Dinosaur and crowed about the level of photorealism they had achieved. We saw leaves on a branch, slowly dripping water in a light rainfall and it did look, indeed, like someone had taken a camera and walked outside and filmed leaves on a branch during a light rainfall. It looked absolutely, totally real and I snarked on Twitter about it, asking why you wouldn’t just, you know, go outside and get that shot. It would surely be cheaper.

Today I was looking at Facebook and a weird feeling washed over me, a sense of doom. And not the usual sense of doom you get when looking at the garbage on your Facebook wall:  I was reading a year-old story about National Geographic having to redraw their atlas because the polar ice caps had diminished so starkly since they had last put one together in 1989, and I was thinking about the fact that 25 years is sufficient time for the very physical features of the Earth to change enough to warrant a redo of our maps. And I began thinking about the general waves of terrible, extreme weather we’ve gotten used to in the last few years (hello from an unusually sweltering Los Angeles, mired in a horrific drought) and something struck me:

Photorealistic CGI is going to be our weird digital ark. In fifty or a hundred years those leaves and branches and rain may be harder to find in the real world, but they will always exist on an animator’s hard drive (I don’t even want to get into the irony of the environmental cost of making and powering that hard drive because I would probably just lay down and give up), and when a movie needs to set a scene in something that could be as exotic in the future as a forest, that’s how it will be done.

(Obviously in the immediate moment photorealistic CGI exists to allow filmmakers to do the impossible: Jon Favreau shot his Jungle Book on a stage, not a real jungle, and he didn’t have to put his young Mowgli next to any real dangerous animals because they were created out of wholepixel.)

Aside from the dystopian doom-mongering vision of photorealistic CGI, I found the idea of it to bum me out when taken as a whole with the D23 Expo. Cinema has always been about the frisson of walking the slippery line between reality and fantasy, but spending two days in the D23 environment showed me a lot of people who want to destroy that line in favor of the fantasy. As the Star Wars Land park extensions were announced people on stage talked about the immersiveness of the experience, the way that you would be there in the world of Star Wars.

Except you aren’t. You’re in a simulacrum, and in the last few decades - at least partially as a result of the Disneyland effect on culture - we have been embracing simulacra more and more. When you show distrust of simulacra - see the recent Time Magazine story on VR, which had a very snarky attitude - people get upset. I have found that most people can’t even begin to understand my attitude towards Disneyland, a place so realistically fake it freaks me out. I like fake things - I appreciate shitty shopping malls and weird fable-themed amusement parks - but I like the fake things to be fake. I like the artifice, but as a society we’re trying very hard to get past the artifice.

The artifice, to me, speaks to the human hands that made the fake thing, whether it be a stop motion puppet or the hellscape of Flintstone’s Village in Arizona. I find comfort in the imperfect, being an imperfect being myself. For me reality is the thrill, and while it would be cool to go onboard the Millennium Falcon at Star Wars Land, it’s an empty and meaningless thing that represents the idea of what we like about the Millennium Falcon without actually being the thing. I would prefer to step on to the set of the Falcon, the set that was used in the new film, even though it wouldn’t be fully enclosed and even though I would stand on it and see the large space of a soundstage, not the infinite space of the universe. I prefer that because it’s actually the thing, it’s the thing I’ve seen in the movie and it’s the thing on which the actors walked. I like my props screen-used, not exact replicas.  

So for me, getting past the artifice means getting past the humanity. I don't know if it's some weird 'man meddling in the realm of the gods!' thing that is so disquieting for me, or if it's just the same feelings I have about transhumanism, but for me being a human being isn't so bad. I think it's pretty cool, in fact, and that includes all of the fucked up parts about us, including the fact that we decay and die. I love what The Vision has to say at the end of The Avengers: Age of Ultron (keeping all of this Disney-themed): "A thing isn't beautiful because it lasts." And a thing isn't beautiful because it's perfect. "There is grace in their failings," he says, referring to humans. Getting beyond artifice is, to me, getting beyond beauty. It's getting beyond grace, and I mean that in every dopey spiritual way you want to take that.

There’s something frustrating about walking out of the D23 Expo, with its focus on photorealism and immersive alternate realities and rejection of the imperfections of real life, and realizing Aldous Huxley was on the money way back in 1932 (ten years after Walt Disney made his first cartoon, thus the 23 in D23). His Brave New World of soma and unceasing consumption* is alive and around us today. What’s more, we love it, and we get mad when someone draws our attention to its negative sides. I’m not even pointing fingers here - I’m almost as guilty as everyone else. I mean, I’m not as guilty as the people freaking out over Star Wars Land, but I carry my share of the guilt.

None of this is new, of course - I mean, I'm quoting an 80 year old science fiction novel that is absolutely prescient - but some days it feels like it's all quickening. Some days I wake up and feel like I'm in the prologue of a particularly shitty post-William Gibson scifi novel. We all feel that way to some extent (there's a great theory that states the reason why fashion and design has been so stagnant and retro-oriented since 2000 is that we, as a society, are still dealing with the future shock of our tech changing into science fiction, and as such we like the comfort of not changing our fashion too drastically), and I do think that's part of a feedback loop that pushes people into desiring constructed realities and inauthentic spaces. The real world, for lack of a better term, sucks ass. And it's sucking more ass by the day. But instead of taking action to fix it - action that is scary and overwhelming - we seek out ways to avoid it.

The really scary thing is that the corporate soma-state manages to internalize and commercialize all these feelings of disquiet that come in an ecologically challenged, post-authentic society. Disney, whose flagship theme park in Anaheim is bigger than The Vatican, brought us Wall-E, a vision of an Earth covered in the debris of consumerism gone out of control, and a theme park-like space ark populated by people whose faces are constantly bathed in the glow of screens while their physical forms devolve into giant infants. It’s almost like they’re taunting us as they sell us plastic Wall-E merch and 72oz sodas.

The good news, I guess, is that the fat babypeople on the Axiom have photorealistic forests to look at.

*The World State’s mantra of “ending is better than mending” reminds me of this fluffy but true quote that has become popular in the last few years: “It's pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it and bring it home is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you're done with it.”

If you know where that quote originated, please let me know.