EDITORIALS

Can Bad Visual Effects Ruin a Film Like 'Oz the Great and Powerful'?

by
March 29, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Disney's Oz: The Great and Powerful is a mediocre film. While the film is surely entertaining, there isn't a whole lot to compliment. Most reviewers were quick to point out the dull script, the placid acting, and the overall lack of energy (all of which is understandable), but when looking at the views on the computer generated visual effects, we find the topic is divisive. Those who enjoyed the film touted its wonderful visual effects, while those who were less enthralled by it cried out for mercy from the seemingly neverending dull CGI landscapes, sometimes no better than a canvas backdrop. In a strange way, both viewpoints are correct.

At various points, Oz's use of CGI is very impressive and appropriate, while other times it is overused and simply awful. While the film's mediocrity surely stems from the more critical issues stated above and has nothing to do with its use of CGI, we cannot get away from any reviews that say either the visual effects are worth the price of admission or they are so poor that it will destroy your experience. It seems there is some belief that bad CGI can doom a promising film into becoming forgettable. Is this even possible? Do visual effects and CGI have that much sway or do they simply get added to the laundry list of complaints to a bad film and a list of praises to a good film?

I cannot think of a single movie I have loved based solely on its CGI work. Along those lines, I have never experienced such bad CGI that I was completely turned off from a film either. This leads me to believe that CGI and special effects are truly neutral by nature; They have little to do with our enjoyment of the film when it is rolling. Only afterwards when we have decided on our overall feelings do we then discern if the effects were good enough. Bad CGI does not doom a film to be unwatchable; it merely gives us another reason to like or dislike the movie even more after it's finished. Great visual effects should increase our enjoyment, and some even take our breath away, making us wonder how they achieved such realism. But these moments pass by quickly and the awe just as swiftly turns into anticipation of what's next.

No amount of CGI can continue to grip our attention for two full hours. In fact CGI should be seen more as a tool to help guide the audience deeper into its fantasy. Combined with an intriguing story, decent acting and a consistent background, CGI suddenly becomes not a deciding factor, but rather a sort of magic wand that makes a film feel better—kind of like adding salt to a bland meal. When the rest of the film is clicking, CGI can also shield the filmmakers from their own mistakes. Once a viewer has fully emerged themselves, they will gloss over any ugly special effects and only remember the ones that added to the mystique of the cinematic world. If you were to get lost in Oz, you surely would remember the masterful CGI that was used in the grand finale showdown and almost certainly forgot the "horses of a different color" found awkwardly meandering in a Nintendo 64-esque landscape. It also explains why a reviewer who loved the film could be blown away by the effects at the same time another would nitpick them to death.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

In his highly successful horror trilogy that started with The Evil Dead, you will find that Sam Raimi used no CGI. Raimi relied solely on make-up and trick photography, and with these tools alone, the series manufactured a world with highly memorable, over the top special effects. It didn't matter that some effects worked and others were decidedly laughable, because they all fit together inside Raimi's ThEvil Dead world and the style of the film itself. It is this consistency that let Sam Raimi get away with low budget effects. Even as Ash moved from cabin to castle to grocery store, the special effects were consistent throughout and never jarred the viewer.

Now if Ash suddenly fell into a setting like Oz: The Great and Powerful, surrounded by a CGI landscape, Evil Dead fans would immediately shun the change. I am sure fans were ecstatic to discover the Evil Dead remake seemingly avoided this, by excluding all CGI, or at least keeping visual effects to a minimum. It is not that CGI couldn't enhance some of the series scenes and make them look better, but our displeasure is caused by the loss of consistency from one effect to the other, which catapults us out of the cinematic world being presented. When our expectations are not met, even well-used CGI can damage a film. But would that be enough to turn a good film sour? Reactions to the unnecessary additions of Jabba the Hutt or the spirit of Hayden Christensen in the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy may be good evidence, but it did not move the movies away from their classic status.

Star Wars

Even more telling than the selective memory of happy viewers and the strength found inside a consistent look is the way we look back at older films with early CGI. There are usually two trains of thought after watching a film with some lousy CGI. Either it was great for the time the movie was made, or the effects hold up years later. Both are blinded to the possibility that it was just bad CGI, regardless of the time it was created. Movies we are watching 20 years later must be pretty good to stand the test of time, and perhaps that's why we forgive them of their slight faults (though the idea of forgiving any shortcoming due to a dated film is an entirely separate discussion). Even Air Force One, with its crash landing from 1997 now resembling a 3D pre-visualization tumbling about on hard flat water, still holds up as an entertaining film. The special effects criticism hasn't overtaken the love that some still have for it. In fact, it appears that the more time passes, the more forgiving we are of a film's visual effects faults.

CGI quality is a minor offense; one that is noticeable but easily forgiven if the remainder of the film is worth a damn. Sometimes we only mention the special effects, simply because we haven't wrapped our heads around why we liked or hated a particular film, or maybe it was the only remarkable aspect, good or bad. It is the easy answer, an answer that rolls of the tongue. Why do you like Oz: the Great and Powerful? Is it because Oz was bright and colorful and pretty? That can be something you liked, but it can't be the reason you liked the film. You liked it because you were able to escape for a few hours in a fantasy world outside of our own mundane existence.

Good or bad, CGI has little effect on our overall opinion of a film's quality. It only affects the way we argue for or against a film. So let's hope that Sam Raimi and other directors can spend a little more time focusing on the basics of character development and story, by starting with a good script, while letting some of the over the top effects fall by the wayside. Eye candy and CGI may be fun and sometimes necessary, but they will not rise a film from the depths of mediocrity, nor will it doom a film into a flop. CGI is simply a tool that can help create wonderful cinematic moments but it cannot wow audiences alone. Do you agree?

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  • hahanoway
    when you posit that CGI is neutral and bad cgi is only a minor offense I feel lik you're not taking into account what the scope of vfx really is. The color enhancements made in post, the strings removed, the beauty work done on the actors faces and bodies, all of these things would make the movie less than it is in it's finished form. When you talk about them being neutral, you're only discussing the obvious vfx, the cg flying apes or whatever. Also I would contend that the quality of the CGI in a film like Toy Story directly impacts your enjoyment of it in quite a major way. In such a time of crisis for the VFX industry, it's odd to read an article that is so 'take them or leave them' you must understand that these people who create these effects are over-worked and under-appreciated.
    • Scopedog
      Well said. I've hated the "CGI is s**t!!" bleating for years now, because I've found that the majority of people who say it have no real clue about CGI and how difficult it is. They've never cracked open an issue of CINEFEX, that's for sure.
  • Olbar
    This is a really dumb article.
    • LeBron non-32
      New guy getting spanked already. Let's see if he can redeem himself in a future article.
      • Olbar
        I didn't even know he was new. It's just a dumb, poorly conceived, poorly rendered article. Step it up FirstShowing.
        • Axe effect
          Well he probably assumed he was new. I never recognized that name before either. And I do agree, this article was poorly written. Don't know if it was a pun intended in your part, but I snickered at the "poorly rendered" part of your reply. Hope this doesn't turn out to be.... "Can poorly written articles ruin a blog site like fishnet?"
  • http://twitter.com/SeanBonau Sean B.
    @Tyler Wantuch There is nothing wrong with Oz: The Great and Powerfuls visual effects at all. That is actually a huge misconception about Oz: the Great and Powerful.
    • http://www.facebook.com/ege.sonmez.180 Ege Sönmez
      I didn't go to the film because of the bad CGI on the poster, people's feet werefloating over the yellow brick road.
      • mitch4
        That's not bad CG, moron. Posters aren't designed by the people who do the movie's VFX. You avoided the movie because some kid didn't copy and paste Franco well enough into the illustration. You're an idiot.
        • Linkfx
          lol
        • http://www.facebook.com/ege.sonmez.180 Ege Sönmez
          Thank you for your kind reply.
    • Linkfx
      i know right? They're actually quite good!
      • http://twitter.com/SeanBonau Sean B.
        @linkfx:disqus Yes. Exactly!
        • Dominic
          Hmm I think ur missing his point . Not that the EFX are all "badly done " , but that is is SO MUCH CGI that it is overkill , and adds a layer of phoniness to what you are seeing . Too much of anything , whether in the script or in the scenery , becomes a bad thing . Is that subjective ? Yes , but a film reviewer is more likely to note and care about that than the average moviegoer , that's all ....
  • http://twitter.com/Sgt_Apone_USCM Al Apone
    The CGI "Zombies" in I Am Legend were so shit and distracting, like a bad actor, that it made me dislike the film. I dont even understand why they couldnt have used humans :-/
    • avi
      you are totally right. For me it was a total lett down and it ruined for me the entire movie..
    • thechillerdewd
      just wait for the cgi zombie horde in world war z! :/
    • OfficialJab
      Did you ever see the test screening for the masks they had? Screw the movie, just that video gave me nightmares. Somebody made a dramatic mistake there. Guessing the a producer or studio.
      • http://www.roamandthink.com/ PBGray
        I saw that video and I agree. Scary shit.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Cavanagh/747311965 Luke Cavanagh
    TRON: Legacy had some amazing visual effects work. Stunning CGI by Digital Domain http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh7wUS7qU_Q
    • http://twitter.com/FidelReyes_ Fidel Reyes
      And a beautiful score by Daft Punk that just made the effects even more enjoyable!
    • Scott Meadows
      Tron Legacy had very meh CG camera work and sequence designs
    • The Mechanic
      Tron I found was very boring. Looked nice but very boring and there was no story to it, just my opinion of course.
      • OfficialJab
        It had a great story, but it wasn't told particularly well.
        • The Mechanic
          That's the thing, it was as if the director was just focusing on making the film look nice and setting his mind towards making the building structures architecturally pleasing, but he really didn't give a damn about characters and emotion. Sad.
          • OfficialJab
            It's actually my favourite movie, but I've seen it a ton of times and absorbed the dialogue a lot more over time. The did a lot of close-ups that helped, and the cast, even though they're not Academy material, did a lot of the work for him there. I'm looking forward to Oblivion. I bet having Cruise present will help him with that.
          • The Mechanic
            I'm really looking forward to Oblivion, partly because the scenery and imagery doesn't seem repetitive, it looks like it's always changing. And I'm assuming it will have some great characters because there's no way Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman would sign up for a film if it didn't allow them to actually act. So I really can't wait for Oblivion.
    • $126191
      Yes, amazing look and sound. Pity about the mediocre script and story.
  • jackofseveraltrades
    As a vfx artist myself who once worked on the Avengers, I think this article is both right and wrong in some points. I agree that cgi should be used as a tool and not a crutch to enhance a film; however, he seems to forget the effect that cgi can have not so much on the quality of the film, but on the box office revenue it generates. When he says 'They have little to do with our enjoyment of the film when it is rolling" and how they are truly "neutral" by nature, I immediately thought of the top 2 highest grossing movies of all time, Avatar and the Avengers - do you think people spent their money on those movies for primarily story and character development? (though some may have, but to a lesser degree). Lastly, when he said "CGI has little effect on our overall opinion of a film's quality, I immediately thought of the whole Life of Pi fiasco. That movie could not, I repeat, COULD NOT have achieved its positive critical reception, box office, and awards (including best director), without the vfx of Rhythm and Hues, god help them in these troubled times. There's my two cents
    • Linkfx
      totally agree with what you said here.
    • ticketmaster
      It is undeniable that big budget Visual Effects films are highly anticipated and bring in the MOST at the box office. It is a very important component to a film equal to if not more than popular actors.
    • Scopedog
      Well said.
  • racquetman
    "So let's hope that Sam Raimi and other directors can spend a little more time focusing on the basics of character development and story, by starting with a good script, while letting some of the over the top effects fall by the wayside." That's the dream . . . pipe dream, that is.
    • Mugwomp
      I think that's exactly what Sam Raimi did. The amount of thought put into the screenplay seemed obvious to me, especially for a children's film (and compared to something like Alice in Wonderland). I thought Oz's character was great, loved the witches and sidekicks, all the little threads, jokes and everything wrap up nicely, all down to Sourpuss' fanfare at the end. I loved how the story, set design and music always helped create a total sense of environment. The sadness you could feel when you first saw Chinatown - and the music box music we hear when we see China Girl (which was voiced by the girl in the wheelchair from the beginning). I thought the film couldn't have been much better. One of the more entertaining and memorable family films I've seen in a long time.
  • http://www.facebook.com/nathanlgross Nathan Lev Gross
    Bad vfx ruined Les Miserables for me. Really horrendous stuff
    • JoeSmoe
      Russel Crowe's singing ruined it for me.
  • Linkfx
    Oz the Great and Powerful, in a way is about the history and philosophy behind visual effects and photographic trickery...much in the same way Hugo was. It's a love letter to the machinations and the devices we use to create beauty and ultimately fool people. Oz himself is the Visual Effects artist, creating an illusion to impress, instill fear and amaze people with a false power. As a character he himself can never have true Wizardry, and that is his folly(like all men, we dream to become immortal and go beyond our limits but cannot), but much like Leonardo Dicaprio-proxy-Christopher Nolan's dream character in Inception, he will never be fulfilled, and is gifted with the ablity to craft illusions but never have the real thing himself. It's an abstract notion, but if you pull back the curtain, Wizard of Oz reference not intended, the deeper meaning behind craftsmanship and authorship as illusionists and filmmakers is on every frame of both Hugo, Inception and Oz: The Great and Powerful. So the Visual Effects and the illusion are intertwined with the deeper subtext of the narrative and thus, very necessary to the completion of the work. Personally I didn't find Oz: The Great and Powerful to be excessive, it was pleasant, harmless fun that really glorified old cinema in a way that movies rarely do anymore but in a way that still stirred me, even in a small way like all good flicks should.
    • http://twitter.com/FidelReyes_ Fidel Reyes
      I think Hugo's effects were over praised, the effects looked too fake at times, IMO. (Not judging the movie or script, just the effects)
  • avi
    if cgi seen on the screen it's bad, it must blend in and feeling natural! I am still amazed by the tiger from life of pi, that's how it should be! Amazing!
    • http://twitter.com/FidelReyes_ Fidel Reyes
      A-"freaking"-Men!
    • $126191
      I will offer up Boardwalk Empire as a good example of great VFX and seamless blending. Look up the FX reel for that show if you have any doubts.
  • http://twitter.com/FidelReyes_ Fidel Reyes
    I know I might get some hate because of this, but I extremely disliked the effects in Alice in Wonderland I didn't even finish watching it, it was just too distracting and cartoony to be taken seriously... As for Oz I haven't seen it, Should I go watch it or wait for the dollar movie theater? P.S. This doesn't have to do anything with the FX topic but I was watching Avatar a while ago just to see it a second time, it is so over-rated and Mr. Cameron needs to focus on other things... that is all, good day.
    • SLR
      I totally agree with you, man! You said it all.
    • dangeer
      I agree with you on Avatar being overrated, and yes you should see Oz in the theater, in 3D. I have seen Alice in Wonderland, and agree the visuals were horrible, but I thought the Oz visuals were great!
      • http://twitter.com/FidelReyes_ Fidel Reyes
        Cool, thanks for the heads up!
  • Nielsen700
    Spoiler: Kinda.
  • Terry Cloutiauex
    The CGI VFX was indeed horrible in Oz especially for today's day and age. Perhaps Raimi should first start with a proper VFX company other than Sony Imageworks. Their work on Spider-Man films are quite terrible when compared to ILM's work on the Marvel films. But I understand his hands may be tied when it comes to a tent pole Sony film. Sony VFX house for Sony blockbuster. Right right. But that begs the question: Why on God's green earth did you use Imageworks for a Disney film, Mr. Raimi? I understand they did Alice, but their track record is terrible. Green Lantern, Superman Returns, Harry Potter 1, Beowulf just to name a few. Perhaps it's the VFX Supervisor that makes the difference. Then hire Ken Ralston for crissakes. Why hire Scott Stokdyk, the man who messed up Spider-Man 3?
  • nha
    What is the arguement you are making? It isn't very clear. If you are wanting to talk about vfx then make it relevant to those who are making the vfx and the fight they have on their hands with keeping studios open - very soon you might not see any vfx in a film whether it helps a story or not. P.S. Of the top 50 grossing films in Hollywood, 48 are VFX heavy films. What does that say? Did you see Transformers?
  • Shakey
    Terrible writing and bad acting ruined Oz the Great and Powerful for me.
  • The Mechanic
    I always say if you can't do great looking effects then don't do them at all.
  • firelizard
    Good CGI can help sell a horrible film in the trailers (think Green Lantern). Bad CGI doesn't really kill an otherwise good movie (which is why some older films stand the test of time). But bad CGI will definitely put a mediocre or bad movie into an even worse place in peoples' minds because there isn't even anything nice to look at. I probably could have tolerated XMen Origins: Wolverine if at least it were nice to look at. But it was bad AND ugly.
  • OfficialJab
    -ctrl+f "Hobbit" -0 results Surprising, this was the first film to spring to mind for me. The effects didn't ruin it, but they weren't blended nearly as well as they were in the other films, and it really hurt the immersiveness, in my case.
    • galactuz
      exactly what i just did, 'ctrl-f' for 'hobbit' haha..primarily i think AUJ was a bit rushed.
  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.barnes.520900 Chris Barnes
    As we enter the world of re-makes, movies and songs (mtv), it seems that CGI can make or break only the emotion we are left with. If a film is remade, would a viewer prefer a reinactment or a more modified version ot the original. If a movie purist hates to see the original modifed, at least as far as story line is concerned, than CGI is the only real upgrade modern film making can offer. If we deviate from the story line, CGI plays no significant role, as it is simply a different film and the opionions we are left with will not reflect that of the original movie. In the end, it does seem enhance the emotion the film leaves you with good or bad.
  • Roderick
    I feel like this article was written to spite the CGI industry and artist working in film in general. You can go back to filming movies without any special effects. Sure, but saying that you can't make a movie with all CGI is stupid. What do you think 3D animated movies are? What do you think game cinematic are? The list goes on. For older movies that utilized animatronics for creatures; were those not the visual effects of their time? The Visual Effects Industry are the artist that work on films. CGI isn't a button the director presses and magic shit happens. The CGI industry are going through some rough times, but the big wigs in Hollywood and guys like Tyler seem to think visual effects artist can't do shit by ourselves when in actuality, without visual effects/CGI/ movie artist, the grossing films of all time would not be. And CGI is used badly in a film, that's the director's and actors faults. Visual Effects artist have almost no say in how everything comes out. We get the work from the higher ups and there's no room to add any artistic touches.
    • Scopedog
      "The CGI industry are going through some rough times..." sad, but true, and most haven't even noticed, which is worse. And your point about bad CGI is spot on. Del Toro once said that the problem isn't bad CGI....it's bad filmmaking. And let's face it, how many of these CGI haters could even do passable CG? Probably none of them.
  • Jay Alex
    Bad visual effects can by disguised by good dialogue and costume ware.. http://www.brewcityroyalties.org
  • Rednail
    I found that in Oz, I was jolted out of the movie experience every time an actor engaged with the CGI because of how poorly it was executed. I found myself getting more and more frustrated by the whole movie because of it. They put all this time and effort to create this gorgeous world and then were rushed or lazy where it REALLY mattered to make it believable. That and I think having an actor's face be CGI (The Wicked Witch) is always distracting and off putting...and not in a good way. Yes, we might have forgiveness for Air Force One, but in an age when we see excellent CGI (or at least acceptable CGI) in practically everything, I'm not inclined to cut any slack for a movie of this budget.
  • Eve Ok
    As a teacher and a VFX artist, I can speak to the following points in the comments and the article. - The issue with the article is the acknowledgement of the thesis. The writer is asking if CGI ruins a movie. The conclusion is no. Poor execution in acting and story is the foundation of a bad film. There are some contradictory points made by the author that make this basic breakdown confusing. This is where the comments of "bad writing" come into play. - I do agree with the author's point that CGI alone does not make a film good or bad. However, I also DISAGREE that CGI has not saved films. Case and point: Blade Runner. Doug Trumbull's work in Blade Runner is a masterpiece. He perfected the technology used to make that film. Common mythos for the production is that Ridley Scott removed pages of script in order to keep the special effects budget. Read the reviews from the movie when it originally came out. The story is a disaster. There is little argument from a script writing perspective. However, the film, in my eyes, remains a masterpiece because the thought and energy it took to create that world. Blade Runner is more popular now than it was in it's 1982 release. *In addition - From a VFX standpoint, Prometheus deserved to win this past year's oscar in the VFX category. The execution in blending CGI with prosthetic and makeup was close to perfection. I believe Ridley Scott made the same mistake with that film. Blade Runner was also overlooked in 1982 by E.T. - The problem with modern day VFX is that VFX artists are not given enough time to create the worlds properly. Effects accomplished on set take up production crew time and cost union wages. CGI effects are non union and on a fixed rate, AKA cheaper. Producers misunderstand that work done in a computer is easier than done by hand. The beauty of practical effects is that most of the work is done for the artist, by reality. A digital artist has to consider the physics of the environment - how light bounces off skin, how a character is effected by gravity, etc. The audience understands how these things work because they live in reality and experience it every day. We know when it's wrong. Digital artists have to experiment and test each new environment to make sure their math is correct. When producers don't appreciate that aspect of post production, you get work that looks like a pre-visualization rather than a finished product. * This point is a direct rebuttle to the author's choice to include Sam Rami's decision to incorporate practical make up and effects. Sometimes its a matter of budget, not practice. That's the reality of this business.
    • son_et_lumiere
      great post, Eve. can't say i agree with everything Tyler wrote, but i did appreciate the discussion he was trying to instigate. i think you are right that good fx *can* shore up a bad story, but i do think people are more likely to say 'the fx were a bit shonky, but it was still really good' rather than the other way around, especially for older films. i think people recognise when effort has been put in to create a realistic world on *all* levels, and also when it hasn't. a good recent example of not letting the fx get in the way of the story is Moon. the film used a lot of model work and practical effects, and nothing distracted you from the script and the acting, both excellent.
    • Scopedog
      Well said, Eve.
  • NDNation
    I think what the author was trying to drive home is that CGI, or special effects in general, is not what makes or breaks a film. It only enhances our belief if the film is good or bad. Avengers, Avatar, and Life of Pi had amazing visual effects. However if the story, character development, or acting itself was weak or flawed, then we wouldn't say, "Well, I liked it because it looked great." I mean if that was the case, you'd have to say Ghost Rider was a good movie (no matter what you think of Nicholas Cage).
  • Chris
    So the negative reaction to the poorly rendered giants in "Jack the Giant Slayer" didn't hurt its box office return? And I suppose all the "fake, rubbery looking zombies" in "World War Z" aren't going to turn away would-be viewers either? . . . Although, I can't honestly find anyone who's actually looking forward to that film in the first place, anymore. I would imagine that only a well made film that generates strong word of mouth could overcome poor CGI in this day and age . . . but then again poor CGI would definitely not do it any favors either, nothing "takes you out" of a film like bad CGI work and the audience would be left saying things like "Yeah, the movie's really good BUT it would have been nice to see what it looked like if more time was spent on visuals". Meanwhile, shit films with good visuals seem to win every time. So, yeah, I'd say the quality of Visual Effects matter quite a bit . . .
  • white3201
    The cgi in this movie is actually what ruined it for me. It was grossly misused. I anticipate movies for the cgi like many people but this was bad. I really liked snow white @ the huntsman because they blended the cgi w real elements and I didn't feel like I was watching a cartoon world w people standing it in front of it. It lost depth instead of adding it. You want to make an animated movie go talk to pixar.

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