One of the lasting democratic appeals of Hollywood cinema is getting to see what hundreds of millions of dollars look like. Other than in skyscrapers or similar massive public works, most of us will never get to see money in so concentrated a form as in video games or movies. And overwhelmingly these days, in movies and video games alike, much of that money takes the form of computer-generated imagery.
It’s not just action movies or genre fare — Marvel movies, It, the Fast and the Furious franchise — that lean heavily into CGI. Hollywood acting of all kinds now takes place in front of green screens: Realistic dramas (like I Tonya or Wolf of Wall Street as shown in this video) use CGI for many scenes where it is neither strictly necessary nor expected. Costuming, makeup, color correction, and cinematography can be done in postproduction: Skin is smoothed out; weight is shed; muscles are grown (or sometimes shrunk), hair is redone; entire landscapes, buildings, and rooms are summoned from thin air.
Much of the unnecessary CGI you see in movies is just what avoiding unionized labor looks like
The victory of computer animation over “practical” special effects — effects based in physical models and camera tricks — has been a long and slow process. Animation, of course, has been in the cinema repertoire since the very beginning: Filmmakers have colored and drawn on negatives, used painted backgrounds on rotating treadways, deployed stop-motion gimmicks to bring inanimate objects to life, and many other techniques besides, to say nothing of the long history of cartoons. But only in contemporary Hollywood cinema are such a high percentage of images in so many “live action” movies animated rather than merely captured on film. While previous animation tricks often relied on models and paintings — even the famous 13-second pan over a star destroyer that begins Star Wars (1977), the film that inaugurated the modern era of special effects, still involved filming a three-foot-long plastic model — now these images are made entirely without physical referent, manufactured in pieces by teams of engineers and technicians working often at great geographical distance from the nominal directors and editors who, in the past, would have been intimately involved in the process.
The majority of CGI for all Disney properties (which, including animated Disney films, Marvel movies, and a variety of smaller IPS, in 2019 are on track to make a whopping 33 percent of domestic box office, up from the staggering 26 percent they made last year) is produced in India, although some is also done in South Korea and the Philippines. Animators in Asia cost between $20 and $25 per hour, while an American or European would cost $125 to $150, so often special effects supervisors and management will work in European or North American studios, but will direct a team of hundreds of overseas workers doing the majority of the programming and developing.
CGI could not have come to dominate cinema without being cheaper than its practical counterpart. The movie-production trades (costumers, lighting technicians, actors, and the like) remain among the few strongly unionized bodies of American laborers outside the public sector. Animation and special effects more generally have always been a way to evade unionized labor costs, as the work is easily outsourced and done on the cheap in sweatshop-like conditions by an unorganized workforce. Still, live-action filmmaking mostly couldn’t get around the costs of having stunt people, safety coordinators, lighting workers, teamsters, and other specialized, unionized workers. That is, until CGI. Now all of those special trades can be simulated, without losing the cultural and imagistic prestige of “live action” cinematography. Much of the unnecessary CGI you see in movies is just what avoiding unionized labor looks like.
But this evasive measure is part of a broader shift in how films are made and in the larger economy, particularly the transition widely referred to as financialization: the move from an economy based on production to one based on investment, services, and rents. Feature films have, for most of their history, been made on an industrial production model. Companies would plan to profit from producing and distributing films for direct consumption. But this hasn’t been cinema’s business model for some time. Starting in the 1970s, production studios began to operate more like financial holding companies, connecting money (producers) to a series of managers (directors, screenwriters, cinematographers) to, finally, the unionized workers. They didn’t churn out product so much as operate as investment banks, seeking to hedge speculative opportunities with means for minimizing and redistributing risk. By the 1990s, this shift was entrenched, mainly due to the pressures of falling profitability, as audience tastes shifted and competition with other media, like cable television and video games, intensified.
The financialization of the movie business helped drive the trend toward “tentpole” blockbuster films, where one hit film paid for several less profitable studio films. It also led to an increasing reliance on international markets — which meant that big budget movies had to transcend cultural differences and language barriers as much as possible, something for which massive animated apocalyptic spectacles are better suited then dramas, which are necessarily more embedded in social and cultural norms.
What such films as the Ouija movie add to the cinematic legacy is no one’s particular concern
The emphasis on risk management and mitigation eventually led to the expansion of cinema franchises. There’s nothing finance likes better than a safe bet, and established franchises and brands provide fairly predictable returns globally as well as licensing deals and the like. Hollywood directors like James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg have become franchises in and of themselves, while the rest are careful not to upset the promises made to the moneymen. Name recognition sells tickets and guarantees synergistic investment from the licensee. What such films as the Ouija movie add to the cinematic legacy is no one’s particular concern. Just jam as many stars, action sequences and potential sequels in as possible.
However, these cynical responses seem to point to the same dead end. In content and form, the aesthetic consequences of financialization play out as a substitution of technical processes for imaginative resources. What kind of stories are left to tell when the industry’s commitment, which should make it possible to depict anything imaginable, ends up committed to producing nothing but nostalgia.
As Randy Martin writes in his book The Financialization of Everyday Life: “the magic of finance is its ability to take by giving, to spread growth while denying to those who might partake of it the very wealth it puts in view. This too is a familiar tale of society where the concentration of wealth passes as a spectacle for all to enjoy, even as most suffer being dispossessed of it.” CGI becomes the means of this display and intensifies disillusion. And this points the aesthetic development of cinema backward.
The total freedom from physical necessity that CGI purchases should, in theory, free the filmmaker from any constraints of realism and allow pure creativity to reign. But more often than not it’s merely used to create “realistic” looking villains, aliens, and apocalypses that leave nothing to the imagination. Aside from the occasional experimental use (confined mainly to genre films like Drag Me to Hell and its Looney Tunes-esque slapstick horror, or Annihilation and its psychedelic impossibilities), CGI has mainly been put in service of a kind of fantasy verisimilitude, an uncanny realism that shows us “impossible things” in an exhaustingly complex and “realistic” way.
Emblematic of this kind of digital faux-realistic complexity, theorist Evan Calder Williams argues in Shard Cinema, are the intricate slow-mo dances of broken glass, flying bullets, growing explosions, and splashing water: Shia LaBeouf surfs in and out of a collapsing building in Transformers 3 amid showers of debris; cars swerve through flying snow flakes, ice chunks, water drops, bullets, and fire across a frozen lake in Fate of the Furious. By moving into slow-mo and close up on an image that would be impossible to look at in such detail otherwise, CGI allows each particle to seem faithfully “captured” by the camera. These expensively animated, highly complex renderings — which present images that in everyday life would be too destructive and fast-moving to see — become symbolic of how the power of cinema, technology, and money combine to capture the uncapturable.
But the main affective result of uncanny realism and its CGI “wonders” is not about seeing something new; rather it is about nostalgia. Avengers: Endgame — which cost $356 million, featured fantastical galactic battles and a cast of dozens of stars, and concluded a full decade of interlocked narrative for the most financially successful movies in Hollywood history — ends on a scene of a straight white couple dancing cheek to cheek in their suburban living room in the 1950s. This nostalgia for an imagined glorious past of peace and comfort can be and has been weaponized as a piece of the return of openly fascist and ethnonationalist commitments on the global stage.
As more movies are conceived as part of “cinematic universes,” each individual film must deny full narrative satisfaction or fundamental character transformation and replace those basic satisfactions with cinematic spectacle, and the sorts of intellectual property suitable to it. Superheroes fit the bill on both fronts. Superhero imagery, limited only by the imagination (and the talents) of comic-book artists, regularly and serially feature urban apocalypses, eight-foot-tall purple villains facing off against silver god-beings, epic fights on the tops of mountains or the bottom of oceans, people flying through the air or running at the speed of sound, electricity fire or purple protoplasm flying from fingertips, and so on. Before CGI, representing any of this on the screen in a “live action” movie was both wildly expensive and, often, impossibly corny. Flying was done easily enough, but it was quite difficult and costly to make a long shot of an actor in goofy makeup or a giant rubber costume look like more than just that. But with CGI, it can be achieved with a scope and “accuracy” that would have seemed utterly fantastical just three decades ago.
The Disney “live action” remakes are capital’s nostalgia for itself
This realism is important because it precludes the corniness and tempers the childish wish fulfillment of it all. In the process, comic-book superheroes, which were mostly created in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s and themselves are toxically nostalgic representations of a simplistic moral universe of good vs. evil, have become the most important and financially lucrative symbols and properties in the world.
Some of the strength of comic book imagery is in its incompleteness: the suggestion of action and movement, the often chaotic explosions of color and line, that imply as much as represent and give play to the fantasy life of the viewer. This is true, too, of most “traditional” animation, which at its best, through line, motion and artistry evokes, conceals and intrigues as much as it shows. CGI punctures this magical suspension of disbelief, and offers, in its place, yearning for the lost wonder it has displaced.
In this sense, it produces nostalgia through over-satisfaction. As do other self-referential, self-nostalgizing franchises that use technology to effectively demystify themselves — like the Toy Story franchise. While it looks dated and flat now, the first Toy Story, was the highest-tech movie magic imaginable when it was released in 1995. It was ostensibly made for kids but was in fact saturated with references designed to tug on the heart strings of the young parents in the audience. A series of explicitly boomer toys — a cowboy, an astronaut, army men, Mr. Potato Head, an Etch-a-Sketch, and a dinosaur (and not the branded dolls, video game characters, and action figures actual millennials played with, like the Power Rangers, My Little Pony, and the Ninja Turtles) were brought to life by the wonders of technology in service of a melodramatic story about the loss of wonder that comes with growing up. Fourteen years later, the franchise has becomes a fully referential world unto itself. Toy Story 4 is aimed at people who, like me, were kids in the audience for Toy Story and are now in their late 20s or early 30s, maybe with kids of their own. It reflects nostalgically on itself.
What is the story of toys, according to the Toy Story franchise? An adult who is sad about having lost the simple magic and joy of childhood play and hope to recapture it. The wonder of the use of CGI in the first Toy Story, which magically brought a childhood memory to life for its boomer audience, has become a more self-reflexive nostalgic wonder, the wonder of the same characters never aging, never changing any more than the narrative warrants, the same characters and stories always frozen in time, in our childhood, always being available for re-activation, for another sequel. Actors age, but Woody never does.
Consider also the Disney “live action” remakes of its earlier fully animated movies: These are smashing box office records despite universal agreement about their mediocrity. The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all seen wildly successful shot-for-shot remakes, and Disney claims to have at least 20 more in the works. Replacing the beautifully hand-painted cells of the original (also fabricated by outsourced, underpaid laborers in global animation sweatshops — pre-CGI cinema was no artisanal paradise), they are shot on location in the Uncanny Valley. What brings people to watch a movie they’ve seen before, now remade and significantly worse, is having kids of their own to share their childhood wonder with, a desire to recapture and relive that sensation. But their failure to fully recapture that magic is a feature as well as a bug. Nostalgia is a shallow well to which you must constantly return for another drink — like Coca-Cola, it is sweet on the tongue but leaves the mouth sticky and gross.
But what is this nostalgia ultimately for? It is the nostalgia of the banker for his father’s time when real, honest production and creativity were the drivers of capital. It is the nostalgia of the technologist whose newfangled cutting edge developments are used mainly to skim rents off the fall of the middle classes into semi-proletarianized precarity through “platform economies.” It is, in short, the nostalgia of capital, staring down the barrel of an anything but certain future and yearning for an imagined, mythical time when technological innovation went hand in hand with creativity, stability, and prosperity. It is capital’s nostalgia for itself.
But that nostalgia has been a successful cinema product because the working classes produce everything, including society’s affects. Many workaday people in America look forward with incredible unease to little beyond another recession, lowered wages, harder to access benefits, and climate doom. It is easy to wish to return to the golden postwar years of capital, or even the booming 1990s, when all this decay and destitution, we tell ourselves, was not already there. Nostalgia wipes history clean of its pain, and makes it more desirable than any imaginable present or future, because the past is always a place immune from our death, whereas the future carries it, inescapably. So why not escape to the movies to live forever alongside the superheroes of our parents’ childhoods, at least for a few hours?
Via financialization, nostalgia has completely subsumed the Hollywood machine. So prestige films like Once Upon A Time in Hollywood… yearn for the bygone days of cinema glory, while through the blockbuster, capital dreams of its happiest years. The uncanny realism of CGI is a perfect technology for naturalizing, romanticizing, and selling such nostalgic confusion. From the White House, a blustering rapist weaponizes this nostalgia, and promises to Make America Great Again by returning to an era of more open graft, corruption, white supremacy and violence. Millions cheer and take heart. And unless we can grapple with our history, unless we can look backward with clear-eyed honesty and understanding, if we can stop romanticizing what is gone and yearning for its return, only then will we see what lies ahead of us to win.