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Star Wars and the Curse of CGI

Natalie Ediger, December 2, 2015· Digital Learning

“May the Force be with thee”

In the months following 25 May 1977, an earthquake struck the global cinema landscape. It was an earthquake called STAR WARS.

The space opera by the renowned director George Lucas offered everything the audience expected: suspense, drama, action and even a dash of romance.

But the film’s plot wasn’t really revolutionary. It was only partly responsible for the insane success of the franchise. Almost equally important were the groundbreaking visual effects.

A firework of special effects

Never before had anything comparable been admired on the screen. Gigantic star destroyers, heated space battles, fantastic landscapes of faraway planets, the famous (and at times annoying) humanoid robots … All this and much more accumulated to a firework of innovation and was so convincing that the moviegoers were left with open mouths in their armchairs. It was no surprise that parts 2 and 3 of the saga were just as successful. STAR WARS – an endless success story? Unfortunately not …

A deep fall

STAR WARS has long been more than just a series of sci-fi films. It has become a phenomenon. As an integral part of pop culture, even today, almost forty years after the premiere, practically every child knows the heroes by their first and last names. Given the boundless popularity of the series, it was not surprising that plans for further films were soon in the offing. Evil tongues may comment on this with the biting phrase “Milking the Cash Cow”, but we’re not here to judge.

The three prequels that were released in 1999, 2002 and 2005 were also box-office hits, but they were mostly badly received by fans and critics. Why?

The Curse of CGI

Three simple letters: CGI. The abbreviation stands for Computer Generated Imagery and refers to film material created entirely on the computer. What is generally little known: STAR WARS Episode 4 from 1977 actually featured one of the first three-dimensional CGI scenes in film history. A forty-second sequence with the Death Star. All the other special effects were handmade and were convincing because they were seamlessly integrated into the story.

Episodes 1 through 3 had a very different approach. From the first moment on, the viewer is literally bombarded with CGI. The scenes may look fantastic, but they are so numerous, overloaded and in the focus of the action that the actual plot of the movies more or less moves into the background.

The turnaround

It quickly became clear what had gone wrong: You had forgotten that the most important thing in every movie is the plot – special effects are decorative accessories that don’t improve the story, but at best decorate it. The mass computer animations in episodes 1 to 3 simply distracted from the story. A fate shared by numerous movies of the 90s and noughties.

Today there is a counter-trend to the CGI flood. Many directors became aware that successful CGI can never replace a gripping story. And there is also a return to old, handmade special effects. That has class, is charming and a hundred times nicer to look at than sterile computer animations.

What if…?

The STAR WARS example shows perfectly that innovation does not necessarily mean revolution. Not a single STAR WARS fan would have been sad if most of the effects in episodes 1 to 3 had been done by hand. Quite the opposite. And with today’s knowledge, these effects would certainly have looked a lot better than in the old three parts. Who knows, maybe the audience would have stayed back with open mouths in the armchairs? Because story and special effects would have balanced each other out and the effects would have looked really, really good. Just like in the first STAR WARS part, computer animations could have accompanied and supported these effects.

More STARWARS parts will follow. Let’s hope that this time the makers will focus more on story and convincing special effects – so that STAR WARS will shine again in its old glory.

Bottom line

So what do we learn from the success story of STAR WARS? Actually, the statement is simple: The core of an idea – in the current example the story – must never be lost from sight if the implementation is to be promising. One also speaks of the “essence” of a topic or an idea. And we also learn that news (like CGI with STAR WARS) are great, but should be used in a moderate way and not at the expense of the essence.

These are two points to keep in mind when you want success at the end of the road.

To end with a quote from Master Yoda: “Do it or don’t do it. There is no trying.”