Reality Is a Special Effect

Dave Kehr on choosing reality over CGI:

... “The Fall” — an independent feature film from Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, a veteran music video and commercial director who uses Tarsem as his professional name — is full of sights that provoke genuine astonishment: an underwater shot of an elephant swimming gracefully overhead, a palace courtyard built out of interlocking staircases that might have been designed by M. C. Escher, a village clinging to a mountainside where all of the buildings seem to have been individually painted in subtly different shades of inky blue.

These images amaze precisely because they are quite evidently real, bursting with the life and detail that elude even the most advanced digital artist. “I decided it wasn’t going to be C.G.I.,” said Tarsem, using the industry shorthand for computer-generated imagery. Referring to his only previous feature, the psychological thriller “The Cell” (2000), Tarsem added: “I had enough of that in my first film, as much as I enjoyed it. I decided in this one that the art direction was going to be in the landscape and in the costume design and nothing else.”

There's a scene near the end of George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith when the characters find themselves in the same spacecraft where the first Star Wars kicked off. It's a shocking moment, but not for the reasons Lucas intended - not because of the shock of recognition, but because of the visual contrast between that one hallway and nearly every other space (interior or exterior) in the Star Wars prequels. More specifically, it's the contrast between a real place and a fake one - between an honest-to-God set and Lucas's computer-generated filmscapes, which were frequently beautiful but just as frequently looked, in Anthony Lane's words, like places where "illumination is provided not by daylight but by a dispiriting plastic sheen."

Obviously CGI isn't going anywhere, but moments like the blockade-runner scene in Sith are reminders of why its tyranny should be resisted, particularly by filmmakers working in genres (fantasy and sci-fi, adventure films and superhero movies) where it's usually the easiest and cheapest way to bring the script to life. Tarsem's The Fall sounds like at best an an interesting failure, but his choices deserve praise, and imitation.