Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Godzilla Moment

On the plane earlier this week I got around to watching the Academy Award winning movie Godzilla Minus One, one of the best monster movies I've seen set in Japan during the aftermath of World War II, with a pretty emotional substory about a man dealing with his demons from the war. I had to hide my tears from the nearby passengers.

It wasn't the story that earned the movie an Oscar. Godzilla Minus One won the awards for Best Visual Effects. I found nothing wrong with the effects, but they didn't excel beyond what you see in any typical movie of the genre.

In 2008, I lamented that special effects in movies had improved so much that we had lost the amazement we felt in the 70s. Perhaps I spoke too soon, as James Cameron's Avatar came out the following year and did amaze. However, special effects have since become a commodity, something filmmakers must include because audiences expect it but rarely do you go to a movie for the effects. In the not-too-distant future, special effects will be automated with AI, becoming just another plugin for Final Cut Pro. 

It's time to retire the visual effects award, especially with new awards coming to the Oscars.

I wrote that 2008 column to mirror the lack of enthusiasm about computing at the time which also felt like a commodity. Now we're at an exciting time in computing particularly with the advances in artificial intelligence. But we should be wary, once (if?) AI gets consistently good it may feel like a commodity again and once again we become victims of our own success. 


  1. The comments about VFX written here are wrong. There are many things we can do better post 2020 than before 2020c and most of it has nothing to do with AI. I recommend reading or watch videos from VFX experts about this topic to learn more.

  2. My take is that there will always be movies that are considered great and suspenseful regardless of any visual special effects or CGI -- I'm talking about timeless greatness here. Timeless, what a word, what a concept!

    This is the type of movie where plot, theme, characters and actual acting are key. One such movie is "In the Heat of the Night" with Sidney Poitier (that movie did end up winning 4 Oscars, if that's some metric). Yes, it's the same Sidney Poitier that played a small part next to Robert Robert in "Sneakers" - a movie that our friend Leonard (Lenie) Adleman consulted for and that acted as "a breakthrough of Gaussian proportions"(*) for the hacker's genre. These are movies to experience tension without the crutch of modern visual effects, these films are your gateway to a cinematic world where storytelling reigns supreme and every scene crackles with the raw power of true craftsmanship.

    (*)Lenie, please forgive me for borrowing that one sentence!)

  3. G Minus One is now available in the US on Netflix. Watched it last night. The story and few main characters are the best part of course. I think that part of the award was about quality of the effects that they could achieve so cheaply, but I agree that it was more about finding some way of rewarding the whole package.
    Avatar: Way of Water was in a completely different league wrt effects, for example - that really did have breakthrough effects.

    A big problem with the effects in lots of CGI movies like the superhero universe movies is how much the CGI "cheats": CGI characters and objects barely seem to occupy real space - they often change size and mass dramatically depending on the shot. The destruction they produce very obviously also has no physical connection - they are simply images tumbling on the screen rather than having any physical properties. They match the sensibilities of the comic books that they came from but the result simply leaves me bored. The puerile carbon-copy plot lines don't help either.

  4. People still go to movie theaters to experience the visual effects on big screen, and super hero movies.

    If there is no visual effects aspects, many people would not go to movie theaters anymore.

  5. Regarding this

    >Perhaps I spoke too soon, as James Cameron's Avatar came out the following year and did amaze.

    I was reminded of something I wrote after watching Aquaman in 2018 -

    >Among the superhero movies released in recent years by Hollywood, like Aquaman, what impressed me was the kind of progress that fields like computer graphics and CGI have made. They can consistently generate brilliant art by rendering amazing visuals and creating fascinating worlds with 3D CGI.

    With regards to AI commoditising visual effects in movies could be a good thing because the focus of movies will go back to good stories and captivating scripts. For some time I have believed that, currently the most credible use case for generative AI is not in chat bots or essay writing, but it is in video making. Generative AI truly has the capacity to disrupt Hollywood in unprecedented ways.