Q&A: John Knoll on CGI, Tron and 25 years of change

Back then, using computer graphics to make a movie was considered cheating

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Twenty-five years ago, the collaboration between live action and computer animation was innovative. Today, Pixar is making films that are wholly computer-generated; on the other end of the spectrum, Indiana Jones 4 is going back to its roots with stunt doubles and traditional special effects. Are live action and computer graphics merging or splitting? Will one replace the other? Oh, no -- there are good complementary tools. Any new technology goes through a fad phase; gradually, as the technology matures and people become facile and used to the process, it becomes an accepted creative tool when used appropriately. We're starting to get to that -- it's a gradual process, but we're settling on less gimmicky stuff. One of the analogies I like to use is, when the Macintosh first came out, suddenly you could put twelve different fonts in a letter -- and people would! Just because you had this new freedom, it was horribly abused. The novelty started wearing off, and it started being used tastefully. Over the last few years, I've seen a number of cases where people have tried really interesting, different photographic looks for movies. Some of these have gone overboard, about 50% too far. It's the same thing where it's kind of a fad: "Look at all this power! I can do this with the movie!" As people get more used to having this kind of control, it's going to settle down into a more tasteful use and will just be a tool like anything else, and you won't see the extreme fringes quite as much.

How long until we reach that point? I keep predicting that we're sort of here now, then I still see examples of overuse or abuse. I think we're close, if we're not there.

Is there anything that CGI can't be used for yet? There're things that it can't be used for well yet. There're loads and loads of room for improvement. It can't be used well on low-budget productions; it's still kind of expensive and time-consuming to do. One of the directions that computer graphics is heading is that it's gradually going to become easier and easier to do, and that should drive costs down just because you'll be able to do it quicker on faster machines. The stuff that's midlevel expensive now will hopefully be cheaper and easier to do in the not-too-distant future, so tools won't be out of the hands of lower-budget filmmakers.

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