Realism: The Role Photography Plays in CGI on the Big Screen

Godzilla (2014)

A reader brought up an interesting question last Saturday on my weekly cinematography post, this one over Eduardo Serra and his work in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; he asked how much credit a cinematographer can really claim for a shot done in CGI. Another reader answered him correctly in saying that the shots done in CGI are still directed in planning by the cinematographer himself. Basically, the work the animators do depends on the input of the director of photography.

That exchange made me want to write this post today; I’ve been obsessed with science-fiction and fantasy films since I was a kid, and CGI is something that’s impacted the films I grew up with as much as it has for many of us since twenty years ago. But there’s the films that do it well, and then there’s the films that we look back at and cringe in retrospect; remember those atrocious-looking monkeys in Jumanji?

So what sets apart the good CGI from the bad? How do they get it done right? If you’re going to make something look like it could have been right in front of the camera during filming, like it was real, then it would have to follow the same basic rules of photography that everything else in real life would. And what’s possibly the most important part of good photography in the first place? Good lighting.

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