Monday, June 29, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: CGI vs. Stop Motion?

A reader and friend, Duanne, writes:

"Your reviews of the Jurassic Park movies have caused me to revisit the old CGI versus Stop Motion argument. 

I admit it. I'm something of a CGI snob.

Sometimes I think it's overrated.

Up until Jurassic Park, all the CGI I saw looked like something a Playstation threw up. Yes, I'm looking at you, Goro from Mortal Kombat. 

Then I saw the dinosaurs and was impressed, though I wouldn't admit it. It could be done right and it could be good. I suspended my disbelief and thought I was looking at an actual living creature giving an actual performance. 

But it didn't affect me the way Stop Motion does. It didn't hit the sweet spot and trigger a geek out. 

Stop Motion was originally considered for Jurassic Park. They used it for the test footage, then decided to go with computer graphics. I would've been perfectly fine with it. I would've eaten it up. I've told people that, and have been promptly shot down.

"No, too old fashioned! Too corny! It wouldn't be the same!" they've said. 

I agree it wouldn't be the same. Probably wouldn't have become the phenomenon it has. 

But it still would've been awesome.

An articulated model is different from a computer graphic. It's a physical object that is built, sculpted, moved, adjusted. It has a tangible quality that's not present in CGI. And they're both better than iguanas with horns and fins attached to them, and men in suits (unless they're from Japan). 

I know some people prefer their dinosaurs more realistic and that's fine. But those fantastical creatures inhabited another world, 

And in my mind, Stop Motion is how they moved. It's what set them apart from from all other life on this earth. It's what made them unique. 


This is a great subject to debate, Duanne.

For me, this issue is a bit like debating a pie made from scratch and a store-bought pie.

On the side of stop-motion animation are the factors of history and nostalgia. 

Many classic, older films, from King Kong (1933) to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) feature stop-motion animation.  My generation grew up with these films, and so there is some nostalgia for the format and the productions.

Additionally, one can’t deny that stop-motion animation is labor-intensive, and therefore individual. 

Celebrated practitioners such as Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Dave Allen poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their special effects creations.  If you grew up reading genre magazines with any regularity you know this is so, and therefore likely carry an appreciation for the individuality and distinction of their work.  

Stop-motion animation is like experiencing, therefore, a pie made from scratch.  There’s a lot of love in the recipe, and in the hard, laborious work.

CGI is still developing, and feels more like a store-bought pie. Rightly or wrongly, the practitioners feel largely anonymous, and there is the impression -- again, rightly or wrongly -- that computers, not human hands, are responsible for all the hard work.  

Some CGI creations are indeed miraculous, but the emotional connection -- at least for my generation -- is not as strong.  CGI feels like a decent store-bought pie, you might conclude.

Also, I should add, CGI seems to have aged faster than stop-motion animation did.

In terms of “what looks better,” or which technique “more powerfully convinces the eye,” it’s largely a draw, I believe, at the risk of raising the ire of the stop motion crowd.  

Stop-motion can look halting, or herky-jerky, and just look at those finger-impressions on King Kong’s hide in the 1933 film!  Once you see them, you can't un-see them!

By contrast, CGI has yet to fully capture and reflect the idea of gravity. Too often, beings or monsters created with CGI don’t seem to obey the laws of physics.  The upshot is that in horror, CGI can be disastrous because you never get a sense of the monster’s flesh, or texture…that it is real, and present in the frame.  

I find CGI less distancing in the science fiction cinema, where my response (fear) isn’t a key element of the work of art.

My son is eight, and he has no dog in this hunt, so he is an impartial observer of both formats. 

He can recognize, at a glance, that something is weird with stop-motion creations.  He can’t put his finger on what it is, but he knows that stop-motion creatures aren’t photo-real, and that they are moving in a way that seems wrong.

Similarly, he has been able to detect -- though not as often -- CGI animation. In particular, we have been watching the re-touched Star Trek (1966-1969) lately, and Joel has been able to sense that there are not models or miniatures involved, for the most part, but rather graphic, moving animations. Sometimes he’ll ask me to freeze a shot of the Enterprise, and then ask me if it is animated. The answer is universally affirmative.

So I think on points, neither really wins. 

How do I feel, personally? 

A combination of different approaches often works best.  Jurassic Park (1993) holds up beautifully, and it is a mix of live-action animatronics, puppetry, and CGI. The dinosaurs in the film look absolutely perfect -- and real -- in my opinion.  

I don’t think the same thing, alas, could have been achieved with stop-motion animation alone at this juncture, or with CGI alone.

I don’t want to be perceived as a generational turn-coat, but the last thing I would want or desire at this point is a return to stop-motion animation, unless a film is acting as an homage or pastiche of past stop-motion pictures.  

I believe CGI will continue to improve -- and it needs to improve -- but like the telepod in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, it doesn’t yet understand the nuances of “flesh.”

The task for artists and filmmakers is to combine approaches -- and lots of them -- in a way that keeps the audience off-guard, and, simultaneously, entranced.

Don't forget to ask me your questions at


  1. CGI is like any other effect. It has to have 3 things to work. 1. Money. 2. Talent. 3. Vision. It can scratch by with 2, but if you have all 3, you have the single greatest monster film ever, The Host. If you don't have those 3, you have that one Sci Fi Channel film that was "Alive meets Bigfoot," a film that has the single worst suitmation and CGI known to man.

  2. Thank you for posting this and sharing your thoughts. It's very fitting this posts on Ray Harryhausen's birthday. He may be gone, but he'll never be forgotten. Unlike the CGI werewolves of American Werewolf in Paris, which you reminded me off.

  3. I'm a retrogrouch but have to admit that CGI can work wonderfully. Jurassic Park (a movie I have SERIOUS reservations about and issues with) remains an example of just how good CGI can be. There was a lot of love and passion for the dinosaurs and the art of making realizing them for film by those involved and you can see and feel it when you watch the movie. Making almost everything in a film via CGI and going all out to make that an artistic statement using the inherent properties of the technique can also be great. That said, to me there always seems to be more "there" there when models or anamatronics are used. CGI is like autotune. It can be used in very positive ways but usually ends up being used in a cheap and nasty manner. It's not the fault of the technology itself though.

    Imagine if Fury Road had been done primarily with CGI... I know Miller wouldn't have used the impossible camera angles and positions and "shaking" effects that ruin so many movies for me but even though the actors would still have been great and the story satisfying the influence that all that mass of steel, momentum and danger that the practical stunts and effects had on the film from the inside out would have been sorely missed.

  4. Great write up. I agree, CGI and stop motion are tools. Knowing when to use the right tool for the right job is the key. CGI can look wonderful and work great in some movies. Other times, physical models, props and costumes are a requirement. I know you're not a fan of the LOTR films, but I really think Jackson did a brilliant job using all kinds of techniques to bring Middle Earth to life. He didn't rely solely on CG and even made a point to avoid it unless it was necessary. Granted it did get pretty necessary in the battle scenes. It is the one area that I think Lucas really missed in his prequel films. He was too enamored of CG, when a approach closer to what Jackson executed would have lead to better performances in his films (at least in my opinion).

  5. The correct answer is: puppets.

    Plus stop motion.

    Problem with CGI is that they go too far over the top and make things feel unbelievable as well as they have yet to capture reality well enough to be convincing. Which would not be a problem except CGI seems to be touting "Look! It's REAL!" Whereas stop motion and puppetry say, "Look what we've come up with!" Maybe that's just me, though. When I see Spider-Man swinging around and looking utterly fake despite millions of $ invested in CGI, it just feels silly compared to a guy on wires or a stop motion monster where the artists are just asking me to suspend disbelief and enjoy their work.