The real world is full of scuff marks and dents. Rust and signs of aging. But CG objects and cities? They’re likely to look unrealistically smooth—like the entire world was built an hour before the cameras rolled in. This fundamental disconnect from how we experience the real world and how CG worlds appear on screen is one reason that modern mega-budget sci-fi films often look more like cartoons than the puppet and model-driven photography of the original Star Wars. I’m far from the first person to point this out, but when you go back and watch that movie, the Millennium Falcon (which was filmed with a practical model) looks like it actually is a pirate’s ship, hobbled together from spare parts picked up after a couple dozen treks around the galaxy.
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Which brings me to Her—the new Spike Jonze-directed film that delves into the relationship between a man and a machine. The movie is getting all sorts of accolades for its bright photography, above-par acting and script, and a remarkable voice-only turn by Scarlett Johansson. But there’s one thing that is often being left out of the conversation: The film creates an astonishingly believable vision of a not-so-distant Los Angeles, with a budget that appears to be a fraction of the average George Lucas movie.
The secret to its success: Rather than relying on CG for its world-building, the crew used actual street and skyline shots in locations that just happened to look futuristic. Clever shots of the Shanghai skyline, walkways, and bullet trains are seamlessly transplanted into Los Angeles. Rather than trying to fabricate reality with a mainframe and a green screen, the filmmakers sent cameras into the real world. The result are horizons that go on forever, blurry traffic that is actually going by in the background, and even the occasionally visible Chinese-language sign (which I’ll let slide based on the prediction that Chinese signs really could be everywhere in a few years). The world feels real because it is real.
I can’t stress how refreshing this is. Movies like the new Hobbit series are getting beaten down for cartoony action sequences that are devoid of any actual tension (it’s hard to care when a bunch of obviously CG characters are battling it out). Her feels like it was shot guerrilla-style with an actual time machine. It’s a world that beats with life, and never for a second feels like a cartoon. And while I don’t have the exact budget (Forbes contributor Scott Mendelsen guesstimates that it’s under $25 million), the film’s price tag was certainly well below the average star-driven sci-fi story.
CG can certainly be used to great effect. But it can also be a crutch. And without it, clever filmmakers such as Jonze are proving they can do great things.