Can you imagine Michael Bay's Transformers without the CGI Autobots and Decepticons? It would be unwatchable if it were even ever made. James Cameron's Avatar would have lost the gorgeous visuals that made it more than a Fern Gully re-telling for an older audience. Our old friend Gollum would have just been an emaciated man covered in pounds of makeup to try and capture a fraction of his CGI creepiness.
I think it's safe to say that CGI animation has had a profound effect on all of the world's visual forms of entertainment, but it often doesn't get the appreciation it deserves — and it gets a lot of appreciation. People swoon over the gorgeous VFX of movies on a regular basis, but more laud the performances of the human actors.
And while live human beings do build that connection to an audience that makes movies with heavy CGI relatable, few people realize where those movies would be without the sophisticated animation technology. So with that in mind, here's why CGI deserves the credit for making live-action movies what they are today.
CGI is better than our old special effects
Once upon a time, the entertainment industry had to get really creative with their visual effects. Monsters were men in rubber suits and alien worlds were hand-made sets built in a movie studio. For a while, animatronics were even used to bring the otherwise impossible to life. But without the advent of computer generated animation, today's live-action movies would be completely unrecognizable.
Sure — if CGI had never existed, we'd never know the difference and probably be content with rubber suits. Still, I defy anyone (who isn't just trolling) to say that old special were better for movies than CGI. Looking back on these visuals can be nostalgic for some (any many classic effects still hold up well today), but we've come a long way since then. And while the foundation built by special effects creators should be respected, we've moved into a new era.
And to be fair, some of the old special effects looked pretty silly. Not that silliness and old technology makes a good movie bad or invalidates the resourcefulness of the time — but we are certainly in a much better place. Movie-makers have the freedom to do almost anything they want thanks to CGI and know that it will likely look gorgeous (unless you're Michael Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They will forever be fugly as all hell).
All that is just scratching the surface — as is often the case when discussing aesthetics. But the following is why, without CGI, many of our favorite franchises would be shitty cult flicks or never exist at all.
EDIT: Many of you have pointed out that old VFX were often capable of amazing things as well, and that's certainly true. But even still, CGI can often do what older effects can't, and while they certainly complement each other well in the modern age, CGI will still come out on top.
CGI brings our favorite franchises to life
Putting it like that makes it sound obvious, but think about it. Without the capabilities of VFX, a good majority of science fiction and fantasy movies would be relegated to oblivion or firmly shunned by mainstream audiences. Smaug and The Hobbit would never have been made outside of a full-on cartoon, and the actors in Lord of the Rings' series would never have been able to get the Oscar attention they did without all the awesome CGI armies drawing in hordes of fans. And forget about superhero movies, which until recently were impossible to take seriously. Without today's CGI to make things like Spider-Man's aerial-acrobatics or the Lizard's reptile body look real, superheroes would still be the stuff of campy comedies.
"But isn't it the tone of the movies that makes them serious? That's writing, not CGI." Good observation other Jason, but it would be almost impossible for most audience members to take a movie seriously if it had a guy in a silly costume slugging it out with a dude in a rubber suit as if they were in a street brawl. Some people even still have a problem with unrealistic CGI-heavy movies, but the problem would be nigh insurmountable without today's animation capabilities. The dissonance that would be created by juxtaposing a serious tone with old-school VFX would be hard for modern audience's to stomach.
To examine the other side of the coin, CGI also convinces a lot of movie-makers that they can sell a film with just the visuals, which just isn't true. I'd be happy to never have movies like Battleship or Skyline, but not if it meant never getting to see Iron Man in all his CGI glory. So be grateful that CGI gives movie executives the confidence to spend millions of dollars to pay for the most gorgeous VFX possible and some of the best actors around. Rejoice that your childhood dreams can come true with live-action adaptations of your favorite cartoon or comic franchises (unless you like TMNT. Then CGI fucked you over this time).
CGI immerses you more than anything else
Another reason CGI is to be coveted so fiercely is because of the way it makes you feel in your heart. When you see a big ol' semi-truck transform into Optimus Prime, your inner-child bursts out of its cage and fists pumps the air so hard you'd bruise it if it were skin. Looking at it you think, "Damn, that looks real enough to touch. I want that." And while you will likely never have your own Optimus Prime, the fact that you can imagine him actually existing is proof that CGI does wonders for immersion.
Only animatronics ever got close to creating the same kind of immersion, and too much exposure to them would often break the illusion. Uncharacteristically jerky movements or unnatural stillness aren't problems that CGI animators have to worry about, but they are problems that can pull you right out of the action and remind you that you're watching a movie. And since that is the cardinal sin of any kind of performance-piece, it's obviously undesirable.
Even CGI isn't foolproof, but it is the best tool movie-makers have. And my imagination is certainly grateful for the fuel CGI gives it. Because without it, many of us would likely spend our time rolling our eyes in skepticism instead of letting our jaws hang open while cheering reflexively.
CGI still has the potential to be even more realistic and cheap
Technology is constantly getting better, and that fact holds true for CGI too. We're approaching the point where it will be almost impossible to tell the difference between a CGI animated face and a real, live actor's. When that happens, CGI will become such a powerful tool that it will be used even more than it already is. It's impossible to say where the advances could lead to and what it might let animators do, but the potential is exciting. Just look at that picture above and try to figure out which side is the real face and which is CGI.
But another upside of better CGI technology is that, as better software comes out, the old stuff will be cheaper. And cheaper CGI means better CGI for television, which opens up even more possibilities. Imagine Game of Thrones if the show didn't have to limit how often the dragons are on screen due to budget restrictions. Imagine how many franchises wouldn't be limited to the movie screen (where many of them don't belong) by how expensive CGI is.
So the next time you watch a movie with a lot of CGI in it, try to look past the A-list actors and think of the animators toiling away behind the scenes. Without their efforts, a lot of the most awesome movies around today would be either impossible to make or too cheesy to reach a wide audience. And to all the animators who might be reading this, thanks for helping to make our dreams come to life.