In the wake of Avengers: Infinity War, fans are already looking ahead to what Marvel Studios might be planning for Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But beyond the obvious discussions about new story arcs and new superheroes, Marvel could use this new horizon to make a bigger commitment to practical effects, costumes, make-up and sets.
There's certainly no pressure on Marvel to change things up from a financial perspective. Black Panther far outpaced even the most optimistic box office projections, while Infinity War has shattered box office records. Yet the fact that the MCU brand is about as bulletproof it's possible for a movie franchise to get is all the more reason for Marvel Studios to lead by example and find a better balance between practical effects and visual effects. Because right now, the VFX side of production is seriously overloaded - and suffering as a result.
Why Modern CGI Often Looks Bad
Earlier this year, Engadget published an article that bluntly asked, "Why are [Black Panther's] CG models so terrible?" - not an unreasonable question. While Black Panther was a massive box office hit and received glowing praise from fans and critics alike, there's no denying that some of its big VFX scenes looked, well, kind of bad. The most commonly criticized scene was the final battle between Killmonger and Black Panther on the tracks of a Vibranium mine train. Engadget spoke to a team member at Industrial Light and Magic (one of about a dozen companies that worked on Black Panther's VFX shots), who explained that even they weren't happy with what ended up in the movie.
In Black Panther, there are two shots that are particularly disappointing: one in which the superhero flips over a car as it crashes beneath him, and another sequence where two CG characters punch each other as they fall. (The latter sequence feels like a nod to the excellent midair fight in Spider-Man 2, except it looks significantly worse.) The insider's team (who didn't work on those shots) was worried about these scenes when they caught glimpses of them in the film's trailer. They had all the trademarks of bad CG modeling. Their team held out hope that the trailers were using early, unfinished renders, but unfortunately those problems remained in the final cut of the film.
So, how can the visual effects in movies with $100 million+ budgets look so unpolished? Essentially, it comes down to the age-old issue of quantity vs. quality. The number of VFX shots required for the average blockbuster has been spiralling upwards since the early 2000s. Per VFX Movies, The Avengers required around 2200 VFX shots, while Avengers: Age of Ultron had more than 3000. Even Captain America: The Winter Soldier (one of Marvel's more grounded movies) had 2500 VFX shots - the same number as James Cameron's 2009 visual effects pioneer Avatar.
While the raw number of VFX shots isn't a perfect measure for how effects-heavy a movie is, it's clear that Hollywood has been leaning more and more upon CGI in recent years, and VFX firms have been feeling that enormous weight. The most commonly-seen explanation for the proliferation of CGI is that it's cheaper than practical effects - but nowadays that's largely because the real cost is coming out of the pockets of visual effects companies and the artists who work for them. Yes, if you think the CGI in modern movies looks ugly, the reasons behind it are even uglier.
Visual effects veteran Daniel Lay, who runs the blog VFX Soldier, explains that VFX firms have cut down on costs by "eliminat[ing] benefits such as sick days, health insurance, and retirement accounts," and that due to the ever-increasing demands for more work at a lower price point, many employees are "forced to work under illegal conditions with unpaid overtime and 1099 tax statuses where we are responsible for paying the employer's portion of social security."
This brutal push to cut costs stems from the competitive nature of the industry, and from VFX firms all bidding for work on the biggest movies. Last year's Thor: Ragnarok, for example, divided its VFX workload across more than 20 companies. "Movie studios need so much work, and they're only willing to pay so much," Engadget's insider explained. "The VFX are accounting for a pretty serious chunk of these $100 to $200 million budgets, but even that isn't enough to cover the sheer amount of shots." The rush has become so bad that there's a growing trend of blockbuster movies being released in theaters with VFX shots unfinished, and studios only eventually fixing those problems for the home video release.
In short, sub-par CGI is the result of studios wanting more work done, but not offering enough time or money for VFX artists to get that work done. There's less time to work on each individual shot, and the people creating them are overworked and underpaid. Much of this stems from studios shifting the balance of work from production to post-production - and, as an industry leader, Marvel Studios is in a position to change this way of thinking.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018