People have long stopped discussing Tom Hooper’s infamous “Cats” (2019), which features flat jokes, horrifying visuals and an Idris Elba cat that somehow manages to be so much more naked than any of the other cats. And I’m here to do the thing nobody asked for: bring it back.
When people discuss “Cats,” they tend to focus on the abhorrent computer-generated imagery that made it into both Internet meme and box office bomb. But what was the reason behind this? Did no one look at the CGI cat ears and fur on a human face and stop to think, “Hmm, maybe that looks weird?” Because I sure think they did.
One little-known fact about the industry is that makeup artists, costume designers and practical effects artists have unions, while CGI artists and VFX artists are unionized less. Computer-generated imagery becomes more cost effective in many ways. You can manipulate pixels in a way you can’t manipulate makeup or machines or people. Practical effects artists spend decades honing their craft, and demand sometimes surpasses the quantity of effects experts. Meanwhile, digital effects and editing is an oversaturated industry, and its practitioners are acutely aware that competitors who are willing to work for less could replace them at any time.
“Cats” was a nightmare because studios invest in practical effects ahead of time — before principal photography — and tend to be much stricter with their budgets at this time than in post-production. Meanwhile, CGI and VFX aren’t added until post-production, when studios are far willing to invest more in the project. Even in cases where CGI for a specific movie or scene would be more expensive than practical effects, studios still see it as more cost-effective because they have more information to go off when making the investment. VFX artists also work for an upfront fee, meaning studios can have them rework the same effect multiple times with no added cost.
I’m sure the VFX employees did the best they could, and their skills are still impressive, but digital effects are intended to enhance movies — not to make them from scratch. Using them to create sets, costumes and extras from green screens and morph-suited actors is an abuse of the art form.
The special effects industry is collapsing, and it is taking an art form with it. “Cats” is just an example of what we lose with the rise of CGI in recent years. The effects of this are apparent; 21 special effects companies went bankrupt between 2003 and 2013. Some predict that soon movies will become entirely digital, that even human actors will be reduced to a novelty similar to shooting on film.
It is always worth it to consider why the movies we watch are evolving the way they are and especially worth it to take the studios’ explanations with a grain of salt. Some would say excessive CGI improves movies, even makes them more realistic. But to me it just feels hollow.