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Slate's Hollywood Economist: True Cost of CGI


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Most big-budget movies these days include at least some computer animation. Many, like last weekend's top-grossing movie "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," have a lot of the digital magic. The technology may have opened new worlds for directors, but there's a downside to computer-generated imagery, or CGI, as well. It's so expensive and labor-intensive, it can hijack a director's budget and creative control. Joining us is Edward Jay Epstein. He writes on the economics of Hollywood for the online magazine Slate.

Edward, first of all, who is it that creates all these digital effects?

EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN (Slate): They're outsourced. It's like all the other outsourcing. It goes to companies like George Lucas' company in Northern California.

CHADWICK: In your column, you write about "Terminator III," which came out a couple of years ago. A lot of CGI there, including, I was amazed to see, half of Arnold Schwarzenegger's face. Isn't this kind of strange?

EPSTEIN: Well, it's even stranger because they actually even created an entire clone. They digitally scanned in Arnold Schwarzenegger and they created an entire clone of him. But that's what's happening. What's happening now is you're making two movies; one is a live-action movie and the other is a digital effects movie. They're made separately at different times in different places.

CHADWICK: And as you write, it becomes a problem for the director because they can't actually know how all the digital effects stuff is going to come out. So when they go to put the movie together, to marry the live-action stuff to the effects and here they have a deadline, and what happens if it doesn't work?

EPSTEIN: Well, there are few directors who actually could get more budget and more time. But what's really happening is that they are losing control over the movies. The bad news about digital effects is that it's being done by a separate group separately; the good news is that it's eye-popping for the audience.

CHADWICK: I haven't seen "King Kong" yet, but I know a couple of people who have, who saw early versions of it, and they say that for all these digital effects, it still doesn't look as good as the movie back in 1933. Now how could that be?

EPSTEIN: Well, it's very easy. Digital effects creates an illusion, but so do other things like puppets. And the story is what counts in all movies. If you have a bad story--and sometimes digital effects ruin a story because the fact they can do something, they feel a compulsion to do it. And so sometimes you get a glitch in a story. It's not all the effects; I would say it's 90 percent story.

CHADWICK: You mean you get a glitch in the story because people are writing things that they think can be created on computer whether or not they make sense for the story?

EPSTEIN: That's right. And the important point is the director doesn't know how it's going to turn out. And in many cases, because of the budget and because of time consideration, loses control and can't reshoot it like he could reshoot a scene.

CHADWICK: And the scene still has to go in. They spent a fortune on the scene, so they can't throw it away.

EPSTEIN: Exactly.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Edward Jay Epstein. He writes the Hollywood Economist column for Slate magazine online. He's also the author of "The Big Picture," the story of money and Hollywood.

Edward, thank you again.

EPSTEIN: Thank you very much, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.