Is the Photorealism Trend Killing Creativity?

Sarah Whitty
August 16, 2019

We’ve witnessed some pretty incredible feats of CGI in film lately. More disturbingly, however, we’ve also seen some pretty horrifying movie CGI. In a world where The Lion King “live-action” remake exists, how is it that we’re seeing monstrosities like the CATS and Sonic the Hedgehog trailers? 

There’s a lot behind this hyper-realistic CGI trend in film right now. With Disney’s insistence on recreating every single one of their classic 2D animated films in realistic “live-action,” other studios seem to be following suit. Movie makers are pumping out remake after remake of films that will draw in a guaranteed audience with recognizable characters, new big name celebrities and recycled scripts.

Theaters are oversaturated with remakes, sequels, and spinoffs, and Disney’s live-action remakes are leading the charge in the destruction of creativity in film. More specifically, this push for photorealism in animation is wreaking havoc on creative design in movies.

The Lion King, Disney’s latest “live-action” (read: 3D animated) film, was met with an overall positive reception. And at first glance, it’s not hard to see why. The photorealism they were able to achieve is amazing. There’s no doubt that this movie is a technical masterpiece. The 3D rendered animals look like they could have been pulled straight from the savanna.

Herein lies the problem. While it’s undoubtedly impressive that we can experience the nostalgia of this classic Disney film with practically REAL lions… real lions cant express all the emotion and personality captured by the original film. Animators from the original Lion King have come forward to express their distaste for the new film, some calling the performances “weak” and “wooden.”

But was this really the fault of the star-studded cast? Voice acting alone can only take a performance so far. The real issue lies within the high degree of realism employed in the movie. A real lion just can’t emote in the way the 2D animated Simba does. These photorealistic renditions lack the charm and expressive ability of their hand drawn, 2D counterparts. Just look at how much more expressive these characters could have been if Disney had chosen a more stylized 3D approach.

CATS struggles with realism in a much different, more traumatizing way. While it seems strange that rather than costuming the actors, they were plastered in realistic cat fur effects in post production, it appears the creators of the CATS movie have fallen in line with the photorealistic CGI trend. Referring to their horrifying creation as “digital fur technology,” the CATS (2019) – Behind the Scenes Movie Featurette, is sure to include James Corden’s comment that it’s “a level of technology that (he doesn’t think) has never been used before.” 

When will films stop trying to impress us with their technological prowess and give us some truly creative and inspired visuals? Instead of using motion capture technology to make the actors’ features more catlike in a visually engaging way, they’ve just slapped on fur, cat ears and a tail, leaving their very human faces and forms very untouched and very human. Something about this doesn’t sit right. Congratulations! We’ve landed squarely in the uncanny valley.

Sonic the Hedgehog suffers from a similar problem. Based on the trailer, it seems they’ve opted for using motion capture too. Which, if you don’t know, is when a live actor is filmed and animators use their movements to animate over or attach to a 3D model. While the character designers for this film did more than just slap some fur textures on a human man (thank god), it seems like striving for realism has really thrown off the Sonic design team, too. While Sonic is more of a humanoid character compared to, well, an actual hedgehog, his human proportions don’t sit right with his giant mascot head. He even has human teeth.

Based on public response and fan attempts at fixing the design, the consensus seems to be sticking to the classic character silhouette and proportions is what people want. It looks way better, too. 

This trend of making animated characters more realistic isn’t just throwing design teams and creative decision making through a loop, but resulting in worse movies because of it. Merging 3D animated characters with photorealism always holds potential for uncanny valley vibes and creative limitations, so why not nix that all together and create something visually interesting and fun? For the love of animation, let’s hop off this photorealism train, shall we?