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  • Orbitae Films

The Oppenheimer “zero CGI” controversy

Updated: Feb 6

In the last decade, the VFX industry has been under siege and is in a reputation crisis, despite being an essential part of cinematic magic since the early days of film. Headlines with narratives of how “bad CGI ruins a movie” or how “the ol’ times were better” are proliferating throughout the internet.

Today, the controversy resurfaces as Christopher Nolan, in an interview with Collider, apparently said that there is “zero CGI shots” in his new movie Oppenheimer – which we aren’t really sure if he said that or if the journalist interpreted it that way. Either way, this has sparked a huge debate within the industry, because it is not the first time this has happened.

Steven Weintraub, Collider twitter

Similar claims were said with Top Gun: Maverick, where everything was done practically, like in the 80’s. This was of course later debunked, as it had 2,400 VFX shots and was even nominated to the Oscars for best VFX. George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road’s director, also initially stated that the movie relied almost entirely on practical effects, which was a significant selling point for the film. However, it later emerged that the movie used a substantial amount of CGI and VFX.

Now, let’s try to set the record straight.

First, Nolan did not shun the VFX for the film, contrary to media interpretations. Although he is known for his commitment to practical effects (we all remember he blew up a plane for Tenet which was then enhanced with you know what…), his movies would not be possible without CGI. What Nolan said is that he wanted to use practical methods to recreate key events such as the Trinity test and explained how they are working to do so with his effects supervisor. For him, "animation tends to feel a little safe for the audience. The Trinity Test, ultimately, but also these early imaginings of Oppenheimer visualizing the Quantum Realm, they had to be threatening in some way. They had to have the bite of real-world imagery", as he said in the interview. This does not mean that there will not be any digital effects involved.

In fact, DNEG, renowned VFX company that has worked in shows like Dune and Last of us, published a tweet a year ago, informing they were the sole VFX studio working on it and, recently, also shared the movie trailer, confirming their involvement in it. So, no CG? Not really.

Second, in the comment section of the tweet that started the controversy, the journalist says that there is a differenciation between VFX and CGI. While this is true, the headline of the article claims that there are "zero" CGI shots in the movie. By doing so, the journalist—and possibly Nolan—is treading a fine line with semantics. This use of nuanced language, while technically accurate, can be misleading for those not well-versed in the intricacies of film production terminology. This not only causes confusion among readers but also undervalues the significant roles both VFX and CGI play in the industry. It oversimplifies complex processes and creates a potential misunderstanding of the hard work and creativity involved in these fields.

Why? Well, many films are sold as being made “almost” entirely with practical effects. Although this may be true, the final output is only possible thanks to the magic of CGI. Enhancements, set extensions, cable removals, actors touch-ups, etc. This invisible work, carried out by hundreds of artists and involving thousands of hours, often goes unrecognized and is even belittled, particularly in the face of such claims.

In addition to that, the VFX industry often grapples with challenging working conditions and intense competition, with some directors and producers lacking a deep understanding of the VFX process, leading to unrealistic expectations and stressful work environments.

But the questions remain: why is CGI still so vilified? Why do media hate them so much (and therefore the audience)? Why its absence is used as a key element in a marketing campaign? This is similar to the use of Auto-Tune in music. People hate it. The media hates it. But the reality is that it’s used all the time, everywhere, without you even knowing it, since Cher’s 1998 track "Believe".

The conversation needs to shift. Instead of vilifying VFX, we should acknowledge it as a tool that helps further the narrative of the story, making many of the movies we love possible. Like any tool, its effectiveness depends on how well it is used and how the artists are treated. In Oppenheimer's case, we will know for sure how much digital effects are used in the movie in a year or so. Meanwhile, controversies are always useful for selling tickets. We certainly are going to see it! Are you?

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