In Berlin and Los Angeles, the cities where we live, passing a construction site means encountering the promise of an architectural future. Real estate developers announce their spotless visions as digital renderings, complete with artificial trees and faceless humans enjoying a lunch break in the sun. Computer-generated images such as these reframe the world as a seamless space, smoothing out surfaces, creating an intentionally designed world. The same is possible in contemporary cinema, where CGI has become commonplace. It seems to offer filmmakers a blank canvas, cut loose from the restraints of the physical world.

Beneath this digital gloss, however, lie imperfect machines and human operators. A scene in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) dramatizes the process of generating computer images: a pair of actors dance in motion capture suits, the illuminated dots form a geometric web of points. The camera then pans to their lizard counterparts, whose smooth animation contrasts with the choreography’s emphasis on physicality and eroticism. Moving back and forth between dance, abstraction, and animation, the spectacle of this scene lies as much in the technological and performative process as it does in the fantastical image that results from it. In line with Carax’s emphasis, many of the articles collected in this dossier engage with CGI in a similar way, by considering the process of image creation alongside an inquiry into aesthetics or history. Supposedly dematerialized digitality thus inspires a form of writing which traces its material aspects and thereby breaks up the ostensible seamlessness of the visual culture it produces.

That hollow premise of seamlessness fuels Jonah Jeng’s analysis of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), in which digital interjections continually disrupt the film’s long take, drawing attention to its unreal elements. Jeng details the ways that CGI has dislodged Bazin’s realist axioms, even in sequences that it doesn’t directly touch. Shane Denson also draws comparisons to the early days of filmmaking, describing the “operational aesthetic” of DeepFake videos that parallels turn-of-the-century cinema of attractions. Working through the gendered violence of AI-assisted pornography highlights the peculiarities of this new form of processual image.

With the same technologies undergirding them all, placing cinema in conversation with other image-based media, as Denson does, reveals new insights for both. Max Oginz turns to the video game Stray (2022)—and in particular the Unreal Engine that was used to develop it—to find traces of animal physiology in its post-human setting. As environmental destruction accelerates, Oginz posits after the work of Jason Wallin, our need to generate surrogate habitats in our fictional worlds accelerates in tandem. Andrea Comiskey seizes upon another emulation of reality in her interview with prolific CGI artist Kris Theorin, who specializes in animations that recreate the properties of LEGO bricks. Theorin offers an inside perspective on the physical-digital divide, as well as the labor complexities that are often hard to discern from the finished product.

Samuel Harris takes a close look at Jung Byung-gil’s Carter (2022) and finds that its action scenes come together in a chaotic patchwork of CGI jolts and morphings, refusing the sharpness and clarity common to digital images. Carter, he argues, offers an experience of space that poses an alternative to the realism and linearity that other recent one-shot releases have garnered prestige points with. Byung-gil might have evaded the conventions of his chosen genre, but CGI often remains limited by the power big post-production studios wield: Sophie Gilmore explores the centrality of companies such as New Zealand-based Wētā FX in her historical account of Motion Capture technology and characters, which, in her words, are often designed to “engender a pleasurable reinforcement of disbelief.” She observes that, since the release of Avatar in 2009, MoCap has increasingly been used “in the service of a unified aesthetic and narrative logic.”

In light of this streamlining, a current challenge for filmmakers and scholars involves recognizing the hegemonic studio aesthetic as just one of many possibilities. If CGI is already shaping our ideas of past, present, and future, a pluralization of production might open our worlds beyond the visions of just a few.

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