Nine Directors Who Fell Too Much in Love with Technology

Robert Zemeckis
Digital visual effects are here to stay. Not just in terms of rendering entire characters and environments from scratch, but also in all those things you're not meant to notice: color and lighting correction, live action compositing, erasing wires and other detritus, etc. As such, there may be no filmmakers working today – certainly no mainstream filmmakers – who are able to complete a feature without using computers to augment its look. And some, of course, have turned it into an art form, like Denis Villeneuve. But here are nine directors who have been blinded by technology – often to the detriment of their work and/or their careers.
  1. George Lucas. Obviously I have to start with this guy. The wonders that Lucas and his team at ILM achieved on 1977's Star Wars forever changed our concepts of what a movie could look like. Of course, those were all practical effects and optical printing. Cut to 1999 and Lucas's return to the director's chair with Episode I. You could sense Lucas's descent into digital dependency when he re-released his first Star Wars trilogy in 1997 as "special editions", marring his old hand-hewn visuals with garish computer-generated ornamentation. But Episode I and its two sequels went overboard with the CGI – evidence of Lucas's absolutism – and the results are simultaneously overworked and flat.
  2. Peter Jackson. After three features relying solely on practical effects, Jackson first dabbled in CG in 1994's Heavenly Creatures. Invited to Hollywood to helm Frighteners and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson proved himself a master at enhancing his live action sets and actors with digital wizardry. His next features, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were bloated, but I blame the scripts more than the CG. Then of course came his much-reviled Hobbit trilogy, which Jackson shot in 3D at 48 frames per second, promoting it as the next evolutionary stage in cinema. It wasn't: 48fps looked like cheap home video, which didn't help Jackson's ill-fated decision to stretch poor Tolkien's The Hobbit into three overlong features. Little wonder why Jackson hasn't directed a fiction film since, instead using tech to clean up hundred-year-old World War I footage for They Shall Not Grow Old.
  3. Ang Lee. Like Jackson, Lee hopped aboard the 48fps train for a film nobody saw or liked: 2016's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. That was just four years after his Oscar-winning triumph with his CG-laden Life of Pi. Since then, Lee has directed only the effects-laden Gemini Man, which also bombed. After fumbling Hulk back in 2003, Lee went lo-tech for Brokeback Mountain, and look how that turned out. Time for him to go lo-tech again.
  4. Robert Zemeckis. Once responsible for more technical breakthroughs than almost any other filmmaker, Zemeckis wasted years wandering across the uncanny valley, thanks to a trio of motion-captured animated features: The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. Audiences were unnerved by the realistic yet dead-eyed characters, leading Zemeckis to give it up for his next feature, the drama Flight. He's since drifted uneasily between live action and digital effects; it's unclear whether he will return to MoCap for his next outing, a remake of Pinocchio.
  5. James Cameron. Succeeding at MoCap where Zemeckis failed, Cameron's Avatar proved a great promotional tool for what could be done with computer-generated imagery. I didn't like the film myself, but I can't deny either its technical or its commercial success. But look how long it's taken Cameron to deliver a sequel: thirteen years. And that's only if he finishes Avatar 2 for a 2022 release. This is the dark side of VFX perfectionism. Will anyone even care to revisit the Avatar universe – not just for one but for four more sequels, as Cameron has promised? Time will tell.
  6. Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a control freak on the opposite end of the spectrum as Cameron, as he relies on CGI to help him dash out his movies as quickly as possible. The results, at least as evidenced by the Spy Kids franchise, look cheap and terrible, Sin City notwithstanding. (I never saw the 2019 Cameron/Rodriguez collaboration Alita: Battle Angel, but it seems like Cameron's perfectionism won out, although leading lady Rosa Salazar's digitally-engorged eyeballs surely turned off some viewers.)
  7. Francis Ford Coppola. The once-prolific director's filmography has been sparse during the digital era, with only three low-budget, little-seen releases over the past twenty years. But I'm including Coppola because of his experiments with behind-the-scenes technology (such as directing remotely from his trailer, not on set with his cast and crew), which tarnished his reputation. He also tended to employ visual effects to create purposefully artificial-looking images, from the spot colors of Rumble Fish to the phony backdrops of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but the end rarely justified his costly, time-consuming means.
  8. Martin Scorsese. Scorsese's not someone you think of when you think of VFX directors, but he took two budget-busting voyages into the digital realm: Hugo, a "who is this made for?" film that I admired, and The Irishman, a $50 million film shot for $225 million. Perhaps Scorsese's unfamiliarity with digital effects made him worry over all the details in Hugo's 3D trickery and The Irishman's infamous de-aging of its lead actors, an idea born to fail since the actors still moved around like old men.
  9. Steven Spielberg. It seems like a no-brainer to include Spielberg on this list, since 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind pushed the limits of practical effects and 1993's Jurassic Park was a landmark in digital. But as the last Hollywood director to edit his films on a 35mm flatbed, Spielberg's handle on hi-tech has always been shaky. For every bullseye like War of the Worlds, we'll get at least three misfires, e.g., Tintin, The BFG, and Ready Player One. It's as though Spielberg keeps hoping to hit that Jurassic Park high again, but is simply out of step with the state of the art. He really finds his mojo in his old-fashioned dramas, in which most effects are invisible, so perhaps he should stay there.