The Next Frontier of Cinema: Post-Human Filmmaking

Last weekend, Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster Ready Player One was released, and it’s a really good time. I mean there’s a part where the Iron Giant fistfights Mecha-Godzilla so I was happy. Ready Player One doesn’t delve into the actuality vs. subjective reality discussion as much as I would have liked, but I’m also grateful it didn’t lean too far into “VIRTUAL REALITY IS TERRIBLE”. After all, starting a dialogue about these themes isn’t the point of the film, the point is to have fun, and I had plenty of it. But what really stood out to me was the fact that it’s the latest in a shifting trend of Hollywood films that are post-human filmmaking.

What is post-human filmmaking? Well, by my definition, it’s a small collection of films that exist largely without physical human beings on screen, or another way of saying it would be a film that relies largely on computer generated characters. Gollum in Lord of the Rings is an early example, as he was a CGI creation based on Andy Serkis’s performance. In fact, Andy Serkis is a godfather of sorts of this type of filmmaking as he’s your first call whenever you want to do motion capture. I hope this all makes sense, what I’m trying to say here.

Here is a list of films I consider to be post-human filmmaking if that helps, hopefully I’m not forgetting any. I kept going back and forth on whether Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin counted, but I decided that if I kept going back and forth on them, then they probably don’t belong. Anyways, here they are:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes

Ready Player One (duh)

The Jungle Book (the live action one)

The general point of what sets these films apart from others is that you spend a significant amount of the film interacting and empathizing with characters who are not human, created by motion capture filmmaking. Motion capture has become a huge part of filmmaking this century. A great way of tracking how far it’s come so quickly is the Planet of the Apes trilogy that has come out this decade. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we got a motion capture performance filmed in physical settings rather than a green screen studio that Gollum was filmed and created in. In Dawn, you had significant portions of the film without humans where we were just following the apes. You still had a human surrogate character to follow, but it was about a 50/50 split between following humans and following apes.

War for the Planet of the Apes broke new ground even further than its predecessors by having most of the movie just following the apes. We didn’t need a human surrogate like we did in the previous two films, the CG and performances were more than enough to carry us, to make us empathize with a CG character that isn’t human. Do you realize how crazy and groundbreaking that is? That we could follow a whole film of non-human characters rendered by CGI without a lead human character to relate to? It’s something that will cement director Matt Reeves in film history. The next step for this will be Jon Favreau’s follow-up to The Jungle Book, a “live-action” adaptation of The Lion King, with the characters completely created from motion capture. It’s been a long time since I watched The Lion King, but I’m pretty sure there were no humans in it, so we can expect there will be no humans in Favreau’s film. We’re going to get a film that’s completely void of human characters, that is wholly constructed from motion capture CGI. That’s mindblowing if he can pull it off, and opens the door for endless possibilities.

One aspect about these films is how great the CGI is, you never feel like you’re watching bad CGI. As much as I like the Transformers movies, you definitely feel bloated by the amount of CGI in them. But take Ready Player One for example, a movie that heavily relies on CGI as we spend most of the film following digital character avatars rather than the physical humans playing them. You don’t feel weighed down by the sheer amount of CGI work in Ready Player One like you would in other CG-heavy blockbusters. It feels strange, and maybe false, to say this – but it felt like there was still a physicality that it retained even in the CG scenes. It’s probably just because Spielberg is a legend who knows what he’s doing. WETA created the best CG work I’ve ever seen in War for the Planet of the Apes. The apes just straight up look real in Dawn and War. Post-human filmmaking wouldn’t work without expert CG work, and thankfully these films have gotten that, which has really helped this type of film take off. The main point of these films is that you don’t need a human character, you just need good and ambitious filmmaking for the film to work.

Since Ready Player One, there’s been a fair amount of backlash about how people are scared of what CGI is capable of. I’m not going to be doom and gloom about it, I think it’s absolutely exciting, and we’re getting a lot of great movies out of it. The possibilities for the types of stories you can tell and the kinds of characters you can create are endless. We are entering a new era of filmmaking history, and I for one can’t wait to see how it turns out.

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