The way epic filmmaking was 28 years ago — what happened?

Last night I watched the 28 year-old bio-epic movie, Gandhi (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough. Of course, the story is an inspiring one, about the life long struggle Gandhi fought for human rights through the use of non-violent protest. As a film buff who watches and studies many movies, what shocked me was the grand scale of the film; it was a historical epic film we haven’t seen in decades.

There have been epic films made since Gandhi, but are there any of these films made today without computer generated imagery (CGI)? Since Jurassic Park in 1993, film makers and studios have found using CGI cheaper and more efficient. Too bad, because there’s something awe inspiring about watching the funeral scene in Gandhi that used 400,000 extras. And there are other scenes that probably used just a thousand or two (see the screen capture above, for example).

The same chaotic energy can’t be captured by computer animation; CGI is too controlled, too painterly, too fake no matter how good the technology, because in the back of your mind the thought “this is cool computer work” is always floating around.

The limits of CGI are probably expressed the greatest in epic films, which are a genre all their own. Wikipedia summarizes epic films as

An epic is a genre of film that emphasizes human drama on a grand scale. Epics are more ambitious in scope than other film genres, and their ambitious nature helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film. They typically entail high production values, a sweeping musical score (often by an acclaimed film composer), and an ensemble cast of bankable stars, placing them among the most expensive of films to produce. The term “epic” comes from the poetic genre exemplified by such works as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Ramayan.

To my mind, the epic film isn’t just about what was captured on the celluloid, but the process of filming too. It’s also about the struggle to corral and capture thousands of extras on film, which then affects the performances of the lead actors. That’s a dynamic that can’t be reproduced in a studio in front of a green screen.

Too bad. Bye, bye epic film.