Misix Library

Special Effects Aren’t Cheap: The Cost of CGI.

March 10, 2014


3/7/2014 - 3/9/2014

Movie TitleIndex Value
300: Rise of an Empire55.72
Mr. Peabody & Sherman69.55
The Lego 85.84
Son of God41.71
The Monuments Men51.65
3 Days to Kill46.97
12 Years a Slave90.20
Ride Along43.14
Misix Movie Quality Index Value62.86
*Movies are listed in order by revenue earned over the stated weekend


Computers are getting cheaper. Computer-generated imagery (CGI), it seems, is not.

That’s what you can take away from this week’s Movie Quality Index. Look at the top two entries in the box office top 10 from this past weekend. In 300: Rise of an Empire (55.72 index value) and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (69.55), you have a couple films with a lot in common once you get past the fact that the cartoon dog doesn’t spend a lot of time eviscerating Persians. Presumably. We haven’t seen it, so we’re assuming. But here’s what they share:

  • Casts that don’t cost a lot. P&S features a lot of people you’d recognize from their TV exploits, while 300:ROAE has the one lady from the Bond movie, the one lady from Game of Thrones who would do just about anything for family (ANY-thing) and then a bunch of dudes’ abs.
  • A lot of CGI. P&S is, of course, entirely CGI. As for 300:ROAE, the first slo-mo CGI blood spatter happens about 90 seconds in, and many more follow.
  • Not a lot of budgetary constraint. The reported budgets were $145 million for P&S and $110 million for 300:ROAE.

Those last two items are no coincidence. CGI costs a lot of money. In 2013 alone, every one of the most expensive movies either heavily featured CGI special effects or was entirely computer animation:

  1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, $250 million.
  2. Man of Steel, $225 million.
  3. The Lone Ranger, $215 million.
  4. Monsters University, $200 million.
  5. Iron Man 3, $200 million.
  6. Pacific Rim, $190 million.
  7. Star Trek Into Darkness, $190 million.
  8. World War Z, $190 million.
  9. G.I. Joe: Retaliation, $185 million.
  10. White House Down, $150 million.
  11. Turbo, $135 million.
  12. After Earth, $130 million.
  13. R.I.P.D., $130 million.
  14. The Wolverine, $125 million.

Just missing the list was The Heat, the producers of which spent $80 million to airbrush Melissa McCarthy into near-unrecognizability on the movie’s poster. That’s less a fact than a reminder of how awful every other marketing company is besides us. We’re great and would never airbrush anyone unless handsomely compensated by a client, and then we’d totally do it.

Anyway, computers. There’s a reason why it costs so much to CGI the crap out of an already-crappy movie — two reasons, actually: people and hardware. Regarding the former, we reviewed the credits of Disney smash hit/bane of parents everywhere Frozen and counted more than 500 individuals involved with the animation process before we decided “more than 500” sounded impressive enough to stop counting.

As for the hardware, the process of rendering all those images requires many, many computers that are much, much nicer than yours, even if you have a Mac. For example, according to this article from VentureBeat, Pixar’s data center includes 2,000 computers that make it “one of the top 25 supercomputers in the world.” Even with all that, rendering a single frame of Monsters University took 29 hours, and the entire movie required more than 100 million CPU hours.

Obviously, not all CGI efforts are that complex. But nearly every movie contains at least some, even an independent film like Philomena, which digitally inserted Dame Judi Dench using outtakes from Skyfall and The Chronicles of Riddick.

Is the cost worth it? Based on the list from earlier, we can answer with a resounding “maybe.” When you take into account foreign earnings, it’s safe to say five of the 14 failed to make money — in some cases, failed spectacularly. But studios have decided the reward is worth the risk, which is why we’re getting another Transformers movie. Well, that and Michael Bay’s Faustian bargain that grossed more than $2.6 billion worldwide for the first three. Because in addition to a lot of computers, $2.6 billion can apparently buy your way past one bad review after another after another.

  • krzyart

    It’s possible to say if it’s a studio like Disney then CGI is worth it. Other than that I’m not quite sure.

  • andymartinelli2

    If you’re a studio looking to get purchased by another company, it may be worth it to demonstrate your abilities. However, you’re right. If its not a big company that can absorb a few duds…probably not worth it.