Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby is built not around expensive sets but probably some of the best CGI ever seen (well, we should probably say "apart from Gravity" - which, although it's in a CGI league of it's own, is not exactly a historical costume drama)
I watched The Great Gatsby a few days ago. I've always liked the novel, and I'd seen a tantalising CGI breakdown, and wanted to see how all that wizardry was integrated into the film. The question for me was: will it detract from the story, or will it fade into the background, like good CGI should do (unless it's the focus of the plot).
In fact, it was neither of these.
What CGI was able to add to the film was an additional dimension of freedom. I'm not talking about the third dimension here (or at least, only partially). What it was able to do was to give the scope and flexibility to move around the sets, and to create a convincing landscape and geometry around which the plot was based.
Perhaps the best example of this was the way viewers were helped to visualise the spacial relationship between the houses of Gatsby himself and his rival Tom Buchanan. Gatsby's house is in the fictional town of West Egg, and Buchanan lives in East Egg. The properties are distantly visible to each other, separated by a wide stretch of water.
Buchanan's house has a pier that stretches into the water, terminated by a slowly blinking green light. This lantern is used as a somewhat abstract leitmotif throughout the film.
From Paper to the Big Screen
Of course, the film is based on a novel, which in itself is quite capable of creating and sustaining images like these through the quality of the prose and the readers' imagination alone, but the fact that the book can do this so effectively means that it puts a big responsibility on the film maker to not destroy or distort this imagery when it is rendered on the big screen.
The way that these scenes were realised in the film is an object lesson in how to take this responsibility and turn it into a visual triumph.
Lurhmann achieved this through a mixture of perceived realism and dreamy impressionistic license.
The scenes around the water between West Egg and East Egg were shrouded in mist or milky sunsets. There was always the sense that "this is an idealised view, but it's completely in context with the idealised lifestyles of these two mega-wealthy American fictional characters".
But when the action shifted to New York, or the road between Long Island and NYC, it was hyper real. It's hard to judge how much of this sense of actuality was due to historical accuracy (I have no idea how true to 1920s New York it actually was) or whether it was down to the glistening novelty of seeing live-action downtown New York in full colour, complete with the electric billboards and neon signage that were common even back then.