EXT. EMPTY LOT NEXT TO SUPERMARKET - NIGHT
A good beginning for a good blog is often a good rant, don't ya think? So as I was preparing to write a blog about old school visual effects, I figured I should start by explaining why modern digital effects irritate me so much.
Digital Effects = Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) = Visual effects produced with computers, often without a single real physical contribution.
Old School Effects = Photo-chemical effects = Models, matte paintings, in-camera tricks. Different components of a shot are combined optically or chemically on actual film.
I'm sick of computer generated effects. I'm sick of the way every big film coming out of Hollywood these days rely so much on CGI. Take away the effects and large chunks of the film literally ceases to exist. At cinemas everywhere big event films are constantly trying to one-up each other, and several thousand effect shots are not uncommon in a new movie.
Now, my problem is not with any kind of computer effects, what I'm talking about are scenes where the camera flies around, defying all sense of physics, or scenes where gazillions of tiny CGI extras race into battle on a CGI battlefield. I'm talking about films that spend $100 million creating CGI characters that only look marginally real, when good old makeup effects could have handled the same job far more effectively. It's lazy. It's stupid. And I'm freakin' bored with it.
Don't get me wrong: Computer effects are a great tool, when they're used right. Same goes for any other tool, but if you've ever tried to paint with a hammer you will know that using the wrong tool can prove to be downright disastrous.
The problem with CGI is that anything can be done. ANYTHING. However, doing ANYTHING just because one can, is not necessarily a good idea. Think about this: An actor can also do ANYTHING, but we don't really want them to jump around and do the chicken dance in every scene do we? We want them to act appropriately. CGI effects should do the same.
It wasn't always like this, he said, getting all misty-eyed.
Back in the old days if you wanted to put something in a film, you had to make it and shoot it. And if you didn't want something in the shot, you had to get rid of it before the cameras rolled. Back then every single effect shot was a monumental struggle, so the filmmakers would try to figure out the absolute minimum number of shots they would need to tell the story (the keyword here being STORY). That produced some very elegant, tight, well-constructed scenes, with some beautiful, effective shots.
The discipline that naturally grew out of this approach is exactly what a good movie needs, but with the advance of CGI filmmakers are getting lazy. There's a plane in the shot? We'll get rid of it in post. Actor didn't hit his mark? We'll move him in post. Actor A was best in take 1, actor B was best in take 5! We'll cut the shots up and merge them in post. These are not actually fixes you'll notice when you watch a film, but they influence the way filmmakes think, and they enforce that attitude of "we can always get it right... later."
Heavy use of CGI is also problematic, because the filmmakers lose sight of reality. It's easy to make a CGI car race down the highway narrowly missing every other car, but when you have to shoot it, when an actual stuntman has to perform the daring feat, you'll run into some natural limitations. The first instinct of a modern filmmaker will be to get rid of those limitations, but that's exactly the wrong thing to do.
It's a bit of a cliché to describe CGI artists as pasty white geeks who never get out, and just sit in front of a computer screen all day long. In reality that's not the case, but there is a certain kind of truth in that statement, deep down. When you have to build something physically and capture it on film, you get a completely different appreciation for the things you deal with. You learn how the camera works. You learn how light bounces off an object using your own two eyes. You learn to embrace the limitations and use them, not fight to eliminate them.
Another advantage of dealing with real objects in the real world is that accidents can happen. Good accidents, I mean. Visual Effect maestro Richard Edlund said it best in an interview with American Cinematographer:
Analogue thinking [...] allows for serendipity. [...] The thing about computer animation is that everything that happens has to be intellectually inserted, so it's very difficult for serendipitous performance to occur, because you have to intellectualize that serendipitous blip.
That's why I prefer old school effects. To me they are far more organic than CGI effects. "It doesn't look real", is the argument I often hear against those wonderful corny old effects. That's probably true, but the same could also be said for most modern effects. When robots are fighting through the streets, when the whole world sinks into the ocean, all done with pixel perfect precision, I don't believe for a second that what I'm watching is real. Same thing when I'm watching King Kong trash the Empire State building, or when The Death Star blows up, but with Kong and The Death Star I at least get a sense of the artistry and the effort involved in the process.
Here's the thing: Mona Lisa is a work of art, not because the painting is a carbon copy of reality, but rather because it's magical. There's the allure of Mona Lisa's unreadable expression. The composition of the image. The brushstrokes of an artist at the height of his craft. This is what makes the painting unique. If a guy in a basement had painted Mona Lisa with a "hot-girl-in-front-of-landscape"-simulator I guarantee her smile would be a lot less alluring. Or maybe it wouldn't be there at all.
There's no doubt: Computers are here to stay. Despite my resentful attitude they ARE a great tool. CGI has given us some incredible images over the years. My heart still skips a beat when the T-Rex breaks out of its pen to wreck havoc in Jurassic Park, and I barely believe my eyes when I see the manchild Benjamin Button stumble towards the camera, as real and alive as my own reflection. These are two excellent examples of the perfect use for CGI.
CGI has brought great advances to the field of visual effects, without a doubt, but at the same time I feel like the entire industry has also lost its soul in the process. I miss the ingenuity and the sense of adventure from the "old" days. We need a cool monster! Why don't we build one and shoot it in a water tank, so it's looks all floaty and scary? We can't afford to build the top three floors of a building! Why don't we build those floors as a model, and hang it in front of the camera so it looks huge? That's what I miss, and that's why I'm in love with old school visual effects. They may not have pixel perfect precision, but they have a lot of heart.
Sometimes that's enough.
End of rant.
CUT TO BLACK.
Stay tuned for more posts about visual effects in the future.
ADDITIONAL LINKS AND RESOURCES
The VFX Show
Great bi-weekly podcast about visual effects, from a bunch of digital effect artists, who have a great love for old school effects.
Quarterly magazine about visual effects. Get the old issues for some great articles about old school effects.
You can find the entire interview with Richard Edlund here.