Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Praise of Practical/Special Effects

Call me a purist, but to me, I think I will always prefer the fine work of practical effect and miniature artists, stunt people and puppeteers to the majority of the computer-generated special effects work that appears in most of the blockbusters of today.

I recently had a chance to watch a few movies from the mid to late 1970's which were made before computers could ever have an impact on the industry, and the effects hold up today. The ships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind still look damn good, the shark from Jaws for the most part works, and we all know that for the most part, all the effects in Alien work.

Contrast that with the computer generated effects that are now dominating the industry, and these latter day efforts just come off as wanting. I mean, I want to believe in what the movie maker is showing me, but my brain knows that they are computer generated illusions, so no matter how realistic the effect is, it is like my mind can't fully suspend disbelief in those situations. And I think this fact was brought home to me after I watched Casino Royale with its excellent action sequences, which felt so real and immediate... and after watching the special features on the DVD, I discovered that for the most part, those amazing sequences were well-choreographed stunt sequences with little to no CGI in them. They felt thrilling because there was really some sense of danger involved, and if the spectacle you are watching doesn't feel that way, then where is the excitement.

And I think many of you reading this will agree that while the first generation of quality CGI effects wowed you when you saw them, seeing them now, they don't seem so impressive and the little flaws have become much more apparent. There are notable exceptions of course... for instance, I think the T-1000 from Terminator 2 holds up remarkably well, and it was an excellent use of the technology, probably because I can't really see how that effect would have been accomplished otherwise. But it seems like film makers are using computer effects as a crutch, when they should in some cases be the icing on a mechanical effects shot rather than the entire basis for an effect.

Now, don't get me wrong... I've seen a lot of bad practical effects in my day... bad miniatures, bad animatronics and bad stunts which have somewhat taken me out of a particular scene or even a movie (King Kong from 1976 stands out) but to me, even when they aren't working 100 percent, I'd take a practical effect any day of the week over most of the work being done by computers for the simple fact that even when it is a puppet or miniature, it is a real object, so it actually has some weight and tangibility. And I don't care what other people say... to me, Yoda and ET work far better as puppets than they do as purely digital entities.

Will there be a day when CG creations will be able to completely usurp the duties of the traditional and time-honored aspects of practical effects? Perhaps... but I don't think that day will be anytime soon. And for that, I am grateful.


Burbanked said...

I'm absolutely with you on this, but unfortunately I think that easily-rendered CGI effects are only going to get quicker and cheaper and therefore more attractive to filmmakers (and studio bean-counters) than they've ever been before. Just look at INDIANA JONES from this summer - Spielberg and the rest were well-quoted that they'd make their movie old-school, with practical effects for all of the big stunts and setpieces and the thing was packed with CGI from the very first frame!

I miss the practical effects as well, and I think when CGI was on the cusp of technological breakthrough was when the filmmakers had to mix practical effects with CGI - and it led to terrific sequences such as those seen in T2, JURASSIC PARK, ALIENS and others.

CASINO ROYALE and Nolan's BATMAN movies perhaps indicate that some directors are still choosing a mix - but at the same time other films such as ZODIAC are going the route of heavily using CGI in fairly invisible ways, so maybe it's not all bad.

Bart said...

The thing with T2 is that the T-1000 was such a futuristic device (literally and figuratively) that any dodgy CGI is easily forgiven as a result.

I'm also with you...it's way better than it was, but directors are definitely leaning on it more than they should because it'll make a shoot easier or safer.

SamuraiFrog said...

We are so in agreement. When I was a kid, I wanted to get into practical special effects, and I used to watch documentaries on the making of Star Wars or read this book about Industrial Light & Magic over and over again. I think the best we've gotten now has been Lord of the Rings, with Peter Jackson using a combination of different techniques; some CGI, some puppetry, some in-camera tricks, lots of prosthetics and models. Something appearing in physical reality has much more of an impact than an animated mass of pixels.

I always point to The Dark Crystal. It's all puppets, no human presence, and it's the most bizarrely alien thing I've ever seen. It's because those creatures exist in a physical, spatial reality. That's much more powerful than CGI.

MC said...

Burbanked: To me, I think that CGI is far more adept at creating and enhancing landscapes and settings than creatures and characters... like a more modern form of matte painting.

Bart: While I do agree with the safety argument you are making, I don't think filmmakers should short change an effect because one way is easier than the other... they should choose the option which fits best.

SF: You know, I've still never seen Dark Crystal... but I know that Jim Henson did exceptional work on it(as he did on nearly everything he had a hand in). And with puppets, there is actually something for another actor to work with in a scene, which I think enhances their performance as well.