DIVINE PIXELS OR DEVIL’S PAINTBOX?

“Ya gotta take the bitter with the sweet.”

That was a line my granddad was fond of quoting and although he was referring to his unholy mix of bottom-shelf brandy with no-name cola, it does work well as a ‘statement of purpose’ for film buffs that grew up loving visual and makeup effects. If you can clearly remember the days before VCRs, then you can probably also remember sifting through hours of crap just for a few FX nuggets at weird hours on UHF stations: the Dave Allen-animated aliens

from “Laserblast”, the matte paintings and models of “Logan’s Run”, Stan Winston’s makeup for “Gargoyles” and the like. A LOT of the movies were shit, but you could tell that the FX guys working on these flicks weren’t hacks-they were artists (unfortunately, sometimes the viewer had to suffer in order to see their art). There was also an unwritten rule about FX back then: just try to make ‘em good, because no matter how exceptional an effect was, it never quite looked real. And that was okay.

Then came CGI.

Just as blue-screen compositing was around for years before it crystallized in “Star Wars”, CGI was making cameo appearances in various films before its big coming out party: the backgrounds and vehicles of “Tron”, the Genesis device planet demo in “Star Trek II” and the stained-glass knight in “Young Sherlock Holmes” are particular standouts. The water tentacle from “The Abyss” was an auspicious achievement, but it took two films to truly usher the digital age into movies: “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park”. Both of these films pushed the boundaries of what was visually possible, but more importantly they represented a paradigm shift of how effects were made and what they would look like from that moment on. As time passed and more computing power became available to the FX gurus, that ever-so-noticeable moment of when an effect began started to blur more and more until we get where we are today: digital trickery runs rampant throughout most films. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your perspective.
THE SWEET

Gollum: As Medusa from “Clash of the Titans” was Ray Harryhausen’s ultimate statement on the potential of stop-motion, so now stands Gollum from the LOTR trilogy as the state of the art in digital imaging. After seeing him for about two minutes in either film, you forget he’s CGI and he becomes just another character in the film – the ultimate goal for any FX artesian. By comparison, all the supporting digital characters in the Star Wars prequels are just that-digital characters that never get past their unreal trappings (they look nice, but I never buy that they’re occupying the same space as the actors). The fact that Gollum is the end result of acting, direction, motion capture by the actual performer, makeup and CGI can’t be incidental in his effectiveness.

The Matrix Trilogy: While the debate rages on about the storytelling in the sequels, there’s no denying the FX leaps these films have brought us. From the mercilessly copied “bullet-time” and frame-rate changes to the simple yet effective use of wire-removal, these films have utilized almost every FX technique in existence and used them in tandem with CGI, resulting in some of the most effective (and iconic) imagery of the last 10 years.

PIXAR: The wittiest pixel-slingers in the biz, armed with Tex Avery’s spirit. ‘Nuff said.

Epic Scope: The vistas of Titanic, Minority Report, Dark City, The Fifth Element and Gladiator are examples of when CGI is used to its best effect (no pun intended) – to provide a gigantic and dynamic canvas to establish the world the film is set in. No longer do we have to settle for static matte paintings and miniatures that we’ll be keeping a distance from: now the camera can swoop into ancient cities or hang over the edge of a capsizing ocean liner. The ability to show the scale of your action or environment is no longer a problem…all the director has to do now is make a good movie (which is still apparently much harder to do).

CGI can be quirky: Directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonez have demonstrated how CGI can be used in small doses very creatively outside of the action & fantasy genres. Mike Nichols has created a signature shot which utilizes CGI to create scenes that seem to begin over a mile away from where the action will occur as the camera swoops in briskly then seamlessly slows when it reaches its location, all apparently in one shot (used several times in “The Birdcage” and also in “Angels in America”). CGI is littered throughout Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The directors who continue to realize that with CGI anything really is possible and take advantage of that will be the ones who show us what kind of storytelling the technology is really capable of (and also realize that CGI can be just an appetizer instead of the main course).

George Lucas: Curse him all you want, but he still leads the way in digital technology. Once Lucas shows it can be done, the others follow, learning from his missteps of being the pioneer. Some of us may not like the films he’s making now, but one should never forget that whatever new toys he comes up with, the FX industry almost always benefits from.
THE BITTER
Blanding Out: Back in the day, you could tell the difference between a John Dykstra effect and a Douglas Trumbull effect, or the stylistic tendencies of an ILM to a Boss Film. Today, with most companies using variations of the same gear, visual effects have developed a creepy sameness that permeates from film to film. Do the FX in Die Another Day and XXX look any different than the ones in Underworld and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle? When all effects start to blend together, they stop being special: does the movie world really need common FX?
Action Flicks Going Too Far: the alligators in “Eraser”, the scorpion king in The Mummy Returns, anytime a character outruns an explosion or speeding vehicle (including the dog jumping to safety in “Independence Day”), the kung fu swordsmen of The Musketeer, any of the effects in Torque, 2Fast 2Furious, Rollerball, Bad Boys II…the list could go on for days. Too many action films are adopting this technology to create scenarios that not only defy plausibility, but are often just insulting to the viewer. Yes, movies are make-believe and we should expect hyper-reality, but if I see one more regular human being levitate in the air for over 8 seconds with CGI assistance (usually doing scissor-kicks), I’m going to be a little annoyed.
General Laziness: For far too many directors, CGI has become a crutch. Stunt kinda complicated – do it in CGI. Need a giant explosion – do it in CGI. Hairy monster – do it in CGI. Just because CGI can do these things, it doesn’t mean CGI is the best choice of technique. Stuntmen, pryo guys and Tom Savini gotta eat too. Speaking of which, CGI is also leading us to…
The Death Of “Cool” Makeup Effects: The days of Dick Smith, Rick Baker or Rob Bottin whipping up a crazy transformation are gone, my friends. Makeup FX have officially taken a backseat to the computer when it comes to mangling the human body these days. While the smarter filmmakers realize that makeup in conjunction with CGI is the more effective way to sell the illusion, most films today have no problem giving us digital bladder effects, face stretching, transformations, even blood. The marvel of these effects in the past was the lengths the makeup men had to go through to achieve their visions. As astute viewers we were aware of this, which made their accomplishments all the more impressive. Today, we know it’s just some mouse moves and pixels being manipulated – it’s harder to appreciate the blood, sweat and tears factor with CGI.
George Lucas: He may be leading the way technologically, but does he have to keep killing us with his gifts? His love of pixelated possibilities led to the Special Editions, which in turn has led some of his peers to “remix” their classic works as well, often to detrimental effect. Greedo shoots first thanks to CGI, which also brought us that classic moment when Han Solo steps on Jabba’s tail with no reprisal from the intergalactic equivalent of Don Corleone (because the scene wasn’t written that way originally – CGI let Lucas have some fun at the expense of the character and story). George’s CGI of course also gave us the greatest supporting character in the saga, Jar Jar Binks. Lucas’ latest works prove that all the CGI in the world can’t make up for missing film elements like plot, nuanced acting and respect for the audience. The new Star Wars films will be remembered for their technological merit more than their stories (much like most CGI-heavy films of recent years), and this brings us to the entire point of this diatribe:
You don’t use a hammer just because you have a hammer; you use a hammer when you need a hammer. It’s the right tool for a specific kind of job. And like a hammer, CGI is nothing more than a tool. Ultimately, the problem seems to be that too many filmmakers consider it the ONLY tool, instead of just one more cog in the machine of movie-making. CGI’s biggest burden is its own overuse. Used effectively, it’s the best magic wand for movies ever invented. In the wrong hands, it’s no more convincing than a second-rate FMV of a low-budget videogame. And without a good story, acting, directing and all the other elements, it’s just a fancy light show that gets boring pretty quick.
To end with another old adage, “Just because one can do a thing does not mean one should do a thing”: something today’s filmmakers might want to remember once in a while.
Use it when you should, not just because you can.
Mike Robinson is the webmaster of DetroitBumps.Com and wonders what the hell ever happened to Go-Motion.




Posted on May 10, 2004 in Features by
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