Oh, for FX sake – March 2013

Originally published on the now defunct Newcastle Free Press website. Link unavailable.

 

Despite my reservations about its increasing overuse in mainstream cinema, I do not generally have a problem with CGI. I appreciate (and am grateful for) the fact that some directors will not use animation unless it is absolutely necessary, and even some films that feature it heavily can be incredible to watch. Life of Pi, which won Oscars for both Cinematography and Visual Effects among others, is a perfect example of this – despite the perplexing fact that the amazingly talented VFX company that worked on the film, ‘Rhythm & Hues’, has since filed for bankruptcy. Or Andy Serkis’ on-screen alter ego, Gollum; brilliantly done in The Lord of the Rings and a show stealer in The Hobbit. When used in the right way, in combination with a good story, it can be eye-wateringly beautiful and enhance the overall experience.

Incidentally, it’s not my intention to overlook the plight of visual effects artists in the industry, and it certainly shouldn’t be as brazenly ignored as the ‘Rhythm & Hues’ protest outside of the Oscars ceremony was. But, to be blatantly honest, it’s not something I know vast amounts about. A friend of mine works for a prominent VFX company in London (he occasionally texts me to brag about what films he’s working on) and I know that he works insanely hard. This is apparently quite common; long ‘crunch’ periods of 14 hour days, 6 days a week, doing very complex work. I don’t know how he does it. But he has to. They all have to. For me, it’s slightly mind-boggling that people who work that hard to produce stuff like Life of Pi or Lord of the Rings are struggling to get paid.

So then, CGI can be pretty incredible. I only have an issue with it when it is used needlessly. Where it serves no purpose other than simply being there. You find this misuse in many films, though one in particular springs immediately to mind; namely in I Am Legend. The film started out so promisingly; the image of Times Square devoid of people but bustling with wildlife was a brilliant opener. But then the badly realised digital not-vampires showed up and all sense of immersion was lost. They just looked dreadful. Interestingly, Ridley Scott was originally attached to this title and had gone so far as to option a number of practical effect creature designs, as demonstrated by a recently surfaced make-up test from StudioADI (see here for the animatronic option).

What is even more infuriating is when big exponents and pioneers of practical effects succumb to the temptation of animation over doing it in real life. Apart from Gollum, this was what made The Hobbit slightly disappointing (for me anyway). Considering Peter Jackson’s background and the incredible effects work seen in Lord of the Rings, the lack of model shots and an over-reliance on virtual sets and green screen was clearly visible in An Unexpected Journey. I concede that this may have been because of the 3D, the forced perspective techniques and in-camera work from LotR probably wouldn’t have worked. But to me, and doubtlessly to the rest of you, that’s really not a good enough reason. It’s not like people were seeing it for the 3D alone. All this is particularly distressing as Jackson started out making brilliant slapstick ‘splatter horror’ movies; if you haven’t seen his 1992 flick Braindead (or Dead Alive if you happen to be American) then I highly recommend it. It’s not for the faint-hearted, mind.

The same goes for the Wachowskis. The Matrix was visually stunning without an overuse of CGI; the martial arts elements were incredibly choreographed, the wire work was impressive to say the least and the majority of the stand out scenes were achieved with minimal use of computer imagery. ‘Bullet time’ photography was a legitimately brilliant innovation that became fairly widely used (albeit mostly outside of film making proper) after the film’s debut. Everyone remembers that iconic rooftop scene, and I personally think it has yet to be topped in terms of visuals. Then the sequels happened… not only did the scripts go completely off the philosophical deep end, but all that amazing work they had done in the first instalment was squandered by some truly atrocious – and completely pointless – CGI.

There is one horrendous scene from Reloaded of Neo flying that zooms in on his face in slo-mo, and the animation is absolutely appalling. Also see sections of the (many) fight scenes, that bit with the ‘ghosts’ and the apocalyptic climax in the final film. It looked like Christopher Nolan had adapted an episode of Dragon Ball Z. It wasn’t even the ‘Uncanny Valley’ problem – which, as I’m sure many of you know, is based on the rule that the more realistic an animated figure is the creepier and more soulless they look – it’s just bad CGI.

My final example… look, I am still not going to talk about the Star Wars prequels… but I think that this picture says more about them than I ever could:

Behold, a man who bet on the winning horse and somehow still lost.

Behold, a man who bet on the winning horse and somehow still lost.

 

So, is that it for practical effects? Will they be forced to yield to the oncoming hoard of computer generated characters? Well, thankfully, there are still people who would prefer to remain in reality. At the advice of my editor, I searched out the creature effects video for the recent re-imagining of The Thing. I confess I haven’t seen the remake yet, mostly because I am a big fan of the original, but there are some incredible designs and technology on display here that have definitely swayed me. I had hoped to end this piece by saying something encouraging about Guillermo del Toro and his consistent use of elaborate and amazing looking costumes as well as wire work and animatronics (see Blade 2, Hellboy 1 and 2, Pan’s Labyrinth etc.).

Then I remembered his recent work, in which giant robots have punch ups with gargantuan sea- monsters, is in post-production…

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