The Glory Days of Practical Effects
When I first moved to Hollywood and started working in the Special Effects Industry in 1996, there was a general rule that all effects artists judged their work by: If it looks like an effect, you failed. We strived to make things life like, and no dime was spared in the endeavor. Model Makers would build huge “miniatures” so that they could squeeze as much detail as possible into them. Prosthetics builders would spend days reading anatomy text books to make things that were not only realistic, but plausible as well. Cinematographers would study effects to find the best ways to light them to hide any imperfections, Matte painters would paint scenes that rivaled the greatest painters in history. Special Effects Cinema was truly art.
The Computers Took Over
In the late 1990’s, the digital revolution took over Hollywood. Soon, I began to hear non-filmmakers use phrases like “That Movie has great computer effects”. This phrase would make me shudder to my core. All I could think was that if Joe Average knew that it was a computer effect… it was a horrible effect. But as time wore on, the computer effects became better. As the ignorant sons and daughters of Hollywood producers soon became the new generation of Hollywood producers, The mindset of hiring a Special Effects Artist to figure out how to best do the effects was soon replaced by the idea of hiring a digital effects company to do them. Soon, even effects that would be far cheaper and more realistic created in the real world began to be made in the digital world instead.
Below is a great youtube video about the creation of a pivotal scene in the 1984 John Carpenter film “The Thing”. We can see how the culmination of the artistic teams work creates a very realistic scene. The gore is incredible, the lighting is moody, and reveals only what we need to see, and the performances and direction are spot on.
In comparison to the above scene, below is a transformation from the 2011 remake / prequel of The Thing. Although there is a bit of prosthetics used (as you can see in the adjacent making of clip,) the majority of this transformation is a computer effect. It looks unrealistic. The Cinematographers choice to shoot it in bright, flat light, and the actors obvious inability to react to something that is not really there help to expose this as a bad effect. (as a defense to both artists, the bright flat look may have been a requirement of the computer effects team, and the actors may not have known what was actually going to happen in the finished product making a realistic reaction impossible.)
Are all CGI Effects Bad?
I don’t mean to sound like a computer effect hater here. There are some very good computer effects. The trick is figuring out when to use them. I think this is the responsibility of the Effects Supervisor more then the producer or director (although they should have their input as well. Ultimately, the effect to be used should be the effect that will look the best on screen. And the person who knows best what that will be should be your department head. If a producer or director does not have the faith in their department head to make that decision, then nobody else on the cast or crew will have faith that the producer or director is capable of making good decisions (they did, after all, hire the person they have so little faith in).
Space Station Model image courtesy of Gene Young Effects