Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Longing for the Real

Released this month was The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, which is an attractive -- and very expensive -- book by J.W. Rinzler that includes, among other things, photographs of the actual sets and props used in making the 1980 film. I don't own the book myself, but Vanity Fair has some images from the book on their website, including the one above.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I miss the days when movies didn't make extensive use of computer generated images. I believe that one of the reasons the original Star Wars holds up so well after more than 3o years is that it looks real, which, of course, it was. I mean, they actually built a life-size Millennium Falcon for that movie and there were sound stages turned into huge sections of the Death Star. And let's not forget all the amazing model work and the actors who actually donned makeup and masks in order to lend solidity to the alien beings they portrayed. They just don't make movies like that anymore.

Now, lest anyone think I'm a total Luddite, I think there is a place for CGI. I just don't think it ought to be the whole show. I was completely unimpressed with Avatar, which, while pretty, felt even more hollow than Lucas's prequels. The Lord of the Rings movies, especially the battle scenes, have not held up well at all and, to my biased eyes, already look dated and they're not even a decade old yet. Human beings are rightly enamored of technology, but it should always be used as a tool with which to create, not the creation itself. Too many movie makers nowadays seem to have forgotten that and the result is that it's rare that I see films I can genuinely believe I'll still be watching in 5 years time, let alone 30.

35 comments:

  1. Guillermo del Toro is probably the best example of somebody who's got the ratio of real to CG about right.

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  2. "lest anyone think I'm a total Luddite..."

    I would doubt a total Luddite would have a blog on teh interwebs.

    I also agree with your thoughts on Avatar. For a movie that billed itself as being immersive, I was very aware I was watching a movie. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think you get my meaning. Aside from the special effects, any film that uses the word "unobtanium" within the first 10 minutes to be a fictional element has just asked me to clock out.

    @blizack Guillermo del Toro is awesome.

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  3. Put the OD&D down and step away from the table. Star Wars isn't real, James.

    On a more serious note, Apocalypto has the best CG-to-set ratio of any recent movie.

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  4. Crappy CGI has become the contemporary equivalent of visible wires and zippers down the back of the monster suit. Only with less charm.

    Sadly, it seems like we're seeing kind of a vicious cycle. The craftsmen who create the miniatures, matte paintings, and creature makeup effects are becoming more expensive as they become rarer, priced out of the lower budget market by the relatively cheap cost of hiring a couple young turks up on the latest modeling software (but not really grounded in the visual arts, which is a rant of mine for my own dime) and renting space on a render farm. What was once high end, cutting edge has become the new cheapass.

    I was actually impressed by how much in camera, creature makeup, and miniature work went into the LotR movies, but WETA has become the new top of the line effects house, on a par with ILM, in my opinion. This is in terms of "street cred" or whatever, not necessarily of quality.

    Digital effects should clean up or enhance practical effects, not replace them.

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  5. I'm with James on the LoTR films, I'm afraid. The battle scenes are terrible, and even outside the battle scenes the limited color palette (yes, I'm aware of why it was limited)and similarity of designs give all the orcs and goblins and what not a sort of bland sameness that only seems to get worse as the films progress.

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  6. FWIW, I think Avatar's failing had nothing to do with the visuals (hence, not a poor use of CG), if anything it was more the story itself (which wasn't nearly as bad as half the stuff out there already). Avatar was over-hyped for sure, but Cameron delivered on the totally alien environment.

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  7. I've got really mixed feelings about CGI. When I first saw Jurassic Park at the cinema, I thought the dinos looked awesome, whereas now they look like cartoons to me. The same is true of most of the CGI in the LOTR movies, although I still like a lot of the underlying art direction in those films.

    I did enjoy the CGI elements of Terminator II which marks a major early milestone in development of the technology. I also quite like its use in The Matrix.

    I agree with your observations about Star Wars but also think that the prequels, with or without CGI, simply don't measure up to the earlier films artistically.

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  8. Hey James, not sure if you hit upon this topic yourself, but if it was via other blogs, then you should probably provide a link as part of the ongoing discussion. Just the polite thing to do. http://beyondtheblackgate.blogspot.com/ brought this topic up yesterday, for example.

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  9. I'd like to second the point above about the LOTR films. A huge amount of stuff went into those films and much of it was actual practical special effects, costumes, make-up, and sets. The miniatures unit was working all the time on those films.

    Fair enough about the battle scenes, but I'm still happy top watch them. The Pellinore Fields in RoTK do sometimes look noticeable CGI, but I'd say Helm's Deep holds up better (which is probably due to the smaller number of CG shots).

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  10. Hey James, not sure if you hit upon this topic yourself, but if it was via other blogs, then you should probably provide a link as part of the ongoing discussion. Just the polite thing to do. http://beyondtheblackgate.blogspot.com/ brought this topic up yesterday, for example.

    Thanks for the heads-up, although I hadn't in fact seen the discussion over on Al's blog till now. I've been so busy lately, as my reduced output should make plain, that I really haven't kept up with the blogs and forums in several weeks outside of a few things others have directed me toward.

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  11. @ Aos

    Despite the rhetoric thrown around in the making of documentaries, I've always found that the equipment for everyone in the LotR movies looks mass produced. It's one of my least favorite things about those movies.

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  12. I think the worst thing about CGI is that it actually warps the scripts. So, for example, while Frank Oz was Yoda, he was an awesome pacifist "wars not make anyone great" sage.

    With CGI, he wields a tiny lightsaber and runs away from Palpatine.

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  13. @Barrataria

    I heartily concur with this. Butt kickin' Yoda totally destroys the aged Zen master concept the character was presented as in Empire. He should be a philosopher and teacher, powerful in the force despite his lack of combat ability.

    Yoda with a lightsaber doing awesome backflips is a punchline to a joke, and yet Lucas went ahead and did it in complete seriousness...

    Feh.

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  14. Computers, I think, are great for compositing stuff, editing stuff and calculating stuff. Writing your screenplay and cutting your checks.

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  15. I think CGI should only be used when its absolutely neccesary to acomplish something that can't otherwise be done with real sets and props.
    Bigfella's dead on with the comment about cheap CGI being the contemporary version of exposed wires and zippers. Just look at the boat load of crappy "SYFY Originals" clogging that joke of a channel.

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  16. I tend to be super grumpy and dislike most movies an almost all television. CGI has made it even worse for me. I can overlook cheap special effects and/or bad acting if the story is good, but something about CGI makes my skin crawl.

    I also miss matte paintings. Maybe they didn't always look "real", but they could be heart achingly beautiful.

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  17. I loved the LotR films at the time, but the cgi does look dodgy nowadays, and it's a shame. That may be why I'm still fond of the first one, which has fairly limited cgi business going on.

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  18. I'm wondering how this squares with your love of Harryhausen's work... do we think this era of CGI won't attract the same love in years to come because we dislike it today, or because we think it's intrinsically and truly less charming?

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  19. CGI reached its apogee in "Tron", or possibly "Max Headroom". It's all been downhill from there into the current sump of lazy storytelling and cartoony suck and fail inhabited by the SW prequels, "Transformers", "300" and "Clash of the Titans".

    "Physical FX or GTFO!" - I call it the Harryhausen creed.

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  20. In LOTR : FoR, the 'Watcher in the Water' sequence, especially the creature itself looks like a half-finished CGI test now.

    And CGI in Apocalypyo was truly great, it was a spice added, not the main attraction.

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  21. "Guillermo del Toro is probably the best example of somebody who's got the ratio of real to CG about right."

    I dunno, Hellboy 2 over did it, I thought. The tooth fairies to the golden army itself. And the giant CGI weed monster.

    I thought Iron Man was pretty well-done.

    What gets me about CGI is that they always make the CGI things move WAY too quickly. They fly and bounce around like weightless superballs, in a way that was never the case with stop-motion. I assume it's in part because a CGI model can cover a lot of 'ground' more easily than a maquette on a stand.

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  22. I don't think the problem is the CGI, I work in them so maybe I'm biased. But the problem is that scripts. The best thing about CGI is that indy-film makers can now make Sci-fi and fantasy films, previously the province of major studios:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8JpdND--g8

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  23. At the time they were made, I've no doubt that the Star Wars movies were considered to be blasting a shoddy plot away with high-tech special effects.

    The problem isn't CGI, it's "special effects as crutch," whether those special effects are people talking (in the 20s) or computers talking (in the 90s). After all, anime is based entirely on animation and/or cgi and is well capable of delivering "the real."

    All special effects forms look dated at some point - the sinbad the sailor special effects looked dated compared to the work in Star Wars, for example. Movies are a workbench, which is why your criticism of LoTR is way too harsh. You just can't say that LoTR was imaginatively hobbled by its use of CGI, and neither was Avatar.

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  24. To add to that, I agree with Daniel, the problem is scripts. I remember watching a battle scene in the first of the new "Star Wars" movies, and thinking "you could have made this about 3 seconds shorter and spent the money you saved on a script writer." The new movies could have had just as much CGI and been 10 times better if the director could, you know, direct and stuff.

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  25. Despite the rhetoric thrown around in the making of documentaries, I've always found that the equipment for everyone in the LotR movies looks mass produced.

    I'd have to agree. They didn't look right to me even back when I was still enamored of the films and I find them even less convincing now.

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  26. I also miss matte paintings. Maybe they didn't always look "real", but they could be heart achingly beautiful.

    It's a lost art form. I understand why their use faded away, of course, but I agree that there was some superb work done using matte paintings.

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  27. That may be why I'm still fond of the first one, which has fairly limited cgi business going on.

    Of the three, Fellowship of the Ring still holds up the best and I personally think that's because it's still the one that's closest to Tolkien in both letter and spirit. There's a lot less indulgence in it by Jackson and company to "fix" the story and it makes for a better film (even if I still cringe at the reduction of Merry and Pippin to buffoons).

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  28. I'm wondering how this squares with your love of Harryhausen's work... do we think this era of CGI won't attract the same love in years to come because we dislike it today, or because we think it's intrinsically and truly less charming?

    I don't know if I would say CGI is "intrinsically" less charming, but I have noticed that there's a much greater tendency nowadays to dismiss earlier examples of a technology as "primitive" and therefore unworthy of continued appreciation. Whether this will translate into no one having any fondness for, say, Avatar in 20 years, I have no idea.

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  29. I dunno, Hellboy 2 over did it, I thought. The tooth fairies to the golden army itself. And the giant CGI weed monster.

    Of course, Hellboy 2 suffered from many other problems too, such as its very weak plot, so it wasn't necessarily the CGI that made it inferior to its predecessor in my opinion.

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  30. But the problem is that scripts.

    No question. I don't mean to suggest that there's nothing worthwhile in using and developing CGI, but it seems that, in the last few years especially, it's been treated as a panacea for every ill in a movie.

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  31. James Maliszewski said...

    I also miss matte paintings. Maybe they didn't always look "real", but they could be heart achingly beautiful.
    It's a lost art form. I understand why their use faded away, of course, but I agree that there was some superb work done using matte paintings.


    Their use hasn't "faded away" at all. Here are a few from Revenge of the Sith at Dusso's site.

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  32. I agree with Jonhendry2. CGI always loses me when it ignores the laws of physics. At that point, it may as well be a cartoon. The first point that I fealt LOTR jumped the shark was when Legolas jumped on top of the moving warg. It just looked completley wrong. Then came the whole mess of Aragorn falling over the cliff. I just about walked out at that point.

    Nevertheless, LOTR definitely would have been much more over the top if they had gone the SW prequel route and relied completely on cg.

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  33. SW didn't rely completely on CG. The prequels used more sets, models and matte paintings than the originals.

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  34. True the Lucas used what was available to him at the time, and also SW was not the behemoth it is now. Some film makers know how to use CGI, so it does not overwhelm the film or story. Look at Apollo 13. Alot of CGI, but it used to paint the background.

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  35. Sometimes I feel in the minority. I liked the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings, but that's about it. The films were eye candy, but ponderous and preposterous at the same time. I wanted to see more of Tolkien's ideas, and less of Peter Jackson's.

    And I liked Avatar. It was a fun romp, and some of it reminded me of some of the older sci-fi that I read when I was younger -- the stuff out of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The scenes with the scientists just had that "feel" to them. The CGI pretty well blew me away.

    That being said, the best CGI to date is done by fan productions and guerrilla theater. The Purchase Brothers' Escape from City 17 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKffQO2UZBE&feature=channel) and the Cawley Productions' Star Trek Phase II (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHL36D5c9Dw&feature=related) stand as some of the best CGI I've seen, without sacrificing story.

    I think most of the CGI we object to is because the story is crap. The new Star Wars films simply feel empty. The Fifth Element, as campy as it was, gave me more fun than the last three Star Wars films combined.

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