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Monday, January 3, 2011

The Good Old Days of Special Effects

Being a big fan of science fiction movies I see a lot of special effects flix.  Special effects can be a boon to a movie.  Looking at films like Star Wars or Tron, that were ahead of their day in what could be accomplished with film.  Star Wars using blue screen and miniatures to create a good deal of its effects, Tron being one of the first movies to pioneer CGI effects.  Star Wars I think really showed some of the amazing things that could be done with special effects.  Watching Tron now you find a film that has aged poorly, but I am sure at the time of its filming was pretty spectacular.  Amazing things can be done with the right special effects.

I think the best special effects are performed when a good mix of both miniatures and CGI is blended with the filming techniques.  You need something with substance though to give that solid effect.  Watching Lord of the Rings is a good example of this.  They blended so many different types of effects into that movie to get the look they were going for.  Using miniatures, mat paintings, automated dummies, computer effects, amazing prop and make up work.  It is just epic in its scale.

Unfortunately, George Lucas over the years distanced himself from miniatures and started to push forward the CGI angle.  He again did some pretty cool things with CGI, but it lost a lot of the realism I felt in the original trilogy.  You can just tell when something is CGI, and it never quite feels right.  I always am amused by the photo's contrasting Lucas' filming styles over the years.  One shows him in 1983 standing among all miniature models used in the films, the other shows him in 2005 standing in front of a green screen.

As the years go on though it seems the studios want to drop any actual work with real props and just go straight for the CGI equivalent.  Now this can be done quite effectively when you have the budget.  The Star Wars prequels are a good example of this.  As the effects get better it will be easier to do.  Avatar is a better example of this.  But when you do it in an attempt to just save money or to because you can't think of a clever way to put it off with makeup, miniatures, camera work, what have you, it can really detract from a movie.

The reason I am thinking about this is because I just finished watching the movie "The Expendables".  It was a blow 'em up action movie, so I didn't go into expecting an Oscar worthy movie.  For the most part it lived up to my expectations for it.  But one of my biggest qualms with the movie was the use of CGI for all of the effects.  CGI blood, fire, and what several times looked like CGI stunt people.  It was distracting, it was fake.  It seems to be a pattern in Stallone's movies these days as his most recent Rambo film went the same direction.

Now I have seen some of these techniques used effectively in movies.  300 and Sin City are examples of these.  But it was effective because it went with the look of the film.  The movies based of graphic novels and were filmed to play on that fact.  A look that some of the CGI blood and other effects complimented.  The Expendables and Rambo were shot to be more "realistic", "gritty", action films and the use of those techniques just came off as lazy and distracting.  Be creative, there are years of techniques to draw on to do that kind of effect work.

They don't need to go back to the days of no CGI, it would be waste of an amazing resource.  All I really want is for them to not forget their roots.  Amazing movies were shot without CGI.  Cool ass special effects have been done without CGI.  They need to remember that and use it.  That's all I want.  Just because you can do it with computers doesn't mean you should.  It's that whole "With great power comes great responsibility thing."

And after writing all of this rambling rant about the overuse and bad use of CGI I had one realization.  Christopher Nolan is my hero.

That is all.