March 17, 2010
RIP practical effects?
A few months ago (and yes admittedly there is a huge lag between when I generate ideas for posts and when I complete them), I watched both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (the Soderbergh remake) in the same week. I was struck by something watching both of these films in a short span of time - the shots of spaceships in 2001 look way better than those in Solaris. How can this be possible? How can a film made over forty years ago look more realistic than one made seven years ago? Not only more realistic, actually, but really, really realistic on its own merit? (And yes, Solaris is more of a drama than a sci-fi film, but it still takes place mostly in space and thus I am still holding it accountable for its spaceships.)
The spaceships (and other floating space-themed objects) in 2001 look like you can reach out and touch them, because, well, you can. They're miniatures. They exist in real life. The spaceship in Solaris, on the other hand, never existed in real life because it's computer-generated, so it lacks that tactile quality.
Or how about the many still impressive effects in Alien? The chestburster - a puppet! A puppet accompanied by high-pressure blood squibs and lots of goo. And maybe its movements are a little clunky, but you never doubt for a second that that thing is in that room, bursting out of its victim. And let's not forget about the menu from hell - everything from pasta to caviar to tripe (cow stomach) was used for other various effects. And of course the big alien - it seems almost quaint now to think that it was just an elaborate costume worn by a super-tall Nigerian dude. If the movie were being made today, probably everything would have been CG. But would it have looked better? I doubt it.
We're losing the "touchability" of our monsters and spaceships. I'm not sure I've ever seen CG create something that feels like it was really there. I'm worried that the glorious gooey-ness of aliens and the weight of our robots might be fading.
I'm not saying that CG should never be used - I think it has some great applications. Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, for example, is something that would have just been absurd without the current technology. Seriously, what would they have done for the version that was kicking around in the 90s - paint someone blue? I'm almost glad the movie was in development hell for so long so the proper tools could evolve. Dr. Manhattan doesn't look like you can reach out and touch him, but that's the point. Ghostly or gooey things are the ideal application for CG - in fact, the first completely computer-generated thing on film was the water tentacle from The Abyss (read: silver watery goo that forms different shapes). And that was sweet.
I guess what I don't understand is why CG's invention caused the near-death of practical effects. Why can't they be used in harmony? They occasionally are, such as in The Dark Knight, but more often than not, filmmakers just become lazy and use CG for completely unnecessary things, like sand. I'm not talking about the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 - obviously you're gonna need it for that - but my boyfriend reports that in G.I. Joe, a helicopter ride over a desert reveals a weirdly shiny, CG desert. Seriously. I can only explain it by either laziness, or some compulsion by filmmakers to use only the newest technology, even if it's not better. Models and costumes just aren't "cool" anymore, so why would you bother if you have a lot of money? It's whatever compelled George Lucas to go back and tinker with the original Star Wars films. Maybe the fact that you can do literally anything with CG makes it sort of addictive - just ask James Cameron.
I think practical effects feel more real and immediate because you more or less had to figure out how to make something happen in real life. I was watching a featurette on the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, and they were explaining how they did an effect to mimic an invisible creature's footsteps in the sand (aka footsteps appear, but you don't see anyone making them). They basically rigged up a system where they would yank footstep-shaped devices out from under the sand. So essentially, footsteps really are appearing with no visible cause. Or an alien really is bursting out of someone's chest (a dummy, but still). I feel that films like Avatar will ultimately age poorly because we're really still only at the dawn of the computer effects age. It evolves so fast that some CG from only a few years ago looks lame now. But as silly as it sounds, you can't really argue with a really well-designed puppet, and so films like Alien and 2001 look timeless
So I guess for every time I groan at an overly CG-ed movie, there's something nice on DVD to keep me warm at night, and for that I am grateful. The golden age of practical effects can live on forever, and maybe some smart filmmakers (like Christopher Nolan) will inspire a renaissance.
What do you think? Am I being overly nostalgic here, or is there really a je-ne-sais-quoi to practical effects? What are you favorite practical effects films?