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?

March 10, 2010

A possible explanation of why older people laugh at all the wrong parts of movies

Recently I was sitting in a theater, groaning to myself as I sat through yet another movie where the middle-aged to old people in the audience were laughing at all the wrong things. When I say wrong, I don't mean it like "You have no sense of humor if you don't laugh at the Blue Collar Comedy Tour!" but rather "I can deduce from my higher cognitive functioning that what we just witnessed on screen was not designed to elicit laughter." Sometimes things in a drama or horror film that are meant as serious become so silly that people end up laughing, but this was something different. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was very frustrated and annoyed by the (at least) middle-aged people who laughed uproariously at the appearance of a toilet in A Single Man. I will restate for emphasis that Colin Firth was sitting on the toilet merely because it was the place in his house that offered a key view of his neighbor's backyard. There was absolutely no joke. So anyway, as I was sitting there, I for some reason had a brain flash where I remembered an article I had read years ago that could explain this phenomenon. I looked it up and found not one but two studies were done to this effect. So, the reason?

People lose the ability to comprehend humor as they age.

You can read the articles here and here, but here's the broad strokes. First of all, as one of the articles clarifies, older adults experience no decrease in their appreciation of humor. If they get the joke, they still laugh and enjoy it. Where it gets tricky is humor comprehension, which one of the authors defines as "the ability to cognitively or intellectually understand humorous material, which may be assessed by the ability of the responder to select appropriate punch lines to jokes or provide appropriate logical reasoning as to why a stimulus is humorous." Here's an example: say I provide you with two statements and ask you to pick which one is supposed to be funny. The statements are:

Marriage isn't a word, it's a sentence!
I got married last June.

Now, even if you don't actually find the first statement funny, you can understand that it is designed to be humorous. That's the ability that decreases as people get older. So when those theater patrons laughed at the toilet, they probably genuinely believed that it was supposed to be a joke.

I'm taking some leaps of logic here in applying research from written statements and drawings to films, but I feel that it makes sense and can help explain a lot. So next time you are stuck in a theater with hyena-like elderly patrons, just pat them on the back and say you're sorry for their brain decay. Kidding!

March 9, 2010

Context-free delight #2

With African-American entertainers so often sidelined, even today, it's great that the incredible dancing duo of the Nicholas Brothers got their share of screen time back in the 30s and 40s. If the clips of them dancing weren't so old, I might cry foul and say it was all CG. I wanted to post a clip of them from The Pirate where they dance alongside Gene Kelly and keep narrowly avoiding lighting their asses on fire from nearby candles, but some buzzkill took the clips off YouTube. Instead I have what I feel is a very suitable consolation prize - their crazy awesome dance number from the otherwise rather mediocre Stormy Weather (1943). In addition to their mad tap-dancing skills, they seem to possess an almost superhuman ability to NOT INJURE THEIR BALLS. If you can't take three whole minutes out of your day, skip to 2:27 to see where it really gets insane.