Special effects have been a part of film since the very beginning. The very idea of organizing a series of slightly different images and playing them in quick succession to establish the illusion of movement in the eye of the viewer is in itself something of a special effect. Eadweard Muybridge*, you sly dog, you.
Film is merely still pictures dancing through time and it still fools us. French magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies, took the medium a step further. Let’s play further tricks on the audience’s mind, he thought. His early films featured expanding body parts, human disintegration, dancing specters, explosions, and much imagination. Melies’ most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, features one of the most iconic screen images: that of a rocketship wedged in the eye of the man in the moon. This image, although considered crudely realized to some by today’s standards, is still a magical special effect and gets the fantastical point across loud and clear.
J. Stuart Blackton is credited as being one of the first people to use stop-motion animation special effects, using the technique as early as 1898.
To conjure the extinct relics of eons past, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien used tiny figures to create the gargantuan prehistoric terrors of The Lost World (1925) and the infamous beasts and creatures from King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Ray Harryhausen would become one of the most famous and prolific of all stop-motion effects maestros of the 20th century, with credits including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the Sinbad adventure movies. Other effects teams would use puppets, or men in suits, or (the oddest of all) real lizards with bonnets and spikes glued to their bodies to create dinosaurs and monsters from other worlds. Irwin Allen must have been on something.
Before the advent of computerized special effects technology, earth was invaded by flying saucers; Godzilla stomped Tokyo; the thief of Bagdad rode a flying carpet, was aided by a monstrous djini, and fought a giant spider; Darth Vader dominated the galaxy only to be defeated by Luke Skywalker and the rebel alliance; blade runners pursued replicants; archaeologist, Indiana Jones, battled
Nazis and supernatural relics; Robbie the Robot made beer; Kubrick showed us the year 2001; Moses parted the Red Sea (twice!); E.T. got stranded on earth; Marty McFly went back to the future; Linda Blair did neck twists; Ben-Hur entered a magnificent chariot race (also twice!); the Ghostbusters got steady slime sleuthing work; Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life; Fritz Lang built a Metropolis; a murderous alien held a small group hostage in the north pole (twice!); Roger Rabbit shook Eddie Valiant’s hand; we journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea (at least twice); the Blues Brothers crashed hundreds of cop cars; and Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did their own stunts. Everything had to be carefully thought out and done and you knew a lot of thought went into it. There was no magic bullet to answer all the problems of how to achieve the impossible on screen. Before CGI if you saw it on screen you knew it was real somewhere. Perhaps smaller, perhaps less shiny in real life, but something occupied real space. Probably still in some freaky prophouse.
One of my grievances with the overuse of computer-generated special effects is just that: overuse. It seems to create this shortcut to the magic and for me the magic has rarely been more convincing this new way. Shortcuts are not in themselves bad, but they can be used too much. So many films to come out in the past few decades seemed to be leaning a little too much on this readily available tool. Stephen Sommers’ movies like The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004) and Michael
Bay’s Transformers movies (2007, 2009, 2011) are exhausting to watch. Too much wispy, plastic, pristine CGI crammed into the seams. Maybe Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) worked a little bit better because we weren’t always focused on them and there were enough scale models and interesting characters to pull us in. But then think on the suspenseless cartooniness of The Hobbit (2013, 2014 so far) movies. The CG is better, but now it’s used even more than in The Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t know about you, but too much special effects sucks me out of the action.
In addition to just being poorly written, acted, directed, etc. the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) are overloaded with CGI special effects. My brain can’t take it all at once. I remember watching Episode I in the theaters and just being baffled at why Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon. It seems there’s just less imagination when all of the questions can be answered by computers. It’s convenient one-stop shopping and that means any bozo can get at the goodies. Which is not to say that the artists behind the new trends are less gifted. The best in the business, like always, are spectacular treasures to be celebrated.
Older techniques were used sparingly and had to be incorporated more innovatively because they were expensive, difficult, and sometimes might not always be convincing. Had they been cheaper and overused and overstuffed then perhaps we would see them in the same light as we do bombastic CGI overuse.
Perhaps my biggest grievance from the latest special effects trend is that CGI has eclipsed so many other means to create the illusions I love. I miss matte paintings, backlighting, stop-motion, and puppets. I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), but imagine if all the creatures were CG. I couldn’t imagine it being nearly as creepy or gritty. Imagine Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) the same way. If Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1985) were made today you can bet they wouldn’t build a real boat and drag over a mountain (probably less people would have died too). And you can forget Akira Kurosawa’s torching of an entire castle set for Ran (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky burning down a house twice for The Sacrifice (1986).
Why did Lucas feel the need to make a Star Wars: Special Edition (which, you may notice, highlights some extremely poorly aged CGI special effects juxtaposed with the old puppets and prosthetics that still look pretty great today)? And why did Spielberg screw around with E.T. by injecting the already wonderfully expressive face with cartoonish CG “enhancements?” I’m with Quentin Tarantino on this one: CGI car crashes are boring and ugly. Where’s the grit? I like grit in my movies. I love the asymmetry and dirt and dimension. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) blows Time Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) out of the water (though that probably wasn’t too hard). CGI may be cheaper and easier, but it’s less fun to look at for me personally. Maybe it is simply a love affair for glorious expensive excess on my part, but if it is excess they wish to throw at me I’d like it to at least be real and have true substance. That’s what I’m paying for.
Maybe it’s me but I just could not find the appeal of Avatar (2009).
It all really boils down to personal preference, I guess. CGI very often looks cartoony to me. I feel more detached by the illusion because I just know that deep down nothing happened. When a digital spaceship blows up there’s nothing for me to cling to. When a three-dimensional model of a spaceship blows up it’s thrilling to me because something that had actual matter has been destroyed (and my brain knows the difference). I like the character and texture of the older special effects. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, but film is about aesthetics.
In the end all special effects do the same thing. They try to fool us into believing the impossible but today’s cynical audience isn’t fooled by any process. We will always know when it’s fake. A CGI Godzilla or King Kong doesn’t fool me more than a rubber suit or stop-motion miniature…yet I admire the pioneering craft more in the old-fashioned processes. Some have told me that “old” special effects are dated and cheesy. This can be the case sometimes, but bad puppets and prosthetics can be charming. Bad CGI doesn’t hold that same charm for me. The creatures manufactured through special effects (CG or otherwise) are never going to trick us into believing they’re real off the screen. But something from the Jim Henson’s workshop has a rather unique mystique in that it might still be around but dormant in some old warehouse and the creatures from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) are simply confined to some digital space on several computers. Return of the Jedi’s (1983) Rancor and the giant scorpion from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) seem more real and interesting to me than most of the digital monsters thrown at audiences today.
It’s not that I’m against technological progress (entirely), but I do think it might be appropriate to question it and reminisce on the magical times shared between traditional effects. When Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) came out, people were dazzled by the stained-glass window knight that sprung to life because of CGI. Jurassic Park (1993) works splendidly as it is, combining digital effects with life-size animatronics, but that was back when CGI was new and exciting and used sparingly to fill in the gaps that would be too difficult to produce another way. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) and Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) worked great too but today CGI can come off as a bit of a cheap crutch and its novelty is gone. . . for me at least. Imagine if Burton’s Wonderland was made with every digital character done via stop-motion (this was what a lot of us thought it was going to be a few years back). It’s a personal preference, but the aesthetic of CGI sometimes runs the risk of being flat and boring. I don’t like my movies to look like video games. I like it more real and present. Remember, for every filmmaker who utilizes the latest technologies afforded to him with cunning and craft there are countless hacks who butcher the blessings and produce lackluster products with meaningless, artless piffle.
Consider this: the original Clash of the Titans (1981) feels personal like classic Ray Harryhausen whereas the 2010 remake looks and feels like every recent bad overblown Hollywood special effects extravaganza.
I don’t hate CGI. I think there are plenty of times when it is effective and cool, but as it becomes cheaper and more accessible I see more and more of it and the spectacle it once was is no more. It’s ho-hum and standard now. A lot of new films have become visually boring because of their over-reliance on CGI. And special effects should never be boring.
We will never have the time back when movie magic was largely a mystery. Studios used to be cagey and not like to reveal how the illusions were done. Now every movie comes with at least a few documentaries on how it was all done. Jaws (1975) may be a clunky robot shark, but we get that it’s a big, scary shark and that’s all the film needs it to do. A CG shark could be just as distracting (consider 1999′s Deep Blue Sea). Would Spartacus’ army be more believable as a CGI onslaught or as flesh and blood actors as they are in the 1960 film?
Is it bad to know how the trick is done? No. Not if your a magician. But the audience likes to be fooled. They like to keep guessing and looking for the seams. At least I do.
What do other people think? I’m curious. Am I just too old-fashioned and finicky for my own good? What movies get you? What are some of your favorite movie special effects?
[update] Here’s an interesting effects reel for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Mixes a few different techniques quite effectively, I think. http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/watch-impressive-vfx-reel-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-20140428
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 5, 2010.