Me, Myself, and CGI

moon trip

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—man in makeup, painted glass.

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.

metropolis

Metropolis (1927)—huge miniatures and impressive sets to match.

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.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)---composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)—composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

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.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)—miniatures and animated lasers.

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

Baron Prasil (1961)

Baron Prasil (1961)—hyper-stylized mixture of live-action, puppets, composite shots, in-camera tricks, stop-motion, and matte paintings.

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.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)—guy in suit.

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

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—miniatures and composite shots and maybe backlighting.

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.

Legend (1985)---makeup and prosthetics.

Legend (1985)—makeup and prosthetics.

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.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)—no special effect. Actually dragged a ferry over a mountain in the jungle.

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).

Safety Last (192

Safety Last (1923)—no special effect. Trick angle and safety mattress out of frame.

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).

Empire Strikes Back (1980)---miniatures and stop-motion.

Empire Strikes Back (1980)—miniatures and stop-motion.

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.

Jason and the Argonauts (19)---stop-motion miniatures composite.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—stop-motion miniatures composite.

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.

Hausu (1977)---composites, animations, etc.

Hausu (1977)—composites, animations, etc.

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.

Jurassic Park (1993)---large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Jurassic Park (1993)—large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

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.

The Two Towers (2002)---CGI

The Two Towers (2002)—CGI

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.

Lost in Space (1998)---CGI

Lost in Space (1998)—CGI

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.

Iron Robot Transmatrix Short Circuit: Bride of the Judgment Day…the Musical

endhiran8A friend had randomly sent me a link to some wild scenes from a crazy Kollywood  movie (Indian film in Tamil rather than Hindi which would be Bollywood). Instantly smitten with the footage, we sought out the complete movie almost immediately and watched it in all of its absurd 3-hour long glory. This was no pensive and delicate Satyajit Ray tragedy epic. This was S. Shankar’s Endhiran(2010).

endhiran6If you saw Slumdog Millionaire and think you know Indian cinema, guess again. As my title playfully hints, Endhiran (aka Robot) is a bloated, mismatched hodge-podge of the Matrix movies, the Iron Man movies, the Terminator movies and whole mess of other American science-fiction action fantasy flicks. At the time it was the most expensive movie made in India and, although it’s pretty dumb, I found it to be more fun and more innovative than half of the films it was ripping off, and I don’t say this much (as I generally dislike the current gimmick of 3D) but I kinda wish Endiran was in 3D.

endhiran5Where to begin? Popular Indian actor, Rajinikanth, plays Dr. Vaseegaran, a brilliant scientist with good intentions (always), who creates an amazing humanoid robot (also played by Rajinikanth) named Chitti Babu after the famous Indian veena musician. The robot is fast, strong, powerful, super-smart, magnetic, charismatic, knows kung fu, and has the ability to seemingly ignore the laws of physics when the action calls for it. Chitti falls in love with Dr. Vaseegaran’s fiance, Sana (played by the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai), and so the jealous doctor destroys him and then the android’s battered parts find their way into the hands of the evil Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa). Things go wrong and the new evil Chitti kidnaps Sana and makes hundreds of deadly powerful duplicates of himself. It is up to Dr. Vaseegaran to rescue Sana, stop Chitti, and set the world right again. It takes the film 3 hours to convey this plot.

endhiran10There are plenty of amusing subplots that happen along the way. Two bickering lab technicians who helped construct Chitti try to play tricks on him. Dr. Bohra tries to disgrace Dr. Vaseegaran. Chitti helps Sana cheat on her doctor’s exam (that actually worries me a little). Chitti has an in-depth conversation with a colony of mosquitoes to prove his love for Sana. He even rescues several people from a burning building (a la Spiderman) but things go wrong when he rescues one girl from the fire who happens to be naked and she runs out in front of a speeding bus to commit suicide out of shame. The little naked girl suicide really kinda shifted the mood of the film for me, but Chitti makes up for it by immediately delivering a baby! Another recurring theme is that Sana keeps getting near-raped by greasy dudes. Really though, all of these minor plot points and small character adventures take a back seat to the fun action sequences.

Endhiran2Rajinikanth does a fine job playing the naive doctor and the charming but rigid Chitti and then the evil Chitti and all his duplicates. At over 60 years old—in addition to having one of the biggest age differences between himself and his onscreen love interest since High Noon—he had to do a lot of running around for these dual roles (and then some). Aishwarya Rai is very lovely to look at and you can tell she seems to be having fun as the much sought-after damsel in distress. But the special effects! I must be honest that the special effects are actually pretty good (much better than a lot of Indian films I’ve seen), but that’s not what makes them so great: it is the imagination they use to choreograph the super-stylized action and effects. Srinivas Mohan, visual effects supervisor, had his work cut out for him as so many scenes are little more than huge kaleidoscopes of digital engineering. ILM and Stan Winston Studios also lent their effects expertise to the film and the results are quite impressive. There is an excellent car chase to rival Matrix Reloaded and a smashing sequence in which the evil Chitti duplicates join together to form a death ball, a giant snake, a drill, and a huge dude (among other things) that might give Matrix Revolutions a run its money. Machine guns, explosions, car chases, robots, sunglasses, talking mosquitos, and Aishwarya Rai are just a few reasons to check this film out.

endhiran4And what Bollywood/Kollywood film would be complete without some wild song and dance numbers? The film travels all over the world for the many zany music video sequences (why they seem to be singing about Mount Kilamanjaro whilst dancing in Machu Picchu is beyond me, but whatever). From an American point of view these sequences can seem like a huge waste of time, but I actually enjoyed them. It reminded me that Endhiran was from a different culture with different values than that of the land that brought us Transformers. It let me enjoy the poofy hair and unusual clothing even more. I liked listening to the music and watching all the wildly dressed extras and extravagant backgrounds. This movie was made to be a show and I’d say they succeeded. One note on all the musical numbers I have comes from cultural ignorance and it is this: if they hadn’t drastically changed the setting for every song I don’t think I would have been able to tell them apart.

endhiranI mentioned a few times earlier that this movie is 3 hours long. At first that number startled us. Having seen the trailer and a few clips I wasn’t sure how such a fluffy action movie could stand to go on for so long. Seven Samurai this was not. Having said that, I will further attest to the miracle of editing. Endhiran is so frenetically cut together that we were all bewildered when we realized that what felt like 15 minutes turned out to be an hour. The pacing of this freight train of a film is vigorous to say the least. It’s also a bit disorienting at times, but I’d say that just adds to the absurd experience of watching this thing. At the end—and it does end well—it felt more like 90 minutes and we found ourselves wanting even more mayhem. What started out as an endurance test for foreign oddity transmogrified into an extremely pleasurable afternoon of entertainment.

endhiran3Top 10 Reason to See Endhiran/Robot

1. Playing a quirky, charismatic, multi-faceted superhero at Rajinikanth’s age earns him mad Ron Perlman Hellboy points.

2. Aishwarya ain’t too shabby.

3. Despite the language barrier it’s got some great super-cool action movie lines.

4. If you’ve never seen a Kollywood/Bollywood movie this is as good a place as any to start.

5. They spent a lot of money on this garbage so help these guys out.

6. Chitti looks like an obscene amalgam of Johnny Cash, Jon Belushi, and Deep Roy. I liked that. Maybe you will too.

7. If you thought you’d seen it all, watch this to get humble again.

8. At times it approaches Kung Fu Hustle status for action ludicrousness.

9. It’s about as action-packed and insubstantial as Tony Jaa’s Ong bak: Muay Thai Warrior so you don’t have to think for 3 whole hours!

10. Robot death ball. Dot!

endhiran11Originally Published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 2, 2011

The Hulabaloo About Star Wars

A million other nerds have voiced their opinions, so why not I? Why not indeed.

I am nothing special (but you don’t really believe that). I grew up watching Star Wars and it has influenced my life very much, just like a lot of you folks. Our old VHS’s and taped off o’ television copies bear their wear-marks well. As a young boy obsessed with dinosaurs, monsters, robots, aliens, outer space, and, of course, ‘splosions, the Star Wars trilogy was a childhood wet-dream come true. It had it all and I loved it. I remember when the ‘special’ edition hit theaters. I saw them all, so happy to see my favorite characters all pristine and new like I had never seen before. I remember puzzling about some strikingly odd additions to the so-called ‘special’ edition. It featured some wonky and flat CGI. George Lucas may have given birth to modern special effects and all that, but us kids who had already seen Jurassic Park (not to mention the original theatrical releases of Star Wars) required a bit more by the time of the mid-90s. The ‘bonus’ effects by and large did not mesh well, but it was still Star Wars and I ate it up with a spoon, I did.

Then the infamous prequels started to hit theaters. We were initially baffled by the name, I admit. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Huh. That’s a tough double-m, but we were sure George Lucas knew what he was doing. Besides many of us had been waiting since before we were born for this momentous event. Anybody else remember hearing hushed murmurs that it sucked before it officially came out? My old school librarian was somehow always in the know of every new thing and she tipped us off. She must have read a lot or something.

But we all saw it anyway, didn’t we?

Remember that chill that shot straight down your spine to your feet and then bounced all the way back up to your brain along with all the blood in your body causing you to momentarily lose consciousness when that first brass blast of the unmistakable John Williams fanfare erupted in the dark theater? It was awesome. Remember when you started to read the little spiel before the movie and thinking to yourself, “am I gonna be smart enough for this? What’s all this stuff about embargoes and Trade Federations and oil tariffs and 27B-6’s?” Remember being distracted by how shallow and plastic everything looked and how easy it all was for a jedi to fight an onslaught of death robots? Remember that big battle between those incompetent battle pez-dispensers and those clumsy salamander-rabbits on Naboo? Remember that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach you got when a terrible little boy cheered lines like “yippee!” and “now this is pod-racing”?

I was a kid but I recall wondering why George Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon out of it if it was all going to be so devoid of actual people. George Lucas once said, “special effects are just a tool used to tell a story.” This is true, but a stapler is also still a tool even after I use it to staple a bunch of babies right their little unsuspecting eyes. Just saying. This tool is being wielded by a madman.

Was this Star Wars? How could it be? Well, there are spaceships and they did have light-sabers and Yoda and R2-D2 and all that. Remember how you kept kidding yourself by saying, “It wasn’t all bad…the pod-race scene was pretty cool.” Then remember when you remembered the chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959)? Much has been already expressed in regards to all that was wrong with Jedi the Menace and the other two movies that would inevitably follow (my favorite commentaries coming from the crudely articulate rebuttals of Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media).

We the people can ignore these sci-fi hokum shows. They were cheap baby pablum and we adults can ignore them. We can pretend like they never even happened. There remains still a snag, however. With our pure VHS copies of the original theatrical releases becoming grainy and dingy, when then can we turn to DVD or blu-ray?

The DVDs all feature the ‘special edition’ stuff.

The upcoming blu-ray incorporates the ‘special edition’ garbage as well as some other new alterations and additions. You may have heard tell of the Darth Vader “Noooooo!” but there’s a few other things too.

I am still waiting on those original theatrical releases (WITHOUT THE OPTIONAL ‘SEPCIAL EDITION’ HOOEY) to be on DVD. The thing is I can usually good at recognizing a marketing ploy when I see one. Peter Jackson releases the theatrical and extended versions to Lord of the Rings and King Kong separately and it makes sense. You get to sell more product and it goes to whoever prefers which ever version. I wonder where the extended cut of Meet the Feebles is. George Lucas is a bazillionaire and he’s a littler harder to read. He may be a shrewd businessman, but I seriously question whether or not he does indeed ever intend to make available the original theatrical releases alone to an upgraded form. I think Mr. Lucas is actually embarrassed for his original creations.

I know I speak for many many purists and fans when I say; do not be ashamed of the original Star Wars, Mr. Lucas. We love it. So maybe it’s not shiny and streamlined and maybe you don’t feel comfortable with that one angle in that one scene or maybe there’s an edit in there that bothers you. Films are not made to be perfect. They are time capsules that can transport us to other worlds and other times. Tinker if you must, but let us celebrate the memories we cherished most of all.

It’s a hard fact. An artist is almost never happy with his work. But this doesn’t mean it’s no good. A sign of a real artist is to know when to stop. When the painter restrains himself from making one more brush stroke he becomes the artist. I suppose all this is moot because George Lucas is a businessman and not really an artist. Why did he put those cartoon monkeys in at the end of THX-1138 special edition?! I’m not an idealist over-romanticizing my experiences with the original trilogy, I just know what worked and what I like.

Ah, well. Still no true DVD. The coming blu-ray looks to be a sham. Now who wants to bet the re-re-release of Star Wars (this time in wretched, wretched, oh-so-wretched 3D) won’t be the special edition? Maybe someday after George Lucas is dead us fans can finally get the real movie.