Differing Realities

Blog title image showing a neon lit joystick

In spite of the upsurge in computer graphics since the early 1990’s, conventional (if such a word applies) makeup and effects still hold a solid place in film and video. CG is something of a double-edged (or even multi-edged) sword. Whilst it has undoubtedly replaced practical effects in many instances, reducing work for old-schoolers, it has also turned projects that were once unfilmable (for reasons of technical complexity or budget) into ones that were/are eminently viable.

Similarly, it has allowed the production to do greater justice to the dramatic material at hand and to realise the impossible or impractical to a higher standard. That’s not to say that every application of the technology achieves that goal, as many detractors from film CG will attest.

David B.Jerre effectively sums up the general discontent in a post on his singlemindedmovieblog page:

I'm sick of computer generated effects. I'm sick of the way every big film coming out of Hollywood these days rely so much on CGI. Take away the effects and large chunks of the film literally ceases to exist. At cinemas everywhere big event films are constantly trying to one-up each other, and several thousand effect shots are not uncommon in a new movie.”

Well, we can create good and bad CG creatures, just as we can do with a practical methodology.

The realisation of those once-impossible narratives may in turn call for old school effects to be incorporated into production process alongside CG. So paradoxically, computer graphics have helped enable (some) jobs in the old-school creature effects industry just by making no-go projects viable.

A wax statue of Gollum

A contemporary example of the above scenario would be the bar-raising production of The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. Previous attempts utilised cel animation as the only recourse to address the scale of the material. See: Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of The Rings and the Rankin/Bass production of The Return of The King. Both are discussed here along with an early animated version of The Hobbit, incidentally.

Other film versions of Tolkien’s work exist but concede defeat when tackling the (then unfilmable) epic scale of the spectacle at hand. To realise the extent of the work, Jackson’s production utilised the now famous Massive software to generate and manage the enormous crowd/battle scenes required, utilising a nameless cast of thousands of virtual AI-driven Middle Earth inhabitants. CG aside, the production also required the mass manufacture of hero and background character prosthetics, armour, weapons, and props for the very real, foreground actors and extras. A symbiosis of new and established techniques working seamlessly together - or as near as dammit.

In spite of this level of harmony, there is, on balance, surely a net loss to the traditional craft. It stands to reason: for decades “practical” was the only option (animation aside), and winner takes all. However, when given a choice, someone has to lose out on a case by case basis.

Historically the loser was often the material itself, whose scope outstripped the capabilities of  the tools at hand and so was shelved, or executed with great compromise. Frankly, we as an audience also settled for less, compared to our modern standards. That was fine at the time because we didn't have our current standards for comparison, in any event!

Man standing in front of a prop from the transformers movie

By way of example, consider the 1953 production of The War of The Worlds. It’s a lot of fun as a film in its own right but barely touches the scope of the original novel by H.G. Wells. Some of this is intentional but the most obvious compromise is in the realisation of the Martian war machines themselves. The novel called for striding, mechanical tripods piloted by the aliens like giant walking tanks. There are shades here of Japanese Mecha that would appear over half a century after Wells’ work, but I digress.

Faced with the issues of effecting such mechanisms convincingly, the production opted for an approach that was simpler in execution but paradoxically made the machines appear more  advanced and futuristic at the same time. They were realised as floating hybrids of Manta-Rays and boomerangs, each with a cobra-like eye/weapon appendage snaking from its slick top-side. The conceit is that the machines “walked” on invisible legs of energy (?), but let’s face it, they were dangling around miniature sets on wires, treading on nothing.

By contrast, the 2005 adaptation of the same work starring Tom Cruise was drenched in CG. It was used to create both the aliens and their three-legged war machines - acknowledging Wells’ original concept as they strode across a contemporary urban landscape in a decidedly future-retro, mechanistic style billowing exhausts and all.  

By then, the marriage between CG and practical had settled into a smoother alliance than was originally envisaged by old-school doomsayers back in the 90s. Shots merge practical and virtual elements, irrespective of the nature of their creation. And that’s the way it continues to be. Hand in hand, into the future they go.