Special Effects - Not So Special Anymore

There’s a magazine called ‘Cinefex’, which is devoted to movie special effects. Years ago I used to like to flip through it and look at the models, puppets, and various other things people were doing for movies. I was amazed that much of the Death Star trench sequence looked like it had actually been filmed in someone’s garage or something. These days you look at it and it’s just guys sitting at computers. Welcome to the age of the non-special special effects.

There’s something kind of sad about it, to me. There’s no longer any kind of “Wow, how did they do that! That’s cool!” it’s just “Oh look, more CGI.” Computers have allowed us to do all sorts of things on the screen, to the extent that none of it is very interesting. There was a special on the making of the Phantom Menace and to me the most interesting parts were the fact that they used salt for the waterfalls and Q-tips for the pod race crowd. I didn’t care about, “Oh look, here’s yet another computer animator.”

And to me, it doesn’t even look THAT great. We are constantly told how amazing CGI is, but is there anyone that can’t spot it a mile away? Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter had some impressive visuals but the trolls in those movies were not among them. (This is partly because computer animators have retained the phenomenon of ‘stop-motion epilepsy,’ where every part of an animated being must be in constant motion at all times.)

I really miss the days of “Man, how did they do that?” I feel like someone who went to go see a magician perform and instead gets someone who just describes magic tricks instead of performing them, and doesn’t even describe them that well.

So, what was the question? :wink:

I agree that the CGI effects are not very exciting. Hopefully that will change as people get used to the new technology. So many movies just throw in what would have been a blockbuster special effect that doesn’t really belong just because they can do it so cheap. To put it another way, subtlety has been lost in movies. Originality was thrown out the window long ago and most movies out there are variations on other movies or simplistic remakes with slightly differing effects.

I agree wholeheartedly. I love old puppet/model special effects. They just look more concrete and tangible, because, well, they are. The re-release of Star Wars really upset me because they would have scenes where in one shot, a character was the traditional puppet, and in the next, it was a CGI representation. You could blatantly see the difference, and the CGI looked simply like a cartoon drawing out of Who Framed Roger Rabbbit, which in my opinion, is still much more impressive.
A friend and I were talking about this the other day, and it all seemed to happen around the time of Jurrasic Park. That was the first movie to use CGI in such a grand scale, yet it did it so well. Why? Because they were still using the model method. They built the models, photographed them, then animated them in the computer, but the fact they had a tangeable representation first and basically moved that, it worked wonderfully. Unfortunately, nowadays, they simply come up with a few drawings, then design the entire thing on the computer, and it looks like crap. There’s no more realism to it, and it just looks fake. In Resident Evil there’s a shot of two zombies with thier faces mangled, and it was blatant CGI. Special effects and make up artists were making more realistic zombies that these two back in the seventies, and that’s really disheartening.
I admit, in some places, it’s kind of a necessity. You couldn’t have such huge battle scenes like in LOTR without the use of CGI, but because it was fantasy, and the backgrounds were so lavash and CGI as well, it seemed to fit pretty nicely in my opinion. But people use it WAY too much nowadays, and they don’t always do the best with it. Blade 2 for example, used it SOO much, and it was always blatant, it makes you wonder “Why even bother?” I miss the 80’s when people tried harder and succeeded more often.

The first movie I know of that used CGI as we now have it extensively was Willow. There were CGI effects in movies before that (The Last Starfighter, for example), but Willow was among the first of the new breed where the effects were starting to be really good and non-cartoony.

I’m sorry myself that sfx are now so common, although I’d place the time of “common good sfx” back to 1978 with the appearance of Battlestar Galactica on TV. Before that, anyone who went to all the trouble and expense of doing special effects usually put extra effort into the other aspects of the story as well – plot, direction, script, etc. King Kong is a prime example. So was 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Good effects in all, and all good films with other good features.

On the other hand, you just knew that The Giant Gila Monster or King Dinosaur or other MST3K-fodder was going to be awful just from the quality of the effects.

And it wasn’t just big-budget films. Even a low-budget flick like The Beast of Hollow Mountain, with its animated T. rex fighting cowboys (waaay before The Valley of Gwangi came out) was worth watching.

But then Cattlecar Galaxitive came out, hijacking Dykstra from Star Wars, and suddenly you had good f/x linked to laughably bad sf. They brought in Asimov for some conceptual work, but it was too little, and too late in the process. Then there was Buck Rogers and oodles of other bad stuff with a glistening layer of decent f/x heaped on top. So good special effects are no longer a guide to good filmd.
I love the old animation/puppet effects, too, but CGI is a new and flexible medium that sill hasn’t been perfected. Look at a lot of the scenes in Jurassic Park and note how the dinosaurs don’t quite look right. In a few years they’ll look even worse to our by-then-jaded eyes, the way the CGI effects in The Hunt for Red October look now.

This is why I love the DVDs of Superman and Close Encounters.

In Close Encounters there is a large ‘making of’ feature about building the models and such. The mothership is one big model. They build a large room and coverec every inch of the room with a special ‘black’ material to so it. During the credits as the ship gets farther and farther away they had to come up with something to make it look like almost a point of light. So they put a parabolic mirror in one corner and the ship in the other then pointed the camera into the mirror. Pretty Neat!
In Superman Richard Donner and someone else I can’t remember his name explain several efx shots in the commentary. Amazing stuff.

One brilliant use of CGI, in my opinion, was intentionally not evident at all in Forrest Gump. In fact, it didn’t even register on me that it WAS a special effect until much later – which, I guess, is the whole purpose of the genre to begin with.

Gary Sinise’s character loses his legs in the film. For the last half (maybe 2/3) of the film, he has stumps ending just below the knees. Of course, Sinise himself still has all of his legs, so CGI was used in many scenes to remove his legs below the knee.

In one particular scene, he is sitting on the wooden railing of a boat. He swings around and jumps off the railing into the water. No big deal, right? Well, except that it wouldn’t work the way it was filmed – Sinise’s lower legs would get in the way when he tried to swing over the railing. Having the character lift his legs very high as he swung over wouldn’t be accurate, either; it would look strange. So the director had a small section of railing cut out to allow Sinise’s lower legs to pass through, then in post-production they used CGI to replace that section of missing railing. Quite impressive, if you ask me.

Sounds like you’re just picking out the mediocre stuff and then writing off the entire industry. How about the shot in The Matrix where Trinity is swinging from the helicopter and slams into the building and the glass ripples out like the surface of a pond? Or the shot at the end where Neo sees the hallway in code? Or where the Agents seal his mouth up in the interrogation room? How about the opening shot of Fight Club? Or the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan?

There’s a lot of amazing stuff that’s been done in the last few years that couldn’t have been done any other way. When it’s done really well, CG often goes unnoticed because it just becomes part of the world the movie is creating. I’m a big fan of 2001 and some of the other older movies mentioned, but I don’t think that means model and puppet effects are better than CG effects. I just think it means Stanley Kubrick kicks ass.

I guess I didn’t make my point clear. I’m not saying CGI is bad, or that there aren’t good things its done, what I’m saying is that it’s no big deal. I look at an effect and just shrug and say, “Oh look, CGI.” It just isn’t that special, and it isn’t as impressive. Having a guy code up a spaceship just doesn’t have the WOW factor of kit-bashing one.

"The first movie I know of that used CGI as we now have it extensively was Willow. There were CGI effects in movies before that (The Last Starfighter, for example), but Willow was among the first of the new breed where the effects were starting to be really good and non-cartoony. "

To my knowledge, the only CG (yes, let’s call it CG people, CGI is something else entirely) used in Willow was morphing, used during the old lady morphing into varied animals while Willow was trying to transform her back into human shape. This effect uses no rendering or 3d modeling as we would know it like in Jurassic Park or Phantom Menace. That style of morphing is purely a 2d effect using a series of blended images, it uses no modeling or 3d-rendered animation.

All of the other effects, the two-headed dragon, the sets, backdrops, etc was all done by traditional models, stop-motion animation, blue/green screens, and matte paintings. Willow was a very traditional movie, not a groundbreaker in the CG field by any estimation.

Personally, I’d look to The Last Starfighter and Flight of the Navigator as really being the respected granddaddies of the CG that we are used to in today’s films.

Gargoyle – acknowledged. But it’s still the first CGI that looked good, not cartoony (and I thought that at least some of the “Ebersisk” was CGI). I know it ain’t the same as Jurassic Park, but it’s still a dicviding line in public acceptance.

Though I wonder, do spaceships/-battles wow anyone anymore?

The Phantom Menace failed to wow me, but in DS9 after they went to war and had giant fleet battles, now those were cool!!

The last good spaceship battles i saw in the theater were Return of the Jedi SE (though most of that was from 1983), and then maybe Wing Commander.

Ah, I forgot about those DS9 battles…very cool, indeed. First Contact could’ve used much more of that.

On a kind of of side note, why is there often a flock of CGI birds shown flying across a CGI vista? Is it to establish a kind of realism through their movements? What’s the point, since most times it’s painfully obvious that it’s a fake landscape anyway.

On the one hand, the truely good CG effects (or effects of any sort, for that matter) go unnoticed. On the other, viewers nowadays expect everything to be CG, including the things done by more traditional methods. The Bad Astronomer reports that when he saw Contact, one of the other audience members thought that the shots of the VLA were rather impressive computer effects. Nope, they got those shots by actually filming the real thing, in existence in full-scale reality. A lot of the effects you’re complaining about, that are “so obviously CG”, probably aren’t.

As far as I’m concerned, ya still can’t beat the effects Georges Méliès achieved in A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Man with the Rubber Head (1901), The Famous Box Trick (1898), The Impossible Voyage (1904) and about 100 other films . . .

We watched The Dark Crystal just a little while ago, and it made me kind of sad to think that probably no one will ever make a movie like that again.

why can’t we get more movies WITHOUT special effects. this CG crap is in every movie now. “let’s just bring in the actors for one day. we’ll animate them in post.”
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As much as I love the Star Trek saga, I’d have to admit that the Babylon5 space battles were a bit more impressive. And the computer used was a Commodore Amiga.

Some movie reviewer wrote recently that saying “That movie had great special effecst but the plot was bad” is like saying “that book really sucked, but boy, the page binding was great!” We’re at the point now that special effects shouldn’t really mean anything.