As you’ll know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, lovely lurkers, each time I teach Comp 1. This semester’s winner is Bennett Fresh, discussing CGI vs. practical effects. Good job, everyone, and congrats to Mr. Fresh!
Real Fake Action
by Bennett Fresh
The art of special effects in film has a long and storied past, almost as long as the history of film itself. For more than a century, film has been the greatest storyteller available to the masses. From early nickelodeons to the blockbuster films of today, special effects have been used to suspend disbelief and transport audiences to new worlds. Practical effects, until very recently, have dominated the world of cinema. As computing power has become cheaper and more readily available, computer generated images have steadily risen in prominence. Many, including myself, have asked the question of whether or not CGI has been a detriment to film. It is my belief that while CGI can be a powerful tool to help tell a story, it should be used sparingly.
George Méliès, the father of special effects, invented many of the techniques still used in film today. It was his work that laid the foundation for the effects that would captivate audiences and confound the laws of physics for more than a century. Considering the age of these early films, the effects have aged remarkably well. As time has progressed and the techniques pioneered by Méliès have become more refined, the films that make use of such effects continue to astound and amaze the audiences of today. Early computer generated imagery, on the other hand, does not possess the same luster it might have once had. Few examples from the early days of CGI are capable of producing the impact they intend and often produce little more than confused laughs from those accustomed to the more refined CGI of the modern era.
When producing a film, a filmmaker must consider all costs associated with telling their story. If the use of special effects is required, they must weigh each option carefully. CGI has an appreciable cost-to-benefit ratio when used for short sequences. As the length of a CGI sequence increases, the cost rises as the effectiveness drops. Take, for example, the less-is-more approach of Terminator 2. For those unfamiliar, the sequel to the original 1984 Terminator film introduces a polymorphic robotic foil to Arnie’s rigid, also robotic, protagonist. The scenes in which the phase changing takes place are short and dramatic. There is not much time to scrutinize the level of detail present, which lends greater power to the sequences that make use of CG. Even over two decades since its release, the liquid metal robot in T2 is still as convincing as it was in 1991. Contrast this with films that blow their entire budgets on CGI sequences that were glaringly awful even upon release, a great example being The Matrix Reloaded. The entire climax of the film revolves around a ten minute brawl between one hundred Agent Smiths that appear to be made out of silly putty and an occasionally solid Keanu Reeves. Here, even the end result does not justify the massive budget, as the action and gravity that the scene could have had is drowned in a sea of lumpy polygons that vaguely resemble Hugo Weaver in a black suit.
This is not so say that practical effects do not suffer from similar woes. The complexity of certain sequences can make practical effects prohibitively expensive, if not outright impossible. Although, unlike the big budget computer generated action sequences, absurdly expensive real fake action almost always pays off. As an example, let us look again at James Cameron’s Terminator 2. The specific scene to which I refer is the breathtaking helicopter pursuit, easily one of the most complex and dangerous stunt sequences ever filmed. The scene looks and feels real and will indeed have you “‘gespannt wie ein Flitzebogen,’ that is, on the edge of your seat,” (Anderson 1.6.10-11) because it is real. The action was all filmed in situ by James Cameron himself, as the stunt pilot scraped skids of the helicopter on the tarmac at seventy miles an hour over an artificially illuminated stretch of the Long Beach Terminal Island freeway. The lunatics who choreographed and participated in that chase produced one of the most convincing action sequences ever filmed.
Computer generated imagery is a relatively new tool for directors and filmmakers to express their stories on the screen. It has a great deal of potential and power if utilized correctly, just like any form of special effects. There are many examples of excellent films that benefited from using CGI, but there are many more examples where that is not the case. Practical effects, properly implemented, lend weight and believability to any scene in which they are used, with generally fewer catastrophic failures. Computer generated images would best be viewed as a spice that can enhance a film when used properly, or ruin a film when abused.
Anderson, Wes. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Final Revision. 2013. Google. 3 Feb. 2017. https://d97a3ad6c1b09e180027-5c35be6f174b10f62347680d094e609a.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/film_scripts/FSP3825_TGBH_SCRIPT_BOOK_C6.pdf.
Stamm, Emily. “The Most Insanely Complex Stunts from Science Fiction and Fantasy Films.” i09, 31 Jan. 2014, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-most-insanely-complex-stunts-from-science-fiction-a-1513419585. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.