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June 28, 2004

Not-So-Special Effects

This is an off-topic post/rant, but it's been bugging me for a while, so forgive me.

Greeg Easterbrook comments on one of my three cinematic pet peeves: as special effects have become "better," they've actually become far worse. Model-work and bluescreening and matte-painting have their limitations, of course. But while the old-school special effects would often thrill (even as you caught telltale signs of the fakery), the theoretically visually-perfect CGI effects in recent movies are rather blah.

Easterbrook thinks part of the problem is that, as effects have moved out of the real world and entirely into the cybernetic world where gravity and such are disabled by simply hitting an "Off" toggle, recent effects are just too unrealistic to trick us. They may look okay -- perhaps better than the way old-school effects looked -- but they're representing things that are obviously impossible, and we are therefore not fooled.

I have a specific complaint in this area: CGI effects artists have become counterproductively fascinated with speed. CGI effects don't need to move slowly like most old-school creations needed to; you can easily make your fakey monster move at 120 mph if you like. Witness Godzilla.

The trouble is, a lot of the speed ends up looking fake. Either fast-moving CGI creations look as if they have no weight and are therefore digital creations (precisely what you don't want), or they just look silly. The huge, fast-moving Scorpion King from the end of The Mummy Returns, for example.

In reality, I suppose, there's no reason why big giagantic creatures must move slowly; but in our cinematic imagination, we all know that's just the way it's supposed to be. Smaller creatures may move around with blurring speed. Not huge monstrosities. They're supposed to lumber towards you with dramatic deliberateness.

And don't get me started on the fast-moving zooming CGI camera. We all know that real cameras can't be moved too quickly. So, the moment I see a fake CGI "camera" zooming around at 80 mph, doing quick turns and generally defying the laws of gravity and momentum, I know I'm watching an entirely CGI shot, and it destroys the suspension of disbelief. The giant statues at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring were CGI, but they looked good. Saruman's tower looked stupid, on the other hand, chiefly because it was "filmed" with a hyperactively zooming CGI camera that didn't allow the viewer to take in the scenery. Movement was the star of the shot, not the actual thing being filmed.

I don't get why they use CGI for everything. There's a massive head-on train collision at the end of Under Siege 2 which looks terrific. And of course it was all done with models. Or compare ED-209 from Robocop with any of the bazillion CGI robots from the recent Star Wars blasphemies-- which looks like a real robot?

Is CGI now cheaper than conventional model-work? I can't think of any reason why a producer would keep using CGI for everything, even for effects where old-school practices are superior, unless this is now the cheap way to do it.

Or unless kids today just "love that CGI," even when it looks like crap. I actually think this might be the case, or at least that producers think that this is the case.

Correction: Originally I said that Easterbrook had made an error in the piece, having to do with the formula for falling distance. Turns out his "error" was due to my own miscalculation.


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posted by Ace at 09:01 PM

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