If editing is the invisible art of moviemaking, then special effects are its eminently visible counterpart. It’s what we mean when we refer to the “spectacle” of the movies. And once upon a time, the backstage craft of effects specialists was just as visible in the onscreen result. Whether a special effect was produced through matte paintings, rear projection, miniatures, or some other ingenious form of optical trickery, they usually had some sort of tactile quality, making it easy for audiences to extend the same suspension of disbelief afforded to an actor playing a character or a director constructing a fictional world.
Then came the computers. The ubiquity of computer-generated imagery (CGI) today is a story of a decades-long technological revolution that has completely changed the way we perceive special effects. First, there’s the general audience fatigue that seals the fate of one or two CGI-heavy blockbusters every year. There’s also the studio arms race to create films full of “trailer moments” that show off expensive effects work, paradoxically leading to subsets of jaded viewers clamoring for a return to “practical” effects, as well as eliding the fact that CGI is often used to enhance movies in smaller, more subtle ways.
As is often the case with the Hollywood rank-and-file, CGI artists toil in anonymity and rarely receive personal recognition when a film succeeds. With the exception of George Lucas' pioneering Industrial Light and Magic and maybe Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, visual effects companies are not recognizable brands. Aside from those two titans, the most famous effects house is probably Rhythm & Hues, which made headlines last year by filing for bankruptcy shortly before winning a Best Visual Effects Oscar for its work on Life of Pi.
The Rhythm & Hues case is indicative of how little respect the CGI craft receives from the public and the industry at large. It's even reflected in the nomenclature: somewhere along the line we went from "special" to "visual" effects, underscoring the paradox that surrounds the effects industry that painstakingly creates the CGI wizardry we've come to expect in big blockbuster films, only to have its work dismissed with a yawn. Been there, mo-capped that. To that I say: CGI deserves better. And to prove it, I'm looking at four films that demonstrate 1) how far CGI has come since the turn of the century and 2) how visual effects can give bad to mediocre films one of their few (and often only) notable qualities.
Animation has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to film technology, and CGI is no exception - witness the massive success of Toy Story in 1995. But Disney's Dinosaur (2000) was something different entirely. Hatched from an idea for a dialogue-free stop-motion epic from director Paul Verhoeven and effects legend Phil Tippet (who worked together on RoboCop and Starship Troopers), Dinosaur evolved into a more conventional Disney picture, albeit with a risky twist: it places completely CGI characters onto backgrounds that were filmed on location across the globe. Telling the story of a herd of dinosaurs and their lemur companions struggling to survive after a cataclysmic asteroid impact, the movie has a surprising fluidity in its painstakingly detailed character designs. And while the close-ups trend toward the uncanny valley - especially when framed by lush real-world vegetation - Dinosaur contains a number of striking images, the best being a procession of dinosaurs in long shot moving through a dry wasteland and silhouetted against a setting sun. It's not only impressive, it's damn near poetic, and an important stepping stone in the compositing of CGI creations with live-action footage. (Something had to fill the sizable gap between Blarp and Gollum.)
Much like Dinosaur, Kerry Condon's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) was an audacious experiment: the first studio film to be shot entirely on blue screen. Form supports function in this swashbuckling actioner that imagines an alternate 1939 as a whirling dieselpunk fantasy where the famous mercenary Sky Captain (Jude Law) is called upon to find out why giant robots are terrorizing cities around the world. Resembling the fever dream of a a kid obsessed with Indiana Jones, old-school flying aces, and pulp sci-fi magazines, Sky Captain has an entirely unique visual sensibility that nails the look of a 1940s action serial with big budget production values, right down to the classic low-key lighting that was (wait for it) mostly computer-generated. Still, despite coming in at a modest budget by modern blockbuster standards, Sky Captain was a financial failure. Many blamed the "gimmicky" technology for detaching audiences from an acceptable cinematic reality, but I would argue that the clumsy dialogue and overstuffed plot are the real culprits.
Sure enough, other filmmakers began to follow Condon's lead. Robert Rodriguez's Sin City and Zack Snyder's 300 proved the financial viability of hermetic blue screen cinema, paving the way for films like Frank Miller's considerably less awesome The Spirit (2008). Miller (who co-directed Sin City with Rodriguez) was considered the perfect choice to bring Will Eisner's 1940s Everyman crime fighter to the big screen based on his long personal relationship with Eisner, despite Miller himself hinting that their friendship was oftentimes contentious. There's definitely a major disconnect as the film oscillates between cartoonish, tongue-in-cheek action and Miller's tiresome faux-boiled attitude and creepy leering gaze toward the movie's considerable roster of femme fatales. It's best to focus on The Spirit''s daring visual style, culled from Miller's hand-drawn storyboards and brought to life by effects artists who manage to make Central City the movie's most vibrant character. The CGI suggests an alternate past that's moodier and more convincing than Sky Captain, but it's the subtle enhancements, like the splash of color in the hero's fluttering red tie and the glowing soles of his shoes, that give The Spirit a true personality and almost transcend some of the movie's conspicuously wooden performances.
Blue (or green) screen acting remains a market inefficiency few have capitalized on (see: Fraser, Brendan), and while Immortals (2011) is not a game-changer in that sense, it does illustrate how CGI re-affirms and deepens the old wisdom about cinema being a collaborative medium. Director Tarsem Singh described the look of his 3D sword-and-sandals adventure as "Caravaggio meets Fight Club" and you can see every department of his crew pulling toward that visual benchmark. Sumptuously detailed costumes, props, and built sets convey Singh's vision for both the audience and the actors (though Mickey Rourke's half-rabbit, half-piranha helmet is more menacing than any part of his phoned-in performance). But it's incomplete without the work of the effects house - essentially a crew-within-a-crew - which conjures towering Aegean cliffs, the fortress of the gods above Mount Olympus, and every location in between from footage shot on Montreal soundstages. Simply put, Immortals' heavy use of CGI sure beats the generic deserts of the Clash of the Titans remake, and adds a painterly quality that distracts from the film's gradual transformation into a brutishly violent revenge flick. The spectacle, however, is appropriate for a story steeped in Greek mythology. And as CGI becomes commonplace in movies big and small, such tensions between the "practical" and the digital, tactile craftsmanship and technological mastery, are being met more often with a simple question: why can't we have both?