Are special effects still special?

Melies - The Impossible VoyageDennis Muren, a living legend in the highly specialised field of visual effects, was recently quoted by as saying, ‘In some ways, I think special effects aren’t special any more.’ It’s fighting talk, especially when it’s followed up with: ‘If you’re going to make a motion picture, don’t just throw computer graphics in to make everything bigger.’

Muren’s a smart cookie. A veteran of the 1980s, he’s the guy who sent Luke Skywalker spinning through space and kept Indiana Jones permanently hanging off the edge of a cliff. He changed the face of visual effects forever with the groundbreaking computer-generated imagery he championed for landmark films like The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. So why is he moaning about the very technology he midwifed into the world?

Actually he isn’t – as you’ll see if you read both this article and this one on The trouble is some people are going to think he is. There’s a lot of folk out there who love to grumble that modern-day CG is cold and heartless and wasn’t it all better in the old days when special effects were done with string and sealing wax?

It’s a tiresome argument. Glance back through the history of cinema and you’ll see the greatest artists and innovators were always the first to embrace new technology, from Georges Méliès with his amazing visual tricks (the picture above is from his 1904 short The Impossible Voyage) to D.W.Griffith with his audacious moving camera. Walt Disney – that icon of old-school animation – was the first to use a Xerox machine to ease the workflow in his studio. James Cameron (with the help of experts like Dennis Muren) seems always to be not just at the cutting edge but several light years beyond it.

The problem doesn’t lie with the CG. If audiences are getting bored with 10,000-strong armies or gigantic robots or slavering trolls it’s because they’re craving what audiences have always craved: a good story.

It boils down to just three things. Characters we care for. A compelling plot. Immersive settings. That’s all. It’s the writer’s job to take that list and spin it into something wonderful, something that makes us laugh, cry and scream, something that transports us for a couple of hours to a complete new world. Somewhere we’ve never been before.

If the story’s inventive, it will inspire inventive visual effects. If the story’s dull and derivative then you’ll end up with cookie-cutter armies and robots and trolls, because that’s the only way the producers can think of to paper over the cracks.

Unfortunately, Hollywood’s always been rather good at doing dull and derivative, hasn’t it?

Luckily there’s hope. It’s no coincidence that the two films that most recently won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects – Life of Pi and Hugo – were both adapted from novels. Strong story first, you see? Before these came Inception and Avatar, helmed respectively by writer/directors Christopher Nolan and James Cameron. Story again, coupled with the powerhouse conviction of the visionary auteur. Time will tell if Elysium is going to be any good but, if the latest trailer is anything to go by, the Neill Blomkamp engine is building up considerable steam. Then there are indie hits like Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to shake up our perceptions and remind us that the Hollywood way is not the only way.

The science fiction author Alastair Reynolds summed it all up rather well yesterday with his tweet about the new Tom Cruise film, Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion:

The “fast things flying through narrow spaces” was brill in Return of the Jedi, but do we need it in every SF film ever?

They say you can’t polish a turd. Unfortunately, modern visual effects have become so good that now you can. Don’t blame the effects though. Blame the dog.

5 thoughts on “Are special effects still special?

  1. Another great blog.

    I had major déjà vu while reading it. Dennis Muren, already at the top of the visual effects food chain in the early ‘80s, saw the potential of digital technology in feature films before almost anyone and, in fact, took a year-long sabbatical from ILM to master its fundamentals. He then returned to the effects giant and applied what he had learned, with progressively more jaw-dropping results, in seminal films such as Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and others.

    While Dennis was the standard bearer of the digital revolution, he was also among the first to recognize the downside of digital proliferation. I interviewed him back in 1996, for a special Cinefex issue devoted to ILM’s 20th anniversary, and, with remarkable prescience, his core message was pretty much what you quoted him as having said just recently.

    What he told me was both insightful and poignant, and is as valid today as it was then. Perhaps more so. In his words …

    “To me, the imagery is not as special as it was — perhaps because there’s so much of it now. When I was growing up, effects films were rare — in his whole career, Ray Harryhausen did maybe a dozen — so when you saw a particularly good one, you cherished it and preserved it in your memory. I used to spend hours trying to remember the images I saw. A Speedy Alka-Seltzer commercial on TV used to be an event — now half the commercials you see have CG in them. Effects are everywhere. You can rent or own the movies; you can do freeze-frames and study every minute detail; you can do printouts. And you know what? It’s just not as interesting anymore. I look at most of the work being done now, and I think aesthetically it’s very weak, a lot of it. Almost anyone can do effects now; and so we have people out there happily turning out images, whether they have any talent or not. Effects are so commonplace that if I were growing up today, I don’t know that the spark would be there to attract me. But lots of young people are attracted — some of whom consider us old-timers practically obsolete. We have people now at ILM who look at the work we did on Star Wars like people of my generation used to look at silent movies. Some of them are pretty scornful about it. ‘What did you guys think you were doing? We’re really doing it now.’ I know that’s just youth talking — and youth is important for change to happen — but it’s oddly disturbing to have your life’s work dismissed and thrown out. But it will happen to them, too. Someday their work will also be thrown out — and it will be up to historians to look back on it and recognize it for what it was.”

  2. I’m what you would consider a youngster, but I am sick of CGI. I wish they would go back to well done animatronics.

  3. Best fx in any movie, for me – Blade Runner. Back in 1982 that opening shot took my breath away. And it served the movie, instantly dropping me into that dystopian future. Its an example of where less equals more. There are not very many fx shots in the whole film. I wish more films were like that. I think that is where CGI is damaging films instead of maybe 50 or 200 shots so many films have thousands of CGI fx shots and its just overkill. Where’s the drama making a film look like a cartoon, no matter the ‘wow’ factor?

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