Dennis Muren, a living legend in the highly specialised field of visual effects, was recently quoted by movies.com 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 movies.com article and this one on hollywood.com. 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.