When the Empire Film Magazine podcast crew recently got together to offer their candid, spoiler-filled opinion of Jurassic World they couldn’t stop talking about how un-wowed they were by the special effects. Jurassic Park’s digital recreation of dinosaurs was groundbreaking in 1993. The technology Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) literally created as they went marked such a sea change in modern filmmaking that everyone working on the film knew they were in the middle of an important moment.  Spielberg updated the script with Alan Grant quipping “We’re out of a job” only to be corrected by Ian Malcom, “Don’t you mean extinct?” as a in-joke reflection of the way the practical effects people and stop-go animation experts reacted to seeing computer animation for the first time.  That was 22 years ago, though.  Why is it that the velociraptors in Jurassic World don’t really look any better than the ones in Jurassic Park?

Similarly, I walked out of Terminator: Genisys this weekend wondering why the new T-1000 didn’t really look any better than the one from Terminator 2: Judgement Day…all the way back in 1991! Sure, the Genisys T-1000 played by Byung Hun-Lee looks fine enough, and there is a cool moment when he gets shot in the head at such a close range that a liquid metal version of brain matter sprays on the surface behind him before reforming and floating back into his body. However, he doesn’t actually look substantially cooler, but shouldn’t he?

terminator-re-genisys-372516liquid-metal-t10001991 was a long ass time ago.  Back then, James Cameron spent millions of dollars on creating a visual presentation well before they started filming, telling producer Mario Kassar, “This is going to be an expensive movie because I’m gonna do so many amazing effects you’ve never seen before. In fact, let me go spend the money and show you how it will look.” You had to do that kind of thing just to help people understand what you meant when you said that you were going to create shots for the movie in a computer.

Now, we’re all generally hip the concept of computer generate imagery in movies, even if we may not understand the technical details. For example, Shane Black has had a long career as a Hollywood screenwriter, most famous for the first Lethal Weapon (1986). When he ended up behind the camera directing Iron Man 3 after his first directorial effort (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) had been a low-budget film noir comedy the best way he could deal with the jump the world of visual effects (VFX) shots was to refer to them as “cartoons,” somewhat annoying the visual effects artists who put so much effort into making those “cartoons.” He meant no offense. In some cases, he knew that it was an oversimplification; in other cases, though, if you define a cartoon as something which is entirely animated then he wasn’t far off at all. Sometimes when we watch blockbusters movies nothing we are looking at on screen is real, and we kind of know it.

Iron-Man-3-Barrel-of-Monkeys-09

Iron Man 3’s barrel of monkey’s sequence was by far the most extensive practical effects sequence ever attempted by a Marvel movie to that point

avengers-age-of-ultron-battle

Ultron’s robot army in Age of Ultron where the setting looks like a practical shot but none of the characters on screen are

That’s the type of thing that led Peter Jackson to declare that Hollywood storytelling has become too reliant on technology, although he could have directed that criticism inward after Battle of the Five Armies. Zack Snyder, whose career has been built on embracing digital over practical, just lamented in a EW cover story about Batman V Superman, “Everyone’s going to think that’s digital,” referring to the movie’s Wayne Manor set, “We built this set in the middle of nowhere and it looks like the fakest fucking thing in the world. Nobody’s going to believe it’s real.” It’s like he was talking directly to critics, giving them the heads up that one set which is going to look fake in Batman V Superman is actually real.

Maybe to those of us who grew up in the age of the special effects explosion kicked off by James Cameron we notice a lack of quality in modern blockbusters because we have a wider frame of reference.   Maybe younger audiences take it all in with awe the same we did with the first Jurassic Park. Maybe we’re just nitpicky film nerds.

Maybe not. Gene Warren Jr. the effects supervisor for the first two Terminator movies and The Abyss recently told Vulture, “The computer is another tool, and in the end, it’s how you use a tool, particularly when it comes to artistic choices. What the computer did, just like what’s happened all through our industry, it has de-skilled most of the folks that now work in visual effects in the computer world. That’s why half of the movies you watch, these big ones that are effects-driven, look like cartoons.”

And I just happened upon two fascinating YouTube video essays which attempt to explain why visual effects in Hollywood blockbusters are not as effective as they used to be. The first up, from YouTube ciniphiles StoryBrain, explores the “WETA effect,” which is how the Lord of the Rings films and Avatar signaled a transition from a time when filmmakers could only superimpose CGI on a real scene to a time when an entire scene could be CGI. Their main takeaway is that filmmakers need to remember to ground their effects in the practical, using a side-by-side shot comparison from the 2003 Hulk and 2008 Incredible Hulk as evidence for how less sophisticated visual effects can look better if it is placed in something we can psychologically relate to:

The next, from NewMediaRockstars, reaches a similar conclusion but keeps its analysis specific to Jurassic Park vs. Jurassic World, going in depth while also tossing in some jokes to keep things entertaining:

Let me know your thoughts below.

Source: ShortList

Advertisements

Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

5 Comments

  1. I’d say another factor is nostalgia filter. Some people forget that if you have a young child today watch the Jurassic Park Brontosaurus intro scene, they’ll notice that it looks fake: very fake. Also they won’t find the T-1000 in T2 as impressive as the older ones do. Part of it is the memory of the initial reaction in the 90’s, when all that technology was new, that keeps us from seeing the cracks in the tech that we have learned to notice now, which were still present in T2 and JP. Also, most of the time, the T-1000 and the dinos are practical in T2 and JP. In Genisys and Jurassic World…not so much.

    Reply

    1. Great points here.

      The biggest shock to me was that so much of the T-1000 was still practical effects done by Stan Winston etc. https://www.stanwinstonschool.com/ckeditor_assets/pictures/2984/content_content_t1000-terminator2-bts-cleave-man-t2-t1000-effects-part1-t2-059.jpg?1397327391

      Reply

      1. It’s some of the best practical effects ever done.

  2. It is a combination of different aspects. Jurassic Park was so impressive because the audience saw those dinosaurs for the very first time. And, as the one video rightly pointed out, most of the effects in this movie are NOT CGI. Those which are look fake as hell nowadays. You have the same effect in Tron. CGI as a general rule doesn’t age well, which is why practical effects have, if they are done well, more the ability to withstand time. I personally think that the kraken from 20000 miles under sea will always look great. But (yeah, I have a but for every point) bad practical effects will look dated to at one point (There are a lot of movies I watch nowadays which make me immediately think “Oh, they just blew up a little model”). It’s like the use of the greenscreen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, depending on how much effort is put into it.

    Next is the mind of the audience. We have become nitpicky. Because we know that there is CGI, we are set on seeing it. I remember after the first Captain America movie there were some commenters which complained that the muscled version of the character looks so fake and was bad CGI. But it never was CGI, Chris Evans simply trained for the role. Too many people are no longer able to lean back and enjoy the experience. I am not one of them, I can enjoy CGI, though I do admit that usually practical works better. For example, sticking to the MCU, if someone would ask me what the action scenes in those movies are, I would say it’s the elevator scene and the scene on the bridge in The Winter Soldier, The free-fall scene in Iron Man 3 (easily the best part of the movie), and the battle scenes in GotG. Other than GotG, all those scenes have been done practical, which I didn’t know originally. But I don’t think that I like them so much just because they are practical. I like them so much because they are scaled down. CGI is in a disadvantage from the get-go because it is usually used for the over-the-top scenes which are difficult to buy for the human mind in the first place.

    Personally I think that CGI should be used when it has to be used and not for no other reason than “because”. On the other hand though I think that the audience has to lay off a little bit. When it has to be used it is not automatically bad just because it is CGI. Just lean back and enjoy the experience. And at one point compare Toy Story with Toy Story 3. Toy Story looks incredibly dated nowadays. Toy Story 3 might too at one point, but I have the feeling it will take longer before it becomes noticeable.

    Reply

  3. That Weta video was really fascinating. It was wonderful. A great look and he made some incredibly interesting points. However, I will say that the Yoda example to me was poor. The old Yoda while many people have a deep attachment looks like it was a toy. Whereas the newer Yoda actually looks much better to me.

    That said, I think that he was incredibly right about believability being a major factor that can be detrimental to the elaborate canvases now. I am one of the people the gets swept up in the beauty. I’m also one of those people who loves looking for the CGI in all movies. It’s an amusing hobby. It is literally everywhere and more often than not people don’t even realize that it’s there. People notice the big things, the giant landscapes and the bits that don’t seem of our world. Yet, the CGI is used so much more frequently, but often in a passing way that most people don’t notice because it isn’t an action scene. It lends credence to the believability thing concept.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s