Saturday, January 25, 2014

Readers' Write (14): Discuss... Special Effects

While Karen and Doug are on vacation in January, our readers have been entrusted with carrying on the daily conversations.  Today's Discuss is a do-it-yourselfer.  As we've done in the past, the first commenter gets to pick today's topic of conversation.

Generally speaking, the Discuss category is for narrow topics.  For example, in the past we've started conversations on topics such as the Sub-Mariner, Animal House, and the Captain America television movies.

Thanks for holding it down for us!

Colin Jones would like you to Discuss special effects. Were the models, puppets and stop-motion of the original Star Wars trilogy better than CGI?


Anonymous said...

Special effects. Were the models,puppets and stop-motion of the original Star Wars trilogy better than CGI? For me the SW trilogy looks terrific and hasn't dated precisely because of the care put into the special effects.

david_b said...

Great topic. CGI is...ok, until I rewatch old features like Galactica, Trek movies and the classic SW trilogy.

Just the subtle surface lightlng and how explosions reflect off of actual models will never be matched by computers, ever. It was a classic tool of cinematic story-telling that may be lost by 'Well, it's just cheaper to do it by computer, so it naturally must be better'..

I miss great model work.

Doc Savage said... much CGI is just incredibly fake looking. Also, the cheapness of it seems to tempt filmmakers into going overboard and adding things just because they can. Look at all the extra junk George Lucas shoved into Star Wars, especially scenes on Tatooine that worked just fine before and became cluttered and distracting. CGI is just no replacement for models and puppets and skillful presentation.

david_b said...

Two points, I HATE all the changes Lucas added to the original trilogy, and ALL HAIL Dykstra and Brian Johnston.

Johnston's effects on Space:1999 are still amazing.

Edo Bosnar said...

I like the more traditional effects, with models, props, etc. better as well. I think CGI is good for some things, but it seems like it's being overused in a lot of these newer SF and fantasy films.
As for Star Wars and Lucas specifically, geez, those "improvements" he made to the three original films were so pointless. And as for the new trilogy, he should have just went all out and made those computer animated features. As it is, they're basically like cartoons - not very good cartoons...

Doug said...

I'll say this, though -- we don't get the look of the four Spider-Man films without CGI. While I thought the last one was way too cartoony on the web-slinging scenes (and the trailers for the latest look even worse), there were parts of the first two Tobey Maguire flicks that were breathtaking.

I'd add that King Kong looked pretty freaking awesome in the valley/dinosaurs scenes.

But I agree with the general consensus so far as it relates to Star Wars -- the first three were the best. And Superman (1978) turned out just fine as well.


Karen said...

CGI has its place. And I agree with Doug: we don't get Spidey -or any of the new super-hero films -without it. It's a tool, and in the right hands, it can be wonderful.

However, Lucas has gone way overboard, and the changes to the original ('real') Star Wars trilogy are just criminal. I have to turn the TV off before the end of 'Jedi' so I won't have to see that horrid Hayden Christensen materializing as the spirit of Anakin Skywalker!

For pure movie magic, Ray Harryhausen is still the king to me.

david_b said...

Sorry, didn't get my credits right before.. It's 'Brian Johnson' AND Nick Allder for 1999.

Those Eagle take-off and crash effects are SIMPLY AMAZING even on big-screen blu-ray. 'Nuff said.

By contrast, Galactica effects shots on blu-ray and big screen don't hold up as well because they were specifically filmed for small screens and tend to be overly grainy (the slow pans of the Galactica cruising by are the worst examples..) ~ I resisted buying the blu-ray of the original movie just for this reason, but someone gave me a copy for a recent birthday and I unfortunately was.. correct in my assumption.

However, it's STILL better than most space CGI effects today. I seem to recall Babylon Five had great CGI effects.

I will give in that superhero CGI is pretty incredible, especially on both Spidey and FF franchises.

Doc Savage said...

Honestly I prefer the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man TV show to any of the films. The stuntman/human fly stuff looks and feels real because it is

Doug said...

No, to me it looks like a guy with a rope around his waist being pulled up the side of a building by a winch.


Batman and Robin walking up the side of a building in 1966 looked better than the TV Spider-Man.


Edo Bosnar said...

Doug: ha, yes! Plus people would pop out of their windows and chat it up with the Dynamic Duo. Great stuff.

William said...

CGI can work in some instances, but I miss the craftsmanship of traditional effects. The miniature puppet effects look more real because they actually are real objects, not just artwork on a computer screen. At the end of the day, movies that rely super heavily on CGI are basically just cartoons.

Anonymous said...

I love the old school effects best, but CGI can be great in combination with old school effects, or in a movie that is all computer animation (like the underrated Beowulf).

I hated the Raimi Spider-Man movies so I am biased against those effects - maybe if it had been a fully CG-animated movie they would've worked.

Doc Savage said...

As opposed to Tobey Maguire suddenly turning into a transparently obvious cartoon to swing around NYC? I'll pass.

They need a Jackie Chan type to do the action scenes.

Doug said...

Pardon me for thinking some of you are ungrateful, but I am by-and-large ecstatic for the superhero films we've had over the past 20 years. My beefs with the ones I don't like are in character treatment or story, but generally not in the way they look. Perhaps there's a little too much nit-picking and not enough popcorn fun?

Seriously? I think we all know that an actor isn't going to swing around NYC like Spidey does in the comics. I think we all know that no one can "Bamf!" from one room to another. So when you get this stuff at the age of 30-ish, after loving the concept most of your life, you're going to complain? What in life is perfect?

That being said, yes there are some bad CGI effects. And I do like the charm of the old stuff. There's a real quaintness to Flash Gordon's little model shipping bobbing along through "space" back in the serial days. But for seeing on the silver screen what my imagination had always told me was possible, I'll take CGI in many instances.

Spidey vs. Doc Ock? Some of the best comic book action on any screen I've ever seen. I watch just those scenes and love them every time. It's Spider-Man come to life.


Doug said...

That should have been "ship bobbing" -- sorry, typing too fast.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug said...


Do our nay-sayers prefer standard, old-school animation to what Pixar does?


Anonymous said...

I don't think it is "nit-picking" to like what you like and not like what you don't like. If the Spider-Man swinging looks weird, it is gonna take me out of it. I can't control that. IF the stories and characterizations were good (I think they weren't) then I'd could get over it, but as it was. . .

I am not sure what I am supposed to be grateful for. I had the comics and love them and in some cases TV cartoons. Live-action films are far from a necessity. :)

I, for one, have long thought that full on animation is THE BEST way to go for superhero movies and that the masks and helmets and tights on live-action people tend to look real stupid (thus I am glad that Thor doesn't wear his winged helmet and it looks like Cap will have his mask on less in Winter Soldier). The problem is that unlike Japan, in the U.S. an animated movie is never treated as a movie adults can enjoy - it reinforces the "kiddie" aspects.

For the record, I love both Pixar and classic animation.

P.S. If this comes off as strident, forgive me and blame it on the flatness of communicating through text only! :)

Doug said...

Sorry if my previous post seemed terse as well. Sometimes I have a perception of constant negativity manifesting itself within our generally positive comments and I just pop. As I write this, I can tell my blood pressure is up.

My point about grateful, and maybe some of our readers don't view the comic book experience as a package deal (I do), is my view that I am just bowled over by the fact that comics have "come to life" on the movie screen and have become somewhat acceptable in the public eye. I never thought I would see this.

I've personally always had sort of a universalist point of view about comics. Comic books are at the center, but emanating from that point are posters, novels, Colorforms, cookie cutters, birthday candles and wrapping paper, films, cartoons, and on and on. So as part of my experience, I was so excited to have Megos as a child, then I thought the Secret Wars action figures were neat, but then I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when Marvel Legends started showing up at retail. The films fit into this gestalt, so yes -- I do have a sense of gratitude that they are a corner of my own comics reality. So maybe my standards fit more into the "wow!" than they do literary analysis, et al.

I'm feeling calmer now...


mr. oyola said...

Sorry if I come off as negative just to be negative. I have some friends who accuse me of being a "hater," but I really feel like the critique of stuff comes from a place of LOVE, not of hate. :) If I did not know this stuff so well and care about it why would I take the time to examine it so closely?

But to get back to the topic, for me the best effects are when I can forget they are an effect, either through verisimilitude or just emotional impact. Thus, I never think about Chewbacca as "a man in a suit" or Yoda as a puppet when I watch the original Star Wars. Even the creaky lurching skeleton warriors from Jason and the Argonauts feel "real" to me. But Jar Jar Binks? Not so much.

Some CGI really works, like Gollum in the LotR - but I think the motion capture and the facial expressions and voice is what carries that - a guy in a mask or an armored suit is harder to pull off.

Edo Bosnar said...

Hey, man, I said in my first comment that CGI is good in some things - I actually like it in most super-hero flicks. Like Karen said, it has its place, but it shouldn't be a crutch for filmmakers.
One example of what seems to me a good balance between more traditional effects and CGI is the new Battlestar Galactica. Those CGI centurions actually look quite good.
As for animation, I agree with Osvaldo: I like both traditional (classic) and the digital style a la Pixar and Dreamworks. But I just love cartoons in general.

Doug said...

Oh, no, lads -- neither of you was the object of my comment about negativity.

I agree about Chewbacca -- along with the original Apes films and even the Burton re-do, the Chewbacca mask's ability to convey movement and emotion really brings the character to life.

Bad special effects? King Kong -- the Jessica Lange vehicle. While some aspects of the film, such as the close-ups of Kong's face and the giant hands, were "believable" we still got a guy in a gorilla suit who moved like a man rather than like a gorilla.

So we're all discussing our suspension of disbelief to an extent, right? Or is this more a discussion of aesthetics?


Karen said...

OK, I gotta defend my guy Rick Baker here for his work in the 1976 King Kong. I think he did a great job on the suit and mask, as well as acting the role. What's absolutely execrable is the giant robot Kong, which wound up in about 30 seconds of the movie, and is obviously different from the ape in the rest of the film. Yet DeLaurentis for the longest time tried to claim that most of the film was shot with the robot, when clearly it was not.

The biggest problem with using the man-in-suit route was the lack of any dinosaurs for Kong to fight, so we got that rather anemic snake instead. That was a big drop off from the classic original.

Honestly though, I'd rather watch the 76 Kong than Jackson's bloated remake. That thing bores the heck out of me. And his Kong actually looks too much like 'just' a big gorilla -there's nothing mythical about it.

Doug said...

As far as Kong goes, the DeLaurentis one would be third on my list. I'd go with the original, then the Jackson version (but picking and choosing through the scenes -- no way am I watching that entire behemoth), and then the 1976 one. Honestly, I'd throw the original Mighty Joe Young in before the '76 Kong. I don't hate it -- in fact I really enjoyed it in the theater and then again several times on HBO in my youth. I'd just rank it third on my list of Kong flicks.


Humanbelly said...

Oh Doug, you finally beat me to the point I was hoping to contribute (I was reading down the posts, getting excited since the phrase hadn't managed to pop up yet. . . ): no matter what what type of special effects/ animation are being employed, it will always boil down to willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, AND the more artfully the effects are done (be they puppets, stop-motion, CGI, models, guys in suits, or even straight-on animation), the more likely they'll be to keep the audience engaged and delighted. I daresay it's not even necessary to outright FOOL the audience, as long as life is indeed being clearly and honestly created via the effect. Integrity (i.e.-- avoiding a ridiculous effects over-reach w/out budget support) and adherance to the needs of the story are pretty much all that's required to keep me in the moment.
'Course, I tend to be an easy mark.
For the most part, AVATAR was a breathtaking and emotional experience for me. POLAR EXPRESS, on the other hand, felt almost chillingly soul-less in spite of its source material, as it got lost in its vast CGI spectacle.
I'm a guy who has pretty much been standing on his seat cheerleading through even the lamer superhero films because CGI has allowed them to be portrayed in an appropriately "believable" manner. That particular moment in Spidey-1, where the figure is pretty obviously CGI, swinging around that pole? Please, folks--a little charity, and take a moment to recall the moment in the original KING KONG when Kong has snatched up a screaming Fay Wray, and there's an brief & unfortunately necessary shot of an OBVIOUSLY stop-motion, hysterically-gesticulating Fay-doll struggling in Kong's hand. It was, frankly, comical. But that film had heaps of deserved accolades for its effects. There are risks, experiments, and learning curves, but gosh-- it does just seem to get better and better to my eager eye.

Quick question: Is CGI REALLY cheaper than models and what-not?? My sense is that it's astonishingly labor-intensive. . . but that it's so wildly versatile that it's a good investment. Or am I just off-base on this?


Anonymous said...

Speaking of Anniken Skywalker, I could kind of picture Justin Bieber becoming a Darth Vader-like figure at some point.
Say the apocalypse happened tomorrow, he could re-emerge from the ruins as a dark tyrant in a 7-foot tall cybernetic body and rule the survivors with ruthless terror.

Anonymous said...

Well here's my take on this topic - I believe CGI has its place in modern cinema. When used correctly in the context of telling a story it can really add to the realism of a movie. However, and this is especially true of many movies today, too much GGI can actually detract from a film because the emphasis is on the special effects rather than the characters or the story.

I think most directors and filmmakers would be better off if they purposely underutilized CGI in their work. The original 1960s Star Trek series had very low budget FX and basic model ships yet it still stands up to this day because of the quality of the scripts (OK most of them anyway!) and the memorable characters. No one complains that the Enterprise didn't have much detail on it!

Someone once said that special effects/CGI work best when the viewer doesn't notice it - in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker and his rebel band are flying around trying to blow up the Death Star, you don't notice it's only model ships because you're so caught up in the drama of a few insignificant pilots struggling against a seemingly indestructible foe. When an elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi is duelling Darth Vader, you don't realize it's plastic swords with FX added in post production because it's the human drama of two persons who had a lot of history behind them now trying to kill each other. Too much CGI here would have lessened the emotional impact of these scenes.

The later prequels with a young Anakin were just inferior movies even though they had more advanced CGI than the first three films. No amount of CGI could rescue these films. Lucas's 'improvements' to the original films didn't really add much, although it was a blast to finally see Han Solo talking to Jabba the Hutt!

- Mike 'too much of a good thing' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Anonymous said...

I think we're already burned out and jaded with CGI.
I remember when I went to see Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, I was absolutely blown away. (I'm not slamming the movie at all, it was a fantastic film and I still love it).
But first with the giant cave troll and then the balrog, I remember thinking "Holy shmolies!! Those things look almost too dang realistic for my blood pressure!" When that 20-foot troll exploded into that chamber, I ducked!
Now it seems almost like old hat, what with Seth Rogen of all people putting a three hundred foot tall Satan in his last movie.
I guess we'll just have to keep relying on good old fashioned storytelling, because there's no special effect that can shock us any more.
At least until they start plugging the wires directly into our skulls.

Rip Jagger said...

I say they weren't as good. I'm one of the few who actually liked the Phantom Menace, a movie that gets heckled all the time. I thought the balance of special effects and people was pretty good in that one. Attack of the Clones is still impressive, but by the third one of the prequels, the video game effect is starting to overwhelm the overall look.

Movies still need real people in relatively real places to ground them before the fantastic jumps up to dazzle. The most recent Tolkien movies have been overcome with the ability to do things in computer which could and maybe should've been done with people.

Rip Off

Anonymous said...

A lot of people here have talked about that first Star Wars movie, and I think it affected a lot of us a great deal. I was eight when I saw it in the theater in '77, my mom took me and my little brother there after I pestered her incessantly for weeks and wore her down.
There was a sense of wonder and magic there. At least in that one movie, anyway. I think it's something we struggle to hold on to as adults, sometimes. We all wanna have that feeling we had as kids.
I think that sense of wonder and amazement can be a very good thing.

Garett said...

A couple things CGI has been bad at are gravity and substance. Seeing Spidey swing around for the first time, it looked like the movie makers had been playing too many video games instead of seeing how gravity works in real life. And often CGI appears real to the eyes, but not to the sense of touch--insubstantial compared to the old models. I think things have improved over the last 15 years--Avengers looked great, and had a compelling story. In the dvd commentary for Ron Howard's boxing movie Cinderella Man, he mentions that they used CGI here and there, such as creating misty breath in the cold weather. I didn't notice it at all watching the film, so that's successful CGI.

Gladiator used some CGI for the Coliseum that I thought didn't really work--Sparticus was better in transporting me to ancient times. (Still liked Gladiator though!) For Star Wars, yes too much noodling in the new films, like a pop song adding more and more production to cover up that it's a weak song.

Another thing I'd complain about is the "shaky camera" fight scene. I love seeing well choreographed fisticuffs/swordplay etc in a movie, whether it's James Bond or Bruce Lee or superheroes. Shaking the camera and making quick cuts is not a good substitute!

Edo Bosnar said...

Since I commented on the John Carter movie post just now, almost 2 years after the fact, it just reminded me that I thought the CGI really worked well in that one.

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