Friday, July 3, 2015

On Criticizing Criticism of Modern Special Effects and CGI in Movies

Somewhere, George Miller is shaking his head sadly. Maybe laughing a little.

Two articles have appeared recently, one on Gizmodo railing against modern special effects in movies and one on CartoonBrew, not so much arguing in favor of them as simply criticizing the first article. See below:

Gizmodo - Against Modern Effects

CartoonBrew - Against the Against

The Gizmodo post has a good point about using real backgrounds vs fully generated ones. However, much of his supporting "evidence" is flawed. Using the box office receipts and ratings of just plain bad movies (i.e. King Kong) to show the ineffectiveness of their CGI is ridiculous. It's like putting me in a pair of Air Jordans and, after I fail to dunk, blaming the shoes. And the "WETA effect" comments also miss the mark - the look of the LOTR films is a conscious, art direction choice, and is actually what he should be arguing for, not against.

Likewise, the CartoonBrew is equally ridiculous in their pro-VFX artist stance. Just because something is hard to do doesn't make it worthwhile. Anyone claiming that effects are as good as ever and that people criticizing them are silly, old-fashioned and uninformed has drunk their own lemonade and stuck their heads in the sand.

As always, the answer lies somewhere in the untapped middle, and it's more than one thing. For one thing, in the old days, when a big effects or spectacle movie was in the works, we always heard stories of directors going to the old masters for advice. This wasn't like "chin up" advice, this was nuts and bolts, "how the hell do I do this thing" advice. That's because directors used to be more more directly involved in the special effects going into their movies. They would see the models and matte paintings being made, they were intimately involved in every step from blue screen to compositing to color correction. The meant constant quality control - the reason CGI hasn't improved since Lost World is because Spielberg oversaw every aspect of that bastard (sadly, no one oversaw his inability to make kids interesting after E.T...). That direct involvement is way less nowadays, especially with the proliferation of effects houses, many not even in the same country as the director.

Another reason for the downgrade in effectiveness, and for me this is probably one of the biggest, is because effects were so prohibitively expensive, they had to be used sparingly! Every frame of use had to MATTER, and so every use of VFX moved the story forward. Now, as mentioned above, studios find the cheapest overseas effects crew they can find (I'm looking at you, South Korea...). Then they squeeze every last bit of CGI blood out of that stone to get their money's worth. A good example of this is Lucas cramming mostly useless CGI animation into his re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy, most of which either didn't serve the story, or actually slowed it down. Pointless.

And this discussion doesn't even include all the crappy 3D conversions out there. 

I'm sure there are a half dozen other reasons why CGI is overpoweringly meh and overused in most of today's offerings. At least the CartoonBrew calls for a more nuanced discussion of VFX artistry, but then doesn't do it, settling instead for slinging arrows back at the original article.

VFX and CGI are just tools, and like any tools, they can be used to make great art, or utter crap. Story, story, story!!!

Now, I'm going to go watch Mad Max: Fury Road again...

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