Does CGI Benefit Special Effects or Detract From Them?
Back in the 90s, a new technological advancement in special effects was taking place not in the form of advanced animatronics or puppetry, but rather digital images. While it was first attempted in the Paramount film Young Sherlock Holmes, CGI started to become well-known to the public with ground-breaking movies such as Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Jurassic Park. Both of these films have demonstrated how you were able to create anything now and there were no limits except your own imagination. Industrial Light and Magic have been able to create all kinds of life, whether it’d be mechanical or prehistoric.
Many films have followed in their paths since then and through many ups and downs, CGI has become the industry standard for visual effects. There have been many debates on whether CGI is an improvement or a step down to what was previously established. The question that seems to be on everyone’s minds is if CGI has been taken for granted. In order to understand where filmmakers are today, it’s necessary to take a step back and see exactly what made Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park work.
Creating a Machine Through Computers
With Terminator 2‘s case, it was a followup to James Cameron’s own The Terminator a couple of years prior in 1984. After years of trying to find out the rights, James Cameron was finally able to shoot the sequel and he wanted it to be bigger than the previous film. In fact, so much bigger that it practically was 10 times the budget of the original film, rounding up to $102 million, which was the most expensive film at the time.
The main attraction that seems to be the centerpiece for all of the digital effects in this movie comes in the character of the T-1000, an advanced prototype who’s able to shape shift into anything it comes in contact with. We see throughout the film that he morphs with a silvery, metallic shine to him and as its body starts to fall apart, we see that his insides are made of that same material. These effects were made possible by digital effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. Nowadays, it might be a little easier to tell that some of the shots are computer-generated, but at the time, nobody was aware of how the effect was achieved. It’s all because the T-1000 wasn’t an entirely computer-generated character.
Animatronics maker Stan Winston had helped assemble many of the practical effects that are in this movie. Perhaps it was because Cameron thought that the digital effect would be obvious or it may have been a money issue, but he made the right call of blending these two together rather than favoring one over the other. Since they only had to use digital effects when there was no other possible way to achieve the effect, it only made those moments more special as opposed to being tacked on.
Resurrecting the Past with New Methods
Just as Terminator 2 broke new boundaries, Jurassic Park broke those boundaries as well as it took digital effects even further to bring dinosaurs to life. Steven Spielberg originally was planning to use stop motion to create the dinosaurs, but after seeing a tech demo created by Industrial Light and Magic, he was so impressed that he wanted them to do the digital effects for his movie. He used their technology to his full advantage, showing the dinosaurs not only at night, but in broad daylight, in all of its glory.
Jurassic Park had employed the same techniques used in Terminator 2 and combined practical effects with the digital ones. As it turns out, Stan Winston had provided the practical effects for this film as well. By this point, it was apparent that these two companies worked well together and could create works of art that had the potential to be expanded upon.
Milking It For All It’s Worth
However, overtime studios have realized that since CGI was pretty much limitless and you could produce just about anything, it seemed financially logical to focus their efforts on computer generated images as opposed to spending more money on physical effects. Today’s blockbusters, like many of the Marvel movies for example, use an extensive amount of digital images and green screen to film all of their action sequences. To most of the public, this seems like the next logical step. After all, everyone assumes whatever’s newer must be the superior one and that mindset applies to movies as well. If the audience sees something out of the ordinary, they’ll notice it immediately and might lash out against what they see.
In a way, CGI is being taken for granted, but it’s not because audiences can figure out what’s digital and what’s not. It’s because it’s the band-aid of special effects. It fixes any potential problems that could exist on set with practical effects. At the same time, it’s also more efficient for studios to invest in it both time-wise and financially. So why is there a group that decry the art of digital effects? Is it perhaps that they are simply stuck in the ways of the past or do they have a point? After all, their complaints seem to drive on that “too cartoony” or “too unrealistic”. While that’s not to say that practical effects can’t look just as bad as digital effects, there simply need to be a compromise.
The Same Story Retold Through New Techniques
Most of these arguments seemed to have stemmed from all of the remakes that have been released in the last couple of years. A prime example would be comparing King Kong, both the original 1933 version by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and the 2005 remake by Peter Jackson. Since these films are decades apart from each other, there was bound to be many advancements in not only the special effects, but many aspects of filmmaking as well. The 1933 film used all sorts of techniques to bring Kong to life like stop-motion animation and using closeups of models of his limbs to interact with the cast. In the 2005 movie, Kong was portrayed by Andy Serkis via motion-capture animation. Ever since Jackson’s King Kong, there has been many debates on which audiences find to be better, the timeless original or the more sophisticated 2005 version. Each movie tried to push the boundaries as much as possible for the time they were made and while it’s understandable to see the 2005 film as the more ambitious project, it’s also important to understand how revolutionary the first movie was. For a 1933 film to feature such an advanced method of stop-motion, especially for a early sound movie, it was monumental for the time. As long as remakes honor the original in which they’re based on, then no matter how they choose to portray a giant ape, the story will still shine through. (Of course there’s the 1976 remake, but it doesn’t stand out in terms in advancements.)
Where Studios Are At Now
Studios simply need to plan out their budgets so they are more cost-effective. It’s possible to please both crowds if they are willing to compromise and try to find out what works with each kind and what doesn’t. In fact, there seems to be somewhat of a renaissance of practical effects, as movies such as Jurassic World and Star Wars Episode VII have advertised that they would contain traditional effects as well as digital effects.
However, despite this claim, many of the effects in those movies were still computer generated, with only a few seconds worth of animatronics. This shows that studios are listening to the demands of the traditionalists, but so far, it seems to be only lip-service since all of the CG touch-ups might have been just created solely on computers to begin with. There’s really no point in creating any sort of puppets if the end result has a digital look. Maybe it’s just the beginning of this revival or maybe not, only time will tell.
Special effects will continue to evolve overtime and some of the changes may be big or may not even be noticeable. There are all kinds of different filmmakers out there with all sorts of goals in mind. Filmmakers that purely work for the studio’s needs may go the digital way and those who have a passion for the art of film may go the traditional way. Practical effects have their place in films, just like how digital effects have their place. It’s up to those directors to see where special effects films can go from here.
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