special effects

VICE: Phil Tippett’s My Life in Monsters

In the pantheon of VFX greats, Phil Tippett is one of the last man standing greats in the industry. I grew up knowing his work intimately and by a briefest glance. His work on all of the Star Wars, RoboCop, Dragon Slayer and beyond inspired my own creativity and imagination. His honesty in the following mini-doc is eye opening and refreshing.

 

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Institutional Knowledge Lost: Rick Baker Retires

bakerwerewolfRick Baker is a legend, a key face on the Mount Rushmore of make-up and special FX practioners. Men like Baker, Savini, Bottin, Harryhausen, Edlund and Winston were rock stars to me as a kid. I knew their work by heart, each bringing a new discipline or creative take to the cinema. Recently, Baker announced his retirement from make-up effects work. It is sad news for the movie industry, but not entirely unexpected.

If you are a regular reader, you know I am not a huge fan of digital special effects. I can count on one hand CGI films that I actually like- Jurassic Park I because CGI was innovative- as an example. Now digital effects are cheap, washed out, deny basic laws of physics and end up blurring the line between animation/video game/live action for the worse.

Baker leaves at the twilight of practical FX, even as directors like Miller, Nolan and Blomkamp attempt to keep it alive. Undercut by digital effects, the art of the practical, hands on artistry of Baker and cohorts is being shuffled into the warehouse of movie history.

That is a damn shame.

Yes, even I admit many make-up effects of the “good old days” were not always convincing, but they were always remarkable, striking and look like effort went into creating them. The minute servos, motors, hand milled articulated miniature, tiny air bladders, unique mixtures of resins or rubbers, and the fine work of stop-motion, all had a workman quality to them. They were achievable, with lots of practice, but were never so easy that they should be taken for granted.

When talents like make-up artists and practical effects artists work now, they are almost novelties or boutique projects crowdfunded or paid for out of their own pockets. I would watch a personal short film made by any FX great if it adheres to the old ways of film making. All effects types and disciplines have their place, but to lose a generation of artists to cost cutting or puerile ideas of what “looks good” is a travesty. Watch American Werewolf in London for the ultimate transformation scene. Admire the photographic tricks of the campy, but technical superior, Mighty Joe Young. These were the old ways. Not always the best, but always earnest and beautiful.

Now we live in a digital age where eyes of television and movie viewers, raised on a generation of video games and simple CGI, are used to the physics defying perfectly polished. Atmospheric distortion, motion blur and articulation that adhere to physiology are almost entirely lost in this new special effects world.

Baker and his colleagues operated in the strictly physical world. If it didn’t fit on or around an actor, then they did it miniature or in stop-motion. Arduous and time consuming was the work of Baker. It was artistic and beautiful in craftsmanship.

The film making craft has gotten a little less hands-on and a lot less smart with Baker’s departure from the industry.

You Got Computer Animation in my Live Action!

avengfx

Shooting indoors, instead of out, modern movies rely heavily on visual effects to build not only characters but also surroundings. In The Avengers actor Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk (right) was entirely rendered based on ‘motion capture’ of his body. An important note, the lack of realistic flexibility in Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man means he too wears motion capture to fill in arms and lower torso.

In a 2002 interview with the late Roger Ebert, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki noted with  amusement the amount of computer animation appearing in film. It was the Spiderman movie franchise that apparently caught Miyazaki’s attention for its level of animation in a film that is otherwise billed as live-action. Miyazaki told Ebert, “In a way now, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation,” where his traditional form of animation holds its own niche.

As you’ve seen by reading this blog, you notice that I am more a traditionalist when it comes to visual effects- miniatures or practical- with the sparing use of smart or visually striking computer effects. The best recent example of this blend of traditional, physical effects and digital work was in 2014’s Interstellar. While imperfect, the Christoper Nolan film attempted to reach lofty heights in visually striking ways. I remained engaged in part because the VFX matrix was nuanced and diverse.

Computer/digital generated effects found in a vast majority of modern films is a tricky balance and often overused. Without delving into issues with the Uncanny Valley, ultimately computer generated images have become so interwoven into live-action films that a preponderance of frames are entirely digitally rendered.

So I must ask the question- how much of a movie is required to have physical actors in order to be live-action? 70%? 60%? 51%? When does a modern action “live-action” film go from being live into animation?

In 2012’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon assembled a superhero battle royal that relied heavily, if not almost entirely, on CGI. For a good look at the immense number of computer generated effects, check out this article from FxGuide. In The Avengers there are “approximately” 2,200 effects shots in the film, with many characters entirely computer rendered throughout the entire length of the movie.

Combine this with the heavy movement towards high-definition all digital film-making and you have the recipe for live-action shots in an otherwise animated movie.

In a Screen Rant article it was estimated that this year’s Avenger film will have 3,000 VFX shots. By contrast James Cameron’s Avatar, a movie that spanned 162 minutes and panned by some for its CG over dependence, there were 2,500 VFX shots. Contrast that number of VFX shots with the landmark and continually beloved Star Wars, which had just 360 special effects shots most of which were miniatures and travelling mattes.

With each passing year actors are rapidly siphoned out of live-action movies. Their likenesses scanned and digitized to be placed on computer generated character that move so blindingly fast and without a sense of connection to the physics of the real world that our “live-action” films of the 21st century feel more like computer animation.

I adore traditional 2D animation. I respect modern digital animation that combines the smooth precision, with washes and tones more like traditional hand drawn animation. What I don’t like is a “live-action” film that feels more like a 2 hour cut-scene from a video game.