films

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.

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Assault on Original Sci-Fi: Have Fans Become Agents of the Machine?

Something has happened to original celluloid science/speculative fiction in recent years. Creators of new ideas, those stories generated through inspiration or ideas scribbled in notebooks as a child, are assailed and mercilessly pilloried for seemingly minor entertainment transgressions.

Somewhere along the line some vocal fans- yes every film is designed for public consumption as part of the entertainment industry- have gone from spectators to participants in the shaping and marketing of science fiction films. Money is to be made by giving the fans what they want, true. But what about original works that make it the silver screen? Advocates for original, not adapted stories, are few and far between. It seems a fashion to deliberately mock and attack creators of original science fiction ideas on film.

If you await the next big-named science fiction/superhero franchise, there is no quarrel. We find comfort in the familiar and escapist. But the quarrel lay with those who hoist these new movies above all others and denigrate ideas that aren’t spawned, in particular, from sequential art exemplified with the recent release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What seems to happen as of late are directors berated by “sci-fi” fans for their efforts. I posit that fans seeking voice online are in fact fans of the comfort/familiar form of science fiction, particularly from comic-books And in a way, many have become agents of the studio marketing machine. By enlisting in this marketing effort would-be pundits become thought-leaders and influencers of the wider viewing public, especially online and within their social media circles. Just as we love comfort, we also as a species love to follow the leader. In war-time you can always tell a leader on the battlefield by the person waving their hands and shouting the most. That is the marketing role adopted, seemingly unwittingly, by many devotees of high visibility, comic-book type science fiction. I enjoyed the inaugural Iron Man effort, thought Captain America: Winter Soldier had a plot and turns worth investing it. And Guardians of the Galaxy was a riot of space opera fun.

In the past decade we’ve seen a plethora of superhero science fiction franchises dominating the box office. The Avengers I and II, Spider Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, X-Men and Iron Man have been tent poles, well-known titles that have become the standard bearer of movie science fiction. Appealing to a broader crowd than tights and superpowers crowd have been YA book spin-offs Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent. Each of these projects relies on such rigid source material that any deviation is unthinkable, resulting in at times bland, consumed with CG that renders the film a two hour video game, or such ham-fisted films that defy the most generous label of good films. When a film does deviate, like Man of Steel, the vox populi erupts with such righteous indignation that attempting to defend the project makes you a scurrilous Neanderthal who knows nothing about morality in science fiction film making.

Related, tangentially, is actor/writer Simon Pegg’s comments on the dumbing down of the industry and film-goers here and here.

But back to the issue of originality.

When was the last truly original science fiction film that transcended the genre viewer and become a lasting cultural phenomenon? In James Cameron’s Avatar we had a massive financial success, but as pointed out in Forbes, the film left no footprint on the wider popular culture. Last year’s Interstellar from Christopher Nolan, was an achievement in blending in-camera traditional visual effects, digital creations and a thought bending plot. Yet for all the money it made, the critics were numerous and many came from the hallowed halls of science fiction websites. The last ground-up science fiction franchise to peak culturally was the Matrix trilogy. Funnily enough, the Wachowski’s most recent effort, Jupiter Ascending, was joyfully picked apart and derided for its story telling, style and even its creatures. Uh, like grown men running around in skin tight primary colored uniforms is a shade of reserved normality? And cheese filled dialogue and banter worthy of a adolescent’s joke book is the height of mature story telling.

The one film that seemed to rebel from the stigma of original sci-fi pillorying was the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet if you look at box office totals Fury Road still could not find the pole position in its first week.  Losing to a musical sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, despite being in over 200 more theaters Fury Road pulled in $20 million less for the weekend.

There should be comfort science fiction- popcorn movies. But there needs to be room for original ideas, something created through a life-time’s worth of sensory experiences. Not every original work will be flawless, but neither are the glut of superhero science fiction films overtaking the cinemas. Search out, hard, for complaints about plot holes and leaps in basic film making with the genre and you’ll find them. We face an adventure and science fiction film landscape where Hollywood studios and genre fans have become intertwined. Hollywood is all about making money, its their goal, and they follow the trends. Right now its all about  the superhero and for that reason we all lose.