Thursday, January 21, 2016

Love of the Practical

The New Yorker tells us:

... Critics and fanboys have grumbled about C.G.I.’s excesses—whole cities collapsing, superheroes zooming into the stratosphere—for years. Those grumbles are now as likely to come from the directors themselves. “2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback,” the Web site The Verge announced in August. I think you could push this a step further. It’s as if directors—especially the reboot generation—have finally become self-conscious about C.G.I.; 2015 was the year they got embarrassed by the digital miracles of the movies.

You could hear boasting about “real” sets and practical effects in the hype around nearly every one of last year’s non-Marvel blockbusters. As the Web site Jalopnik reported of “Fury Road,” “Nearly all the stunts in the movie were ‘practical,’ meaning everything you see was done in real life with real humans and real cars.… The desert doesn’t suffer mechanical fools lightly and CGI is bullshit.” ...

We’ve reached a point where directors and audiences no longer derive authenticity from what looks “real” but from what looked real in seventies, eighties, and nineties blockbusters. And real is an awfully flexible word. George Miller, the director of “Fury Road,” was hailed for sending a hundred and fifty vehicles clattering through the Namibian desert—just like the old days! But as Andrew Jackson, the movie’s visual-effects supervisor, told fxguide, “I’ve been joking recently about how the film has been promoted as being a live action stunt-driven film.… The reality is that there’s 2,000 VFX shots in the film”—out of about twenty-four hundred shots total. ...

Practical effects are a sales tool for the small slice of the global audience that cares about those things, all 89,000 of them. Also, too, the filmmakers (mostly directors) who want to make use of plastic and rubber and styrofoam because they're more "real".

But mostly, it's business as usual. And going back to the technologies of the seventies and eighties isn't confined to live-action effects. There's a forceful contingent of animation fans that want hand-drawn features to make a comeback. Problem is, the conglomerates have discovered that theatrical audiences spend a lot more money for CG animation, so their interest in bringing back Walt's art form is minimal.

Stop motion, of course, is one of the oldest visual effects, but outside of LAIKA, Tim Burton, and eccentric television series on a couple of cable network, few are doing it. As a veteran stop motion animator told me two and a half years ago: "There's about 100 of us doing this, and we have to travel all over if we hope to make a living at it." (He was working on a Disney stop-mtion project that was ultimately shut down, proving his point.)

Scrape away the flapdoodle and the truth is: movies are made with newer technologies. This is the way it's been for a century. There might be actual stunt people sprinkled about in this or that sci fi epic, but the heavy lifting continues to be done by men and women sitting in front of flat screens and computers, creating shots.


Stephen said...

I actually completely disagree that only a small portion cares about practical effects. I just think only a small portion is self-aware to understand that they care. Film is an illusion. And CGI is also an illusion. So when you use one illusion to create another illusion, the result twice as removed from reality and twice as hard to accept. You didn't notice it, but your brain did. Now, that doesn't mean CGI fests won't continue making boat loads of cash, but the human brain will always be more impressed by a model or a suit than it will with pixels. We're programmed to spot phoniness; it's part of our evolution.

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