It's Practical and Digital, Not Practical vs. Digital

The Verge published a piece on August 4th titled “2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback“, but I mercifully remained ignorant of its existence for four days. This is another long, rambling post about how “practical effects” are good, and “CGI” is bad. You know, the kind of article that sounds very appealing on the surface because it talks about how much better things used to be, and how bad things are now. I am particularly irked that these poorly reasoned opinion pieces get broadcast to large audiences. It’s one thing if someone wants to tweet this, it’s another thing if a journalist uses his platform to broadcast things that aren’t accurate. It makes the discourse worse when that happens.

The reason it happens is because writers don’t know enough about VFX, which makes that black box an easy target. It’s whatever’s in the mystery box that made the movie bad.

The same day Kwame published his piece, Freddie Wong put out a great video that undercuts these sort of arguments. The timing is coincidental, but the subject is the same. Freddie’s video is a great way to demonstrate the flaws with “CG Sucks”. It’s not without flaws, but it’s my number one choice to refer people to.

Ben Kuchera wrote a small bit in favor of Freddie Wong’s short video for another Vox-owned site, Polygon:

The computer is a tool, and some folks know how to use it well while others don’t. It doesn’t make the tool bad when it’s used gracelessly, and we have to improve the conversation about how special effects are used in modern media … especially when we don’t even know they’re there.

Caroline Franke also endorses Freddie’s video, and agrees with him, over at the main Vox site. Curiously, she elected to embed a video from Todd VanDerWerff’s disastrous piece in favor of practical effects. The one where Todd had to print a correction that he was using an E.T. with a computer generated face (he couldn’t tell).

Back to this Verge piece:

I’m going to go through Kwame’s opinion piece and break it down. It’s not the nicest way for me to spend my time, but I don’t want to leave any lingering doubts that this sort of film critique isn’t helpful, and it’s damaging to the public perception of what I do for a living.

2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback

The biggest set piece in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is also its first scene. We’ve all seen it in the trailers: a frantic but determined Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) clutches the side of an Airbus A400 for dear life as it takes off into the stratosphere. While the scene itself is only tangentially related to the overall plot of the movie, Paramount made sure this was the scene that got people into theaters. A large part of this strategy was broadly publicizing the fact that it wasn’t faked. No CGI was used. No expense was spared. Tom Cruise was really and truly strapped to the side of that plane.

Here we see the first problem. If Paramount had not promoted this as being a real stunt, then no one would know it was real or if computers were used to augment reality.

Indeed, computers were used to augment this very scene and remove the wires used to safeguard Tom Cruise’s life. Wire removal is still a visual effect, and it’s not a flashy one because you’re not supposed to see it. It is an invisible effect.

The Mission: Impossible franchise decided long ago to place its bets on over-the-top stunt work — Cruise famously scaled an actual section of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in 2011, for example. But in 2015, practical effects and stunts aren’t exceptions to special effects rules. As some of the biggest movies of the year — namely Rogue Nation, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens — rely more and more on real-life actors for their action scenes, we might be seeing the start of a shift away from CGI as practical effects become a bankable alternative.

First of all, he is citing a film no one has seen as an example of practical effects being used well. Secondly, he speculates about real-life actors being used for their action scenes more often. That has nothing to do with practical effects. In the old days, stars would perform their own stunts, on occasion, if it could be safely executed because there was no technology to do face replacement for stunt doubles. Sometimes, you’d just see a stunt double! Digitally replacing someone’s face, or putting an explosion behind them, isn’t inherently worse. If Paramount has not told everyone Tom was really on that plane then no one would have known because visual effects artists can believably pull that off these days. You could say that it would totally fly under the radar.

As far as “bankable” goes? Marketing select stunts as practical might be novel, but it’s not a distinguishing feature of the film as seen on the screen.

There’s certainly no question that CGI can take fantasies and make them seem like reality on the big screen. Recent successes like Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron wouldn’t be possible without computers allowing for flying suits of armor and cars flying out of buildings. But after more than a decade of high-octane CG theatrics from huge box office juggernauts like Transformers, Harry Potter, Avatar, Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, literally anything the Wachowskis make, and every Marvel and DC tentpole, audiences might be getting fatigued of digital models exploding into countless pixels. As Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry put it after seeing Age of Ultron, CGI can now prove “more numbing than exciting, even during what should be the show-stopping sequences.”

Kwame, and Brian incorrectly blame a writer, or director’s injudicious use of a tool to mean that the tool itself is flawed. Killing a large number of nameless, meaningless things – whether digital or practical – will always be hollow regardless of the means used to execute the effect on screen.

Groot was a digital character in Guardians of the Galaxy and people loved him. They felt bad when bad things happened to him. In the same film, there are waves and waves of people dying and it means very little. If a computer didn’t touch those scenes it would read the same, emotionally, it would just cost a ton of money to manufacture. If any journalists would like to spring into action and second-guess the things Hollywood spends money on, go for it, but that’s not this argument.

Hollywood’s reliance on CG has only intensified. In the 1970s and ‘80s, movies like Westworld and Tron made use of rudimentary computer graphics to dazzle audiences who’d never seen such worlds on the big screen.

Really? That was the perfect execution of computer graphics in film? Westworld and Tron? They should have just held steady there?

Fast forward to 2014, and we got Transformers: Age of Extinction, a movie full of so much visual noise that it was hard to tell what was even going on.

Again, this wouldn’t read as a better experience with stop-motion robots. Maybe, just maybe, Transformers: Age of Extinction might have issues with story and direction?

As computers have gotten more powerful, studios have used them to create bigger spectacles. Bigger spectacles translate to bigger box office returns; according to Box Office Mojo, six of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time were CGI-fueled summer epics that came out in just the last five years. Three came out this year alone. Raising the stakes for what what we expect from our popcorn fare inevitably means upping the visual ante. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s done well. But in overindulging what it thinks is our bottomless appetite for bigger, more bombastic movies, Hollywood might be battering our senses to the point of dullness.

Huge factual errors here because it assumes the films are successful because they used digital effects. Even the most mundane projects use digital effects for set extensions, a couple sky replacements, makeup fixes, wire removal, painting out camera reflections – Lots of stuff. It is a part of filmmaking.

Also, if spectacle was inherently successful then all expensive, VFX-driven films would be successful. That is not the case. Even Disney, which has some of the biggest successes, with VFX out the wazoo have had very expensive flops. Sadly, Tomorrowland was not well received this year, and that was “done well”. It had nothing to do with “dulled senses”. Pixels, and Fantastic Four are loaded with effects but didn’t perform as well as other VFX heavy productions.

Spectacle, even if it’s executed well, isn’t going to guarantee the movie is even a financial success. Regardless of it being physical or digital.

As Matthew Zoller Seitz wrote for last year:

Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, “The Avengers,” the “Iron Man” and “Thor” and “Captain America” films, the new “Spider-Man” series and “Man of Steel” treat viewers not to variations of the same situations (which is fine and dandy; every zombie film has zombies, and ninety percent of all westerns end in gunfights) but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions. As long as people are talking, there’s a chance the movies will be good. When the action starts, the films become less special.

In other words, all this is expected, and the miracles that cinema pulled off 30 years ago — the moments when audiences felt transported to the directors’ dreamscapes — now feel rote.

This has nothing to do with using a computer to make images on a screen. This has to do with the images that get approved to go on that screen at the whims of the director. It has nothing to do with specialness of the tool.

It should really be pointed out that people make computer generated effects. A computer, by itself, generates nothing. If that were the case, your home PC would be pumping out Pixar classics while you browse the web for new shoes.

Just as people made miniature models to blow up, or painted matte paintings, or drew lightning by hand. People have to make it happen.

But in recent years, there’s been an attitude shift bubbling up among some of Hollywood’s biggest-budget filmmakers. In a recent interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Rogue Nation co-star Simon Pegg talks about the merits of dangerous stunts over CGI:

“These days,” he says, “CG is an amazing tool, and we love it and it enables us to do amazing things. But when you see something which is digital, there’s a slight sense of disconnect. You know it’s not real. Tom taped himself to the side of a plane for real! That’s how much he cares about you!”

What Simon Pegg is describing is when he knows something isn’t real. That means the effect didn’t work out. You can also know that animatronics, stop motion, matte paintings, and optical lightning are in a movie and they’re not “real”. Go watch Arnold take a table-tennis-ball-sized tracking device out through his nostril in Total Recall – or basically any effect in that movie. Tell me how real it feels.

There actually is a visceral sense of danger and even wonder as you’re forced to acknowledge that a human being is risking their life for a film, much in the same way that there’s a greater feeling of connection to a person in makeup over her CG counterpart.

Only if you know they did. The goal is that you can’t tell whether or not they did. It is so very easy to highlight effects that did not work, but it is hard for audiences to perceive the ones that did. Freddie Wong’s video highlights a couple examples that are worth considering, but if you watch enough behind-the-scenes videos you’ll see plenty of other invisible effects.

That’s certainly true for Mad Max: Fury Road, whose promotional push made much of the fact that it was shot in the Namibian desert with real cars, real explosions, and a real flamethrowing guitar, as if to remind people that things like that could still be pulled off in real life. Of course, director George Miller also used plenty of digital effects to push his scenes over the top. Of the film’s 2,400 shots, 2,000 of them were VFX shots. But set pieces that might have been done purely by computer in other movies were choreographed in real life, making for some beautiful but incredibly dangerous scenes.

This is where Kwame should have realized his whole argument against the pervasive use of computer graphics made no sense. 83% of a film. No big deal! Not to mention the color grading (digital), the editing and retimes (digital). That is not to belittle the importance of the work performed on scene, but to highlight how this had nothing to do with computer graphics being bad. VFX shots aren’t cilantro.

And it’s especially true for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which hits theaters later this year. Director J.J. Abrams has continually and consistently paid deference to the practical ingenuity that made the original trilogy so great. So in addition to the return of the original starring cast, we’ve also been promised a return of practical effects. The new X-Wing? Real. BB-8? Real. The Millennium Falcon? So real as to injure Harrison Ford on set. These decisions are billed as a return to form, as a chance to go back to the way things are supposed to be.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the movie isn’t even out yet, the marketing push is. Also that list is wrong, because the Millennium Falcon as a set piece is real, but that ship you see flying around sure as shit isn’t. Those “X-Wings” are real set pieces but they aren’t models over that water.

Don’t give me this “real” stuff about a space movie in a galaxy long, long ago that was part of a $4 billion sale to a media conglomerate. It’s about illusion. It’s great that a person might think it’s real, but it’s about the suspension of disbelief, not physical manufacturing. Physically manufactured elements can help, but it’s not like anyone believed the puppet Yoda in The Phantom Menace was real, in spite of it being a physically manufactured puppet. (Except for the walking part.)

And that’s likely the whole point — that striving for verisimilitude today means moving away from the CG that’s an industry standard and reminding audiences of how directors like Spielberg and Lucas did it way back when.

No, no it isn’t the point at all. Film is not a documentary process. Truth is belief, not reality. Use the writing, acting, makeup, costumes, stunts, sets, locations, color grading, editing, special effects, and visual effects that make the audience get swept away in the story.

It’s clear that, at a time when so many of today’s movies are reboots or returns to older properties, studios are trying hard to mine for what made people feel so good about going to the movies in the first place. Directors like Abrams and actors like Tom Cruise seem nostalgic for a time when connecting to magical objects, spaceships from far-off galaxies, and actual peril meant relying on props, makeup, wires, and daring. They’re both saying that today’s CG landscape can’t pull that off because we take computerized effects for granted.

No, I think they did it this way because they thought it would work for the movies they were making. Again, it bears repeating that the Star Wars movie has not been seen by Kwame. He’s immediately lauding it for practical effects.

That doesn’t mean that practical effects are inherently better or that CGI shouldn’t ever be used. It just means that, like music lovers preaching the gospel of vinyl, some directors are pushing back against CGI because practical effects express their ideas about how their particular movies — and maybe movies in general — ought to be made.

What?! A whole slew of words about how computer graphics shouldn’t be used and we come to an analogy about vinyl? Vinyl?!

I anxiously await the print edition of The Verge on my local newsstand, because paper is an inherently better medium.

At the end of the day, though, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is just a popcorn flick, diverting but ultimately empty.

“Anyway, I think practical effects make movies good but this movie wasn’t good, so oh well.”

Special effects can never replace the connection created by an excellent story that keeps you invested from start to finish. But you do feel something during those stunts, an elevated kind of thrill knowing Tom Cruise really is on that plane or on that motorcycle, risking his life so that we can have fun for a couple of hours at the movies. It could be argued that Rogue Nation would be no better if the whole thing were done with green screen.

I will gladly argue this. In fact, I have, above. Kwame’s time would have been better spent arguing this as well.

After all, real-life action gets our attention right now primarily because it feels so different.

It doesn’t feel different. It has been marketed as being different. No one A/B tested this movie with a version heavier on computer graphics. There was no Pepsi Challenge.

But with the next few years positively glutted with action movies, “different” might have a leg up on the competition.

In marketing films it might give the project a leg up on competition by virtue of the fact that audiences have been fed a narrative that one kind of illusion is inherently better for them, in all cases, than another kind of illusion.

2015-08-08 23:00:00

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