I know a few people in the visual effects industry. They love what they do because they know that they can bring wonder and excitement to their audience (myself included) while also providing for their families. The unfortunate irony is that they’re also contributing to the bastardization of the film industry. In a way, the VFX companies are like drug manufacturers, and the studios are the pharmacists, slinging their computer generated pills to the masses and studios alike. Unfortunately, now both are hooked, and it’s hurting the industry.
Now I’m not saying the production companies are deliberately doing anything malicious. I believe (or at least hope) that their producers, somewhere beneath their suits and ties, have a heart and are legitimately trying to make something beautiful with the best of intentions.
Before I go on, it has to be said that I barely passed my economics classes in college. I’m not an expert on how businesses think. But on the first day, the professor said that every company wants to do the same thing: maximize profits with minimal costs. In the unique business of the film that means that they want to make a high grossing flick with as little of their own money as possible. On a film production, those costs can add up quickly. In an attempt to try and avert these costs, the studios have turned to the visual effects companies. It makes sense; why pay a crew of artists and engineers a ton of money to build an army of mechanical dinosaurs when it’s way cheaper to shoot in front of a green screen and then overlay a bunch of CGI dinosaurs. It makes sense, it’s cost effective and the audience (for the most part) won’t care.
But there’s a dark side to the convenience.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell said it best: there ain’t nothing like the real thing (baby). Even the best effects are still easily distinguishable from the reality. Case in point: the Star Wars prequels (look at the balls on me, taking a shot at the prequels) and their massive VFX department. Turns out The Phantom Menace had more people in the VFX department (781 according to IMDb) than my graduating high school class (600 according to my transcripts) and they still struggled to make something realistic. The Gungans look so fake and cheap that, even with the best script in the world, they’re impossible to relate to. Why should I care about racially insensitive CGI rabbits and their weird underwater civilization? They could have been replaced with a bunch of actors in purple polka-dot latex fetish suits and it would have accomplished the same effect. In fact, that might have been more cost effective, especially considering I could have just loaned them some suits from my own collection. But I digress.
Now I could go on about the visual flaws in the Star Wars prequels, but there’s not a lot I could say that hasn’t been said already. So, I’m going to move on to another film near and dear to my heart: John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. I struggle to think of another film that has both scared and fascinated me more than this masterpiece. The realism of the creature, the suspense, and the action left a lasting impact of me, and I know I’m not alone. You can probably imagine the (mostly) figurative boner I got in 2011 when they announced a prequel. I had nothing but high hopes for the project. And then it came out. It looked more like a failed homage to Carpenter. The creature in the 1982 film was terrifying. It looked like it could jump out of the screen at any time and eat you up. For me, it reached its peak horror when it fused with the dog and made the dog-monster hybrid. I remember it foaming at the mouth and dripping goo and blood all over the scene. That is why it was so terrifying: because it looked so real. The practical effect was almost as scary as the creature ended up being in the final film. In fact, if you go to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, you can see the actual creature on display in their horror section. The first time I saw it, it sent shivers down my spine (and I’m not just being dramatic). Jump forward almost 30 years and all they could come up with was a CGI mess. The creature lacked the feel and realism of the original. It was too clean and its movements were too calculated. It’s the ultimate irony that the filmmakers had more advanced technology, but couldn’t actually make a scarier monster.
Now I’m not saying that VFX cannot be used for good. Look at The Force Awakens and Fury Road (both of which were nominated for best visual effects at the 2016 Academy Awards, with the latter winning) both these movies had breathtaking effects and will probably redefine the bounds of what can be accomplished in the field. But what separates these gems from a visual disaster like Green Lantern and the Nightmare of Elm Street 2010 remake is that they used visual effects to aid the story. I think George Lucas summed it up best. In Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga that came out in 1983 (around the same time Return of the Jedi was being released) Lucas said “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” Wow. You can say whatever you want about George Lucas, but he (or at least 80’s George) has a point. What made The Force Awakens and Fury Road so goddamn cool, in my opinion, was that their directors (JJ Abrams and George Miller, respectively) and their respective teams knew that above all else you need solid, relatable characters and a great story to make a great film; not a bunch of animated crap being shoved into every frame of every scene.
We all hear horror stories about how practical effects can be a pain in the ass. Spielberg’s Jaws had a lot of on set problems because the mechanical shark was notoriously difficult and malfunctioned frequently. In fact, there were so many problems on set that Spielberg was almost fired. But he didn’t compromise and in the end he made an amazing blockbuster that will continue to excite and frighten viewers well after he’s pushing up daisies. If Spielberg was making Jaws today, with the same cast (Dreyfuss, Shaw, and Scheider), crew (DP: Bill Butler, editor: Velma Fields, music: John Williams) and writers (Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) he would probably (either voluntarily or by pressure of the studio) use green screens and visual effects to tell the story; and it would have been way easier to make, I doubt that it would be regarded in as high esteem as it is today because it would look too fake to actually scare anybody. Making a film is art, and art is frustrating. But in the end, all the hard work and pain that goes into making the movie can make the difference between a lasting cinematic treasure (looking at you The Thing) and a forgettable dud (still looking at you The Thing).