Monday, October 18, 2010

Empire Strikes Back pics and some commentary on CGI

No matter how "real" anyone claims CGI looks on screen, I'm never fooled completely and therefore never fully immersed in the film. I miss the days of extravagant sets, props, and hundreds of elaborately costumed extras. Check out some more stills from the set of Empire Strikes Back here. The set designers and model builders of 30 years ago made movies come alive - too much CGI looks like, well, too much CGI. Sometimes, like with Sin City or 300, the CGI is stylized enough that you can enjoy it, but most other times, like the final battle scenes of Attack of the Clones, there's no way you're going to mistake the jerky, cartoonish, CGI clonetroopers for the real thing, and it snaps you out of the story like a bucket of cold water. As Fu Manchu would say, "you can't fool me with your cheap, cinematic tricks!".

Real is real, it has a real presence on screen, regardless of how "realistic" it is. Is it weird that I instantly accepted "puppet" Yoda, but instantly scoffed at CGI Yoda? Why does a big walking carpet suit called Chewbacca resonate more than a big blue cartoon Avatar native?

I hope grand sets, costumes, and cool models aren't completely a thing of the past - how cool would it be to see a new film with awesome effects but not a single frame of CGI? It'll probably never happen, though, so enjoy the link above to revisit the "good ol' days" of special effects.


  1. I totally agree. One can't help but conscious of the CGI effects. For whatever reason it's seems harder to suspend your disbelief with those affects. It must be within their movements or something that says that it's not 'real'. These movies, to me, just turn into cartoons. It's 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' all over the place (no knock on Roger intended).

    The same goes for animated cartoons. Watch a classic hand drawn cartoon feature and then watch these computer generated 'classics'. One is full of life, one is lifeless.

  2. I'm only halfway there with you on this one. I'm pretty good at suspending my disbelief long enough to enjoy the film and sometimes, just sometimes, the story is good enough for me not to care.

  3. Sad thing is, even CGI C3-P0 was bad. How could they not have been able to duplicate Anthony Daniels' movement style. They had plenty of reference in the earlier films. It's just sloppy.

    I blame the CGI animators. They're not that good. To me, they rely on the tech too much, instead of pushing their creativity and making the tech serve them.

  4. As John says, if the story is compelling, it's easier to suspend your disbelief. Unfortunately with Star Wars, when they've established so much with the real characters, robots, puppets, etc, it's harder to replace those elements.

    It's easier if you're changing a warp speed, phaser, transporter effect, supernova, etc.

  5. One of the worst things about CGI is how quickly the effects date themselves. The technology changes so rapidly, it's impossible to keep up, and now CGI is, for the most part, just an excuse to make a movie on the cheap. A dude with an Mac has replaced the costumer with the zipper and cheap rubber suit.

    This even applies to films that handle CGI fairly well. I remember not being bothered too much by the Lord of the Rings movies use of CGI; CGI mixed with real sets and real people (except for the scene in The Two Towers with the wargs--that was always unabashedly awful). Recently, I caught the films on tv again and was amazed to see how awful, fake, dated, and heavy handed the effects seem now.

    The "new" Star Wars films were always bad. Like a poorly made wine, they've just changed into vinegar.

  6. > A dude with an Mac has replaced the costumer with the zipper and cheap rubber suit.


  7. I agree completely with this, and I think it's a tragedy that "analog" special effects techniques are quickly becoming a lost art.

    I think a key to the difference lies in a point made by Roger Avery in his DVD commentary for Day of the Dead. He makes the point that, subconsciously, we know that analog effects are actually there on set, right with the actors (as in the Han Solo photo above). Even if the thing was a puppet or a facade or whatever, it was at least physically there for the actors to interact with. That has to have an effect on the actors, and it certainly has an effect on the audience. Watching Tom Savini's amazing make-up work in action on Day, there's a sense of concrete reality imbued in the film that CGI has so far failed to capture.

    I think another problem is that since this is new technology, filmmakers are going overboard in using it. Hopefully we'll start to see a more restrained approach to CGI, rather than this "how much can we cram into every single frame" race that's been going on the last 10 years.

  8. "Hopefully we'll start to see a more restrained approach to CGI"

    Indeed - there seems to be this thing with CGI monsters where they open their mouth cartonnishly wide to roar and the whole frame shakes artificially. Every movie that features this shtick immediately turns me off as a viewer.

  9. Two of the earliest films to use cgi were The Abyss and Terminator 2 and they both have stood the test of time fairly well, imo; then again, they didn't use cgi for every effects shot, either.
    I agree that the LoTR films (made more than 10 years later) look wretched, but I have always found the FX for those movies to be unbearable, especially the huge battles in RoTK. I find the Harryhausen Sinbad movies to infinitely more watchable.
    That said, I do like several movies that make extensive use of cgi- The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up are very well done- as was, imo, Sky Captain. But, yeah, when it's done badly it can look really awful, and it seems to date overnight- and like any other SFX, even if it's done pretty well, as in (ugh) Jackson's King Kong, if the movie sucks anyway, it doesn't matter. I think it's all about knowing the limits of the technology, and not yielding to the temptation of substituting special effects (good or bad) for story- a problem that has existed for a long time prior to the cgi era.

  10. I've read that (ahem) "old school" special f/x guys are getting more and more difficult to find. There was some horror flick a few years back; and quite the deal was made over finding someone who could handle real life film effects. ISTR the f/x in question weren't even that involved.

  11. CG certainly took it's time to get to a point where it was really difficult to tell the difference between it and live action.

    After catching a few minutes here and there of the last of the Matrix films on cable yesterday, I noticed that wide shots of the battle scenes looked good, but when they tried to blend live-action pilots with the CG mechs it wasn't up to the task. Avatar is perhaps the first flick that looks seamless to me.

    FWIW, I see a few people dissing the SW prequels and it's worth noting that plenty of miniatures were used to create those films too--at least up until ILM sold off it's miniatures unit in favor of all CG resources.

  12. I completely agree. Perhaps the art of propbuilding in the movie industry will make a resurgence. For now, at least, there are some fantastic replica propmaking sites that are neat to peruse - Replica Prop Forum, Dewback Wing, PVC Blaster Builders and such.

  13. One of the things which pleased me about the production pictures from the upcoming Thor film was seeing the scale of Odin's throne room, and that it was a real set, not a cgi creation. I'm sure there'll be some cgi enhancements, but I smiled nonetheless.

  14. I think part of it is also that with CGI you aren't going to do a couple takes or mix it up a bit and see which is better like you can when the stuff is really there. You squeeze the CGI into the frames you have.

  15. It was 44 years from King Kong (1933) until Star Wars (1977). It's only been 21 years since The Abyss (arguably the first use of a real CG character) and look how much the effects have come along. Jurassic Park 1 holds up pretty well.

    Those guys working in CG work their butts off, and they are some incredibly talented artists. The technology is nothing without the artistic eye and creative direction of visionaries.

    But, undeniably, the best results are when real-world is combined. Such as the miniature sets used in LOTR.

  16. I completely agree - CGI always looks like CGI. I dread the day when props, special effects, and even actors become superfluous.

    @Thomas: I think the stop-action animation from King Kong (1933) still holds up well, too.

  17. Expect CGI to get worse before it gets better - SFX creators are low on the food chain when it comes to funding, and there has been a rash of SFX companies folding in the past few years. A lot is being outsourced to India where labour is cheaper, but where there is a lack of experience and connection with the movie industry. Only blockbusters can pay for heavy weights like ILM.

  18. @ sean- I agree, the original Kong still looks great.



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