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June 27, 2004

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Attack of the 50 Ft. Computer Effects!

What do you think of the new computer generated images (CGI) that are all the rage in Hollywood these days?   You know the ones I mean.  That big green bouncing whosit in the Hulk movie, for example.  Or the Gollum from The Lord of the Rings?  To quote the redoubtable Chester Field: "How do you like it sofa?"

I ask because I know I have mixed feelings.  See, I spent my formative years -- that is, in the Stone Age before the advent of CGI effects -- in a seemingly ceaseless state that was about fifty percent naive hope to fifty percent jaded disappointment.  Everything from The Valley of Gwangi to Warlords of Atlantis; from The Land that Time Forgot to Clash of the Titans; from Battle Beyond the Stars to Superman -- again and again I was suckered in, each time fully convinced that this time, THIS TIME the special effects were going to convince me.  Or at least they were going to live up to the promise held out by the One Sheets.  I really was going to believe a man could fly.  But again and again I found myself doomed to disappointment. 

I know many of these movies were pretty low budget affairs, which may excuse some.  But even a blockbuster like Superman (three mil for Brando, remember?), for all that I loved it to bits, didn't really live up to its tagline.  Okay, the wire work was excellent and when Christopher Reeve did that first banking turn in the Fortress of Solitude...I just about cried.  But the other stuff, the stuff showing him high in the sky against a projected image of New York, that just never worked for me.  I know the filmmakers reportedly invented a whole new film process just for those shots, but the end result is all that matters.  And, for me, the end result wasn't good enough.

But there was a greater problem.  Even as a kid, I understood that the filmmakers were necessarily limited by their special effects.  There were stories they simply couldn't tell.  If the special effects wizards couldn't do it, out it went, into the trash heap of lost ideas, never to be seen, at least not on the silver screen.

And then, along came something we never imagined.  We discovered that computers could draw pictures which looked almost as real as the real thing.  (Funny isn't it, to look back at a show like Star Trek's The Corbormite Maneuver.  A super intelligent alien wants to fool Kirk and crew into thinking he looks like an ugly monster.  Today we would have him send them a visual transmission showing a computer generated monster's face.  Not back in the sixties.  They had him use...a puppet!?!  It hadn't yet occurred to anyone that a computer could be used to create completely imaginary, but competely believable images.)  I think my first encounter with the possibility of computer generated images came in the form of the Disney movie, Tron.  But in that same year, 1982, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan also made movie history with a computer generated rendition of the "Genesis Planet".  Sure, both those films depicted images which were supposed to represent a computer's idea of reality rather than reality itself, but together they pointed the way.  After that, there was The Last Starfighter, which came a lot closer to creating convincing computer generated images (in the form of spaceships).  Then TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 carried the ball and ran with it.  And what TV did for machines, Jumanji and Jurassic Park next did for animals.  For eighty mil, Steven Spielberg showed us what it looks like to be eaten by a T-rex whilst sitting on the crapper.

Along the way, there were countless other "firsts".  The first "morphing" effect -- Jacko turning into a black panther in his Black or White video.  The first imitation of light flares in the camera lens -- Babylon 5 again.  The first depiction of realistic hair -- Monsters, Inc. The first use of "bullet time" (slowing the image to a crawl while still rotating the camera) -- The Matrix.  The first completely computer generated character -- Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.  And of course James Cameron's The Abyss with its shape-shifting water pseudopod and Terminator 2 with its T2 "liquid metal" shape-shifting robot -- both hailed as "firsts" in their day.

Until at last here we are.  No longer in Kansas.  It has been said countless times, but I'll say it again: There is probably nothing a modern writer could dream up which a modern special effects wizard could not depict using computers.  No longer are filmmakers restricted in the stories they can tell.  They are limited only by their own imaginations.  And the special effects themselves have now become nearly invisible, seamlessly inserting images into other images, creating entirely self-consistent realities which we could only dream about thirty years ago.

That's the plus side.

But, like I said, in spite of all that, I have mixed feelings.  I have three main complaints.  First, I find for all that computer effects can produce just about any image you can imagine...How can I put this?...I find they still leave me entirely unsatisfied.  I don't know why that is, but I find there is something about computer generated images that makes them seem ephemeral and impossible to "see".  Take the movie, Jumanji, for example.  The elephants and rhinos and assorted African fauna were no doubt carefully rendered and as realistic as you could want, but after watching Jumanji, I found I couldn't remember what they had looked like.  Honest.  It wasn't that they were blurry.  They were simply...ephemeral, hard to "see", hard to focus on.  Like ghosts.

Why that should be, I don't know, but I have a theory.  (I always have a theory.)  A real animal has infinite detail to its surface.  That is, the closer you look the more detail you will see.  But a computer generated lion (to pick an example) doesn't have infinite detail.  It has just enough detail as you need for the distance at which you are seeing the thing.  To put it another way, zoom in on a real lion and you will see each little hair on its pelt.  Zoom in on a CGI depiction of a lion and the image breaks up into pixels.  In theory this shouldn't matter.  As long as we don't zoom in, we won't notice whether there is infinite detail or not.  But maybe, just maybe, on a subconscious level, we are able to detect that detail.  And, when it is missing, the animal doesn't seem to be entirely "there", no matter how carefully we draw him.  That may not explain the problem, but it's the best I can do without a steady paycheck.

My second complaint is that I still feel that computer generated creatures move like computer generated creatures.  From the bouncy Hulk to the equally bouncy Spider-Man, from the loose limbed Jar Jar Binks to the rag-doll army of Mr. Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded, I find they look and move, one and all, like what they are: very well done cartoons.  Evidently gravity just isn't that easy to duplicate.  Don't get me wrong.  Watching the Hulk rampaging like a big green tornado, tossing tanks like giant Frizbees, and going toe to toe with a Hulkified poodle was a jaw dropping experience.  But I don't think it was the computer generated Hulk which deserves the credit.  It was the sheer magnitude of the destruction which leaves the reader breathless.  You could have shown Tweety Bird hurling those tanks and it would have produced the same effect. 

Nonetheless, I can understand why I hear so few complaints.  Slightly more than a cartoon, slightly less than a mechanical model, computer effects are just good enough to get the job done.  They carry us along, allowing us to see amazing things with just enough verisimilitude that, for most of us, we are able to suspend disbelief, overlook the flaws, and accept them for what they are supposed to be.  Once upon a time, audiences felt the same way about stop-motion animation (or "Dynamation" as Ray Harryhausen grandly dubbed it).  It has been said that scientists who watched the original 1925 The Lost World  believed they were seeing film footage of the real thing.  For many years, every once in a while someone would come forward claiming to have been the "guy in the monkey suit" used in the original 1933 King Kong -- claims which the newspapers took quite seriously.  Watching that movie today, it is hard to understand why.  It is obvious to the modern eye that there was no "guy in a monkey suit".  It was all stop-motion.

Stop-motion was a good effect in its day, but, over time, the audience grew to recognize the tiny give-aways -- the characteristic jerkiness, for example.  In the end, the effect was relegated to very brief inserts, too quick for the audience to notice, like the long shots of Tauntauns on the ice planet in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  (Or else mechanical creatures which, because they are supposed to move with a certain jerkiness, are better suited to stop-motion.  For example, the Ed-209 robot in RoboCop.)

But I said there were three problems I have with CGI.  I recognized that third problem recently while watching an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise.  In that episode, T'Pol, the female Vulcan, has a conversation with her older self from another dimension.  Nothing special about that.  After you've seen a gazillion Mr. Smiths scrumming Keanu Reeves, what's a couple of T'Pols in the same frame?  (And, if you don't know what "scrumming" means, ask a Canadian.)  But, at one point, the younger T'Pol passes a book to her older self.  Now, once upon a time, an effect like that would have been really something.  It isn't that hard to matte two images together, but to show those images physically interacting was almost impossible before we had computer effects.  But because computer effects have made everything so easy, I hardly even noticed the moment when the book passed between them.  I just assumed -- "Ho hum, the book is probably itself a computer generated image, that's all."

But then the ever watchful eye of "Drooling" D.K. noticed what I had not.  His Orcishness pointed out that the arm of the older T'Pol wasn't in quite the right position for her body.  Suddenly, we realized how the effect was really done.  It wasn't done with computers at all.  There was another hidden actor -- hidden by the inserted image of the older T'Pol -- and it was actually that actor's arm which took the book from the younger T'Pol.

The point of all this is that the third problem with computer effects is that they are essentially all one effect.  And because they make just about anything possible, we no longer even consider the possibility that the filmmakers may be using some other, more clever trick to achieve their effect.  Once upon a time, even if the effects were limited, we still found ourselves marveling at each individual effect and wondering how it was done.  But no longer.  Now we just think, "Computer", and leave it at that.  We stop being amazed.

Depending on how you look at things, this might actually be a good thing.  A filmmaker might point out that if we stop wondering how it was done, we are better able to concentrate on the thing that really matters -- the story.  Well, maybe.  But I think, like it or not, that special effects are supposed to amaze us like any magic trick.  If you believed in magic, think how boring it would be to watch David Copperfield perform.  One trick would be the same as any other.  Ho hum, magic, so what.  We are amazed because we know he isn't really magic.  Each trick is a different marvel.  We are astonished because we wonder how it was really done.

I may be alone in my reaction to CGI special effects, but I don't think so.  Already there are grumblings in Hollywood that the audience is becoming bored with computer effects.  More than a decade ago, the pre-release hype for Jurassic Park made it sound as if the effects were almost one hundred percent computer generated.  You would hardly have known that they built themselves a full sized T-rex robot.  Computers were all the rage.  But now, check out the hype surrounding the recent Spider-Man 2.  Based on the commercials, I'm pretty sure Doc Ock's metal tentacles were mainly computer generated.  But in interviews, the filmmakers insisted the tentacles were mainly mechanicals controlled by puppeteers.  CGI effects, it seems, are no longer the selling point they once were.

To be honest, I don't know how I feel about that.  Like I said, my feelings are mixed.  I think there's something wonderously exhilarating about a world where there is no limit to the stories that can be told on film.  This is truly a Golden Age.  At the same time, I miss the days when each effect was its own little miracle.  When you wondered how it was done.

And, for my money, no CGI will ever beat Christopher Reeve doing that banking turn in the Fortress of Solitude...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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