Thursday, 21 August 2014

Models Are Not Always The Answer

One of the biggest complaints I hear regarding modern filmmaking is in regards to how common CGI has become, usually by saying that models, puppets, or animatronics are far more convincing when used by a special effects department. Sometimes that is true. CGI has been misused, sometimes it can be overdone, sometimes it might not be done enough, and sometimes it wasn't needed at all, but does that meant that models are always the answer?

The practical effects in John Carpenter's The Thing do hold up a lot better today than the CGI used in the 2011 prequel. Much as I enjoyed the latter film I can't deny that. However, perhaps the reason the effects in the prequel are not as good has less to do with it being CGI and more to do with the fact that it was forced in at the last minute when the film was originally supposed to use similar practical effects (some of which would have been pretty good).

The reason I bring this up is because CGI can be used to great effect when used right, and sometimes models can be even less convincing when used wrong. Plenty of b-movies can testify to the flaws of both, be it the obviously fake models used in the films of the 1950's or the over-the-top CGI monstrosities envisioned in more contemporary ones, the recent Sharknado being a good example.

The fact of the matter is that really both CGI and practical effects have their merits and can be used to incredible effect when done right. To put this into perspective, let's look at to of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity. These two films are probably the most realistic images of space ever put on film (though there are mistakes and liberties taken in both). 

The thing is that while both of these movies had amazing effects, they both relied on very different approaches to making those effects possible. 2001: A Space Odyssey may well have some of the best models ever put on film. Not a single frame of that movie was done using computer imaging. The Earth, the moon, Discovery, Jupiter, and even the famous "star gate" sequence were all handcrafted. That centrifuge you see Dave and Frank hanging out on was actually a giant rotating wheel constructed specifically for the film. The floating pen seen near the beginning was done with a clear disk. 

Now, that's not to say the filmmakers didn't have their limits. After all, the original plan was for Discovery to be travelling to Saturn. While this remains the setting of Arthur C. Clarke's novel (written alongside the script and based on early drafts), the movie ultimately opted to use Jupiter as its setting because the production team had trouble developing a convincing model of Saturn's rings.

By contrast, Gravity was shot almost entirely with CGI. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney wore partial spacesuits, but the visors on their helmets were computer generated to make it easier to see the actors' faces underneath. Some models were constructed for the action scenes but those were still shot against solid-colored backdrops that were later removed to make way for the vastness of space. Even that underwater scene at the very end was shot in a studio against a green screen. 

The results were still amazing, possibly even on par with the effects of 2001. The visuals seen in Gravity were so amazing that specific shots taken out of context could easily be mistaken for actual photographs from orbit. All of this was done with a few models and A LOT of computer graphics. CGI has been growing in popularity since the 90's and it can be used extraordinarily well. Jurassic Park is one of the earliest films to really use CGI and those dinosaurs still hold up well today.

That said, both CGI and practical effects have their own strengths and weaknesses. One advantage of practical effects is that during production it gives the actors something to interact with. CGI can be used to achieve all kinds of objectives, ranging from creating whole environments as in Gravity to something as small as removing unwanted details from the background. Done right, and the result can be something wonderful. Done wrong, and it will look extremely fake and lazy, which will drive away your audience unless that was the intention.

CGI can be used poorly, but just because something is done through models or puppets does not automatically mean it will be any more convincing. Plenty of b-movies can testify to how both can be misused. Modern b-movies, such as those of The Asylum or even the recent cult favorite Sharknado often include hastily edited CGI monstrosities. This is usually the kind of thing people think of when they talk about how bad CGI can be, but older b-movies weren't much better.

B-movies of the 1950's often relied on practical effects since CGI was not yet a viable option, but because they were always so cheap the effects would usually be every bit as bad as the CGI of their modern counterparts. Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space is notorious for its terrible special effects, such as the infamous and obviously fake flying saucers.

If you look closely, you can see the strings.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is really just the best-known example. You don't have to dig too deep into b-movies to find really cheesy ones with lots of (sometimes entertainingly) bad effects. Another good example I have come across would be some of the Japanese b-movies centered around "Gamera" (basically, a giant turtle-like monster who I suspect was intended to cash in on the success of Godzilla and its sequels). Gamera himself is a really weird and not very convincing creature, but one film in the series, Attack of the Monsters (I know, super-original, right?) has this other creature that is obviously played by an actor crawling around in a top-heavy suit.

So really, whether CGI or practical effects ought to be used really depends on the nature of the project. Practical effects may be easier for the actors to interact with but they can be every bit as unconvincing as CGI, and sometimes done right, CGI can be even more convincing than practical effects. The two are not mutually exclusive either. A film can also work effectively by using a bit of both, and to see how that can work you need to look no further than Peter Jackson. 

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both make extensive use of both CGI and practical effects. Many of the creatures we see across both films are computer generated but a lot of the sets were largely built by hand, sometimes with a green screen to help fill in the background. In some cases, though, the lines are blurred and one effect requires a bit of both.

A perfect example is the practice of motion capture, where an actor wears a suit that becomes a skeleton for a CGI model. Quite simply, the actor's suit consists of various lights all over their body, and they perform the necessary motions for their character. Then in post-production, the actor is removed but the lights remain (thus capturing the basic movements) and it becomes a frame around which to design the new character. 

Gollumn is a good example from Jackson's films, but such characters are all over the place. The CGI used for Smaug the dragon was incredible, but to make that image possible, the production team had to start with footage of Benedict Cumberbatch in a funny suit. In that sense, Smaug as seen in the final product could be considered a mix of practical and computer generated effects, since while the final product was created by computer rendering it was all based on the movements of a live actor.

Ultimately, neither extreme is better or worse. When done right, CGI and practical effects are both equally capable of making something believable and interesting. CGI can be misused and subsequently look fake, but the same can also be said about models, puppets, or animatronics.  It's all a matter of what kind of movie is being made and how the people involved use the resources available.


  1. Very cool article...and very true. I thought Jackson's King Kong provided both extremely well done CGI (Kong himself) and poorly executed CGI (the dinosaur stampede). It was noticeable in the theater, to me at least. The original Star Wars trilogy vs. the prequels makes for an interesting contrast between practical fx and CGI.

    1. It would be, provided you're referring to the original trilogy as it was initially released, and not the versions where George Lucas went back and smothered all his great practical effects with CGI. That would be a time when CGI is not such a great idea.

  2. You have a good point. I see a lot of older movie fans lamenting CGI, and I see where they are coming from. But I really feel the LOTR films show how CGI and practical effects can and should be used together. It creates an amazing final product and gives us the best of both worlds.

    These days, budget conscious film makers often turn to CGI because it can take less time and cost less than practical effects. But if done correctly CGI can actually be just as time consuming and expensive as practical effects. You really get what you pay for when comes to effects of any type.

    It reminds me of what a young George Lucas said back in 1983, "Special effects are just a tool. A special effect without a story is a pretty dull thing." It seems like recently many Hollywood blockbuster are forgetting this (and you could accuse Lucas of forgetting this too if you feel like it).

    I will say, in defense of films like the Gamera movies and old 1950 saucer movies, is that aesthetics of the time come into play. Audiences seeing Gamera and Godzilla films knew what to expect and enjoyed the model work (still impressive in my opinion), men in suits and rear projection - because that is just how those types of movies were made. Judging those films by current standards isn't always fair. The same goes for the saucer films and the stop motion animation of masters like Harryhausen.

    1. I see where you're coming from, and in my defense I was trying to find movies where the effects would have seemed cheesy even at the time of the movie's release (hey, even in the 1950's, there were plenty of flying saucer films with better special effects than Plan 9 From Outer Space).

      I was hoping to avoid bringing up cases where the effects only seem unconvincing by modern standards, because that does happen. The stop motion used in King Kong looks a bit choppy when seen today but it was groundbreaking when the movie first came out.

  3. You write a great article about CGI vs orginal special effects sort of speak. I still love the original War of the Worlds and the special effects from that (that's George Pal right??). The cheesy effects of Japanese monster movies are, well, cheesy and I would look for the strings and bad movements. It's interesting to discuss 2001 which had the old special effects (best way for me to say) and one buys into it because the story is excellent and it all works well together. Gravity has superb effects and when one looks at the basic pictures from the film, one can see why it won so many awards in this field but I still can't get past the fact the story and acting, in my humble opinion, sucks:) For all the great effects I still need a great story and Sandra Bullock huffing and puffing in a little outfit, knowing Chinese and crash landing to become the Attack of the 50ft woman took away from the great effects. Lord of the Rings, I believe, has the best of both-CGI plus models great acting, great writing. You can't ask for more.

  4. I think a happy medium is the ultimate goal, but CGI is much faster from a studio perspective. Personally, I prefer practical effects more as they tend to have a longer shelf life. Take Jurassic Park for example, the practical work in that film still sensational all these years later.

    Gravity is an excellent example of CGI done right, but part of me wonders how it will look in ten years when technology advances? Heck even the Matrix, while fun and innovated, is starting to show its age now.

    1. To be fair, Jurassic Park had its share of CGI. In fact if I'm not mistaken it was one of the first live action movies to really use it effectively to bring the dinosaurs to life.