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Why filmmakers may return to old-school special effects

(Photo: Allstar Picture Library)

(Photo: Allstar Picture Library)

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) has allowed moviemakers to create almost anything. But is it turning audiences off? And are special effects more special when they’re real?

It is one of the most memorable opening scenes in cinema history. After the introductory text marches across the screen, the camera pans to reveal a starscape and the glowing bulk of planets. Then, accompanied by a frenzied fanfare of music, a battle-worn spaceship roars into view.  The opening of the original Star Wars film from 1977 changed the way Hollywood regarded special effects. But at its heart this scene wasn’t so different from the stop-motion animation of King Kong special effects whiz Willis O’Brien, and his celebrated protégé Ray Harryhausen.

The spaceships in the sequence were actual models, filmed using motion control photography – where the camera was moved around the object itself – and built by director George Lucas’ fledgling special effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). The film’s fleet of spaceships, from Han Solo’s battered and bruised Millennium Falcon to Luke Skywalker’s snub-nosed X-Wing, were all the result of modelling glue and steady fingers.

It’s an approach that was honed over the course of the two Star Wars sequels, but seems to have been forgotten when Lucas rebooted the franchise with 1999’s prequel The Phantom Menace. Out went the miniatures and models, replaced with ships, vehicles and locations created entirely by computer – digital effects having moved on in leaps and bounds since the late 1970s.

But The Phantom Menace and its sister prequels fell flat with audiences, with some noting the lack of depth and substance created by an all-digital universe – one that fellow film-makers wasted no time in emulating. “The prequel not only boasted some of the most impressive digital effects to date, but also ended up influencing, for better or for worse, how Hollywood has made blockbusters ever since,” noted Entertainment Weekly last year.

The team at Disney, who are producing three more Star Wars sequels with Star Trek director JJ Abrams at the helm, appear to have taken note. This week, it emerged, the film-makers were promising to limit the amount of CGI and return, at least, in part to the physical feel of the original trilogy.

‘Naturalistic imagery’

“I suspect the Star Wars announcement has more to do with PR than actual production plans,” says author Richard Rickitt, who has written the book Special Effects: The History and Technique.  “The last Star Wars films were slated by some as being too effects-driven.  Now that the Disney marketing machine has rolled into action over the forthcoming films, I imagine they have noted this as being an area that needs to be worked on.

“Making traditional models is a very challenging skill and it is definitely harder than making models in CG where you can call-up textures, colours, etc, almost immediately.  Plus there are all the physical constraints on building models: how big does it need to be to produce convincing scale, can it be transported, does it have to be engineered to break-apart or explode in a certain way, will it need to be supported on rods or from wires, will it have to move convincingly?” Ray Harryhausen, Rickitt says, created his intricate scenes all on his own – the same process now might involve hundreds of people. And CGI has one big advantage over traditional, physical effects: “If you spend months building a traditional model spacecraft and then blow it up, it’s gone forever. But if you spend months building a CG spacecraft in the computer you have an asset that can be re-used as many times as you like,” he says.

“Blockbusters are still dependant on CGI to fulfil their spectacle over models, and with the likes of Avatar 2 on the horizon computer effects are here to stay,” says Ian Nathan, the executive editor of film magazine Empire. “But I do get the impression people are wearying of the cure-all attitude with CG and are starting to hunger for more naturalistic imagery — in the end real helicopters look better than CG ones.”

‘A certain honesty’

Sometimes, cost is a factor in bringing effects back out of the out of the computer.  One special effects supervisor who found himself turning to models instead of microchips was Gavin Rothery, who worked on Duncan Jones’ brooding sci-fi film Moon.  “I was always keen to take the film in this direction as I've been a fan of model miniature work since I was a kid,” he tells BBC Culture.

“I was always keen to get the film into this space as models have a certain honesty to them that I felt CGI-savvy audience members would appreciate. I had to fight for this as Duncan insisted on CGI, but fortunately we didn't have the budget and so I won that battle.

“Not only did it save us millions of pounds that we didn't have, but I got to work with the legendary modelmaker Bill Pearson who worked on Alien, which was an amazing experience.” Computer graphics were added to footage of the model vehicles to help add atmosphere.

“People seem to appreciate the reality of an image that has been captured through the lens of a camera. I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for this, but it seems that audience members do have a certain tired feeling towards a lot of VFX. To be honest, it's probably the fault of the film for the most part – if it's just not holding you for whatever reason, then you'll start picking things apart as you watch. The human eye is really good at detecting fakeness and people just don't seem to really enjoy looking at something that has been presented as reality but isn't really convincing.”

Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, created his own special effects on a series of early splatterfest comedies. Even as his budgets have inflated, he has kept real locations and physical models and effects part of his films.

Nathan recently spent time in New Zealand on a set visit to The Hobbit. “I got to walk about the glorious Lake-town set, this huge, intricate, fantasy Dickensian town built over a tank on a soundstage and it was just glorious to behold (the actors must have loved it). Peter Jackson mentioned it was far cheaper to build that wonderful set, then tear it down three days later, than use CG. Sometimes lo-fi works perfectly.”

Rothery doesn’t dismiss CGI, but sees it as a tool which should be applied other skills in the special effects toolbox. “Anybody thinking that CG is in any way an inferior tool should watch the forthcoming Elysium. The CG robots in that are amazing.”

But he says, there are definitely limits. “I  have been overwhelmed by CGI. The Transformers franchise is just high frequency noise.”

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