You’ll see it in basically every big hit that comes out in theaters: comic book films, Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, the Hobbit trilogy, works of Michael Bay and his imitators (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder), essentially anything that involves robots, creatures, magic, and abstract landscapes. We still go ahead and return to these types of movies even when the last one disappoints, and we don’t always care too much if we know that the planet of Krypton was nothing more than a computer model, or that the pakisauruses were merely pixels on a screen. So we as spectators of storytelling really ought to ask ourselves, why do we keep going back to these so-called stories?
To answer this question, I would like to first take us back the depression era, where we saw some of the first ever films of this kind: King Kong, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Wizard of Oz. It is important to note that each of these films were revolutionary in their craft: King Kong introduced people to how the magic of stop-motion animation can create new realities, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved how hand-drawn animation could take us away into the artist’s imagination, and The Wizard of Oz set off the contrast between monochrome and color, proving how much wonder a new world can offer. We being humans always crave to escape the busy world around us and visit someplace with a set of rules that fit what we are seeking. We always want something better than what we’ve got.
That explains the success of other escapist films such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel Universe. Because who wouldn’t want to have a lightsaber duel with the dark lord or live amongst dinosaurs or fly a broomstick or save an entire city with the power of a god? It’s not the special effects that have made the movies successful, it was the realities they created. Special effects just helped make the realization of these worlds on screen possible.
It’s a shame though, for Hollywood has often misinterpreted why it was that these past films were successful. We all know that studios are existing more for the sake of dough rather than to tell meaningful stories, so they have lately resorted to making films based off whatever has been the most popular things in the market. This explains why that dreadful Fifty Shades of Grey movie exists, since producers knew that the genre (i.e. Twilight) has scored from the majority of the teenage girl crowd. This also explains why the orgasmic Transformers series still continues, with a fifth one planned for release in 2017, for the power-hungry teenage boys helped make every last film a box office giant. These marketing strategies have naturally called for the creation of escapist stories, which includes the need for abstract special effects, which brings up the big issue that I plan on addressing.
The problem with the art form of visual effects is not that they exist, it’s the fact that the artists who created Middle Earth and Avengers HQ approached this task by what really ought to be a last resort for the visual effects team: CGI.
Believe it or not, there was a time before the last decade when CGI was not the first mode of approach for doing something out of the ordinary on-screen. If you just took a look at E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, you’ll see what I mean. There were no computers at that time to create an alien, rather, the visual effects team had to rely on a wide variety of tools to make the bug-eyed creature totally believable, including facial animatronics, hand puppetry, and fitting different people into the costume. As a result, the alien looked and felt real enough for the young and young at heart to willingly follow him in his journey to get home. The collaborating heart and soul made to achieve this goal resulted in empathy for something that does not exist, for everything on screen was completely practical.
Compare that to something such as Age of Ultron, where computer effects were the only method of approach for bringing the title villain to life. It did not take as much collaboration, aside from the actors talking to thin air while in front of a green screen, and a bunch of people sitting in front of a computer later to put the digital model in place. It ends up with high disbelief that Ultron was real, since nothing on screen sinuated that he was really there: the digital rendering is off-putting and the movements are too smooth.
There have been cases where a movie was successful because of its special effects (Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Avatar) but it wasn’t the key to why people were wowed, yet rather the means behind how the worlds were created. With Jurassic Park, it revealed to people what the computer could really do- bring dinosaurs back from the dead. With Avatar, it combined visual effects with 3D to immerse viewers into a world that is rich with majesty. But the key is: the visual effects team for these movies did not rely only on CGI, they exploited a variety of techniques to trick the eye into thinking that something was really there. Many of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were actually done with a mix of animatronics and CGI, depending on the complexity of each shot. Let’s see if the 100% digital Indominus Rex in Jurassic World can compete!
You may not care as much about the fact that Smaug was fully realized by technology, but as for myself, I prefer to believe what I see on screen.
The reason we go to the movies at all is because we want to find peace with ourselves through captivating characters and a meaningful story. It means that the producers of these major studios have a heavy burden on their hands when they are given the responsibility of presenting the stories to these millions of people who placed their trust in these artists’ hands.
It therefore is very sad and even insulting when considered that several producers have abused this power and made filmmaking a moneymaking business rather than a storytelling medium. They can go ahead and greenlight a live action My Little Pony under the direction of Ridley Scott, as long as it delivers a powerful message in the right way. I just don’t want to have to see it where every producer and director feels they have to resort to CGI to get the movie done quickly and cheaply. True lasting art takes time to complete, and it requires more heavy thinking aside from green screens and motion capture. Ten years from now, nobody will remember Maleficent or Edge of Tomorrow, the lack of density in their stories will leave those marketing tools to be left at the bottom of Target’s for-sale pile. Instead, the great technical works of theatrical mastery such as The Lord of the Rings and Inception will be remembered, cherished, studied, and celebrated for the thoughtful ideas on life they present.