Special Effects. And NOT So Special Effects

The other day I found myself watching a film I’d seen numerous times before but hadn’t had the pleasure of sitting through recently, that film was John Landis’ 1981 classic ‘An American Werewolf In London’. Firstly, I’ll say the movie is still as entertaining as ever and is one of the few examples of movie making that skilfully dances between the genres of horror and comedy, however it was the quality of the special effects work rather than of the standard of the film that inspired this piece.

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Decades later, David Kessler’s transformation from man to beast is still absolutely jaw-dropping. Muscles contort, fingernails split, his hands and feet stretch in full view in conjunction with screams of absolute agony as his metamorphosis takes place. The scene is both brutal and harrowing yet something you can’t take your eyes off. The thought entered my head, in over 30 years of movie-making that has passed since this film’s release, why have I not witnessed a transformation scene in a werewolf movie, not even half as good as this? Rick Baker has a lot to answer for as his groundbreaking effects are the reason I’ve set my viewing standards so high.

After my opening salvo, a few of you will be nodding your head and knowingly saying, “CGI innit? Ruined everything. They don’t make them like they used to.”. Even though I’m a traditionalist at heart and have a deep admiration of practical effects, I sincerely don’t believe that CGI in itself is to blame. Both practical effects like prosthetics and digital effects like CGI are simply tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal.

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Jurassic Park. A harmonious marriage of Stan Winston’s amazing practical effects and ILM’s     revolutionary and well integrated CGI.

It’s the execution and use of that tool that can make ruin a scene and take you out of the illusion. if a film is strong enough however it takes a lot more than a couple of dodgy shots to remove me from the world I’ve allowed myself to experience.

Lazy effects are the bane of cinema. I am of the philosophy that if you can do it in camera, please…do it in camera. The human eye in conjunction with your brain perceives reality in a way it’s grown accustomed to through years of evolution and experience. If something’s not quite right, we’ll sniff it out pretty quick. The best effects for me are those that you don’t even stop to notice, the result of hard work, those little miracles that you don’t think about until after the credits roll. Too many directors are happy to throw a few thousand at some dodgy CGI production house and create something that looks badly lit, artificial and spectacularly inferior to what a Rob Bottin, Rick Baker and Greg Nicotero could have knocked up at 10% of the cost but with 20x the talent. Low budget sci-fi and horror and TV productions are the most guilty of this sort of laziness. Behold these craptacular examples.

Behold, a terrible CGI werewolf from the Brit TV series Dr Who. Looks like watching a disproportioned Labrador while on LSD.

Behold, a terrible CGI werewolf from the Brit TV series Dr Who. Looks like watching a disproportioned Labrador while on LSD.

I know, let's make an utterly convincing CGI model of The Rock for the climactic fight scene, that's gonna work great!

I know, let’s make an utterly convincing CGI model of The Rock for the climactic fight scene, that’s gonna work great!

If you don’t have an Avengers budget, your movie is not going to look like The Avengers. Sometimes the greatest innovation comes from limitation. Creation will always overcome any budgetary shortfall as will picking the right tool for the job along with clever integration and attention to detail. Here are a few movies that have impressed me with both practical and visual effects, of course there are hundreds more and I’ve ignored the more antiquated stop motion efforts by Ray Harryhausen and the like that were revolutionary back in the day but I feel these images will get my point across.

Marvel’s Avengers

Avengers Hulk

Not only does a fully CGI character look wonderfully detailed, the surrounding cityscape is a thing of beauty, and is actually also a CGI creation. This is what a $200m dollar plus budget gets you.

Zodiac

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David Fincher used CGI to create a perfect replication of 60′s/70′s San Francisco. Like the best effects, until it’s pointed out, you don’t notice it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - where revolutionary effects are there simply to service the story. Always the best intention.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – where revolutionary effects are there simply to service the story. Always the best intention.

So, what are your examples great and not so great effects work? I’d be interested to hear your opinions as I’m only able to cover a very limited range within the constraints of the article. Feel free to comment below.

5 thoughts on “Special Effects. And NOT So Special Effects

  1. Didn’t the first Matrix film have really innovative special effects, but the second and third were full of over the top CGI that the audience could never buy in to?

  2. I very much agree with this. I don’t mind CGI at all, if it serves the story. I’m excited to see what is possible and how amazing they can make things look. Yet, with all the examples of the mind-blowing things that can be done without CGI, it’s sad to see CGI being used in a cop-out sort of way – “lazy effects”, as you say.

    • I’m not anti-CGI. I’m anti CGI when it’s used as a cheap option to complete a shot. Respect your art.

      Thanks for reading again Ree. We need another midnight til 6am discussion to reaffirm our brilliance.

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