The Future of Practical Creature Effects

by Graham Edwards

What does the future hold for practical creature effects?

Ah, was there ever a question more likely to raises the hackles of fans of old-school special effects? Or to cause a look of blank bemusement to cross the face of the average moviegoer? Ever since Jurassic Park, argument has raged over which is better: a CG dinosaur or its mechanical equivalent? Whenever the issue is raised, emotions run high; discussing it at all is only marginally safer than poking a nest of snakes.

But is it an issue? Is it valid even to ask the question at all? Isn’t it time we rejected all that “either/or” nonsense and concentrated on simply getting the job done in the best possible way?

There’s only one way to get a decent answer: ask the experts. So that’s what I’ve done. I put my question to a group of top professionals from the field of practical effects, left them to ponder … and then stood well back.

You want to know what the future holds for practical creature effects? You’re about to find out.


Richard TaylorRichard Taylor
Co-Founder & Creative Director, Weta Workshop

“At Weta Workshop, we very much believe there is still a dynamic place for physical creature effects in the entertainment industry. While there has been a huge shift towards CG creatures over the last ten years, there are still directors who are interested in utilising more traditional, real-world effect solutions for characters in their films.

“There is no doubt that films such as the latest Planet of the Apes, with work by Weta Digital, give a clear indication how extraordinary characters can be fully realised through CG, but there remains a very compelling reason to have real actors in prosthetics and creature costumes on set to create particular characters for the right project. A great example is the recent blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, which uses a huge ensemble cast of aliens of which, I believe, only three are digital. Here is a wonderful use of traditional makeup and creature effects (created by a truly superb and world class team) to do something absolutely extraordinary.

“Owning a physical effects company, I have to believe there will always be some demand by an audience and the directing community for the wonderful attributes of practical creature effects and makeup. It may become niche, but just look at the way stop-motion animation continues to have a presence, delivering some of the most engaging and beautiful films of the last ten years, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, ParaNorman and Coraline. In the same way, those wonderful monster makeups that were pioneered by so many greats in the early days of filmmaking can still have power today.”

Richard Taylor and Mike Asquith of Weta Workshop study a Bilbo scale-double makeup design sculpture for "The Hobbit"

Richard Taylor and Mike Asquith of Weta Workshop study a Bilbo scale-double makeup design sculpture for “The Hobbit”


Phil Tippett - Photo by Chris Morley - © Tippett StudioPhil Tippett
Co-Founder, Tippett Studio

“The answer to your question can be easily determined with the use of a crystal ball …!

“The method of producing VFX and character work is usually determined by the studio, the VFX supervisor, and the director. A great deal depends on the director. Films like Hellboy 2, The Wolfman, and The Hobbit all employed a mix of technologies that was decided during the preproduction design process.

“The current spate of scripts we’re seeing requires an unbridled quotient of spectacle. Current production methodologies dictate that you spend as little time on the set as possible – it’s preferable to just push the issues downstream and “fix it in post”. Given all the cash these recent VFX-heavy films have scored – Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Ninja Turtles, Transformers – I think the die is cast.

“Frankly I’m not so sure there are any significant demographics to indicate a real ground-swell movement toward practical. Currently, studios tend to just go with the “let’s do it all CG” bag because it’s the flavor of the day, and god forbid you’d want to go against the prevailing trends in a corporate climate. Ain’t gonna happen.

“There will continue to be the anomalies like Beasts of the Southern Wild, where budgetary issues force smart, low-budget approaches. In that case, VFX that drove the story in a very economical way were pulled off with a fine level of execution. For the same reasons, there’s still a good amount of practical stuff going on for TV. Hopefully that will continue.

“There are still skilled folks out there who know how to do this practical stuff. Let’s hope there can be enough work to keep their knowledge base from falling into atrophy, lest we go the way of those ancients of yore who built the Pyramids and the Mayan temples. We couldn’t pull that off today.

“SO! To answer your question: the future lies with extraterrestrials who tell us how to make stuff. And crystal balls. I think those are the way to go. Weird magic, no? (That’s what it’s all about anyhow, aint it?)”

Phil Tippett with the Rancor from "Return of the Jedi"

Phil Tippett supervised the creature shop on “Return of the Jedi”. He is currently supervising the dinosaurs of “Jurassic World”.


Alec Gillis - Photo by John AlesAlec Gillis
Co-Founder, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.

“Fans seem to love practical creature FX, as do many directors, but studios tend to promote the near-exclusive use of digital imagery. This has led to an audience belief that the look of CG equates to a “big Hollywood” look.

“While I don’t like not being invited to the party, being regarded as a PFX pariah has an upside. PFX are becoming more unique, less corporate and edgier than mass-produced CG FX. While I miss the days when the aesthetics of PFX artists like Rob Bottin, Rick Baker and Stan Winston drove the look of the creature work, I can still appreciate the scope of today’s big pixel-fueled VFX orgies. Whether you think modern VFX films are hollow, overblown corporate sputum, or a dazzling nexus of art and technology, doesn’t really matter: they sell.

Harbinger Down teaser poster

“Of course, most fans don’t really care what technique is employed, as long as the movie is good and the effect looks cool. It doesn’t even need to look real, just cool. So there’s no need to argue which technique is better. They’re just tools used to build a film. If you’re constructing a house, is a nail gun better than a table saw?

“Here at ADI, we believe in the mixed bag approach – we try to promote the strengths of both techniques. The frustration arises when there’s an effort to suppress or eliminate techniques as a matter of corporate policy. It’d be nice if the new Star Wars movies had more PFX in them, or if Mr. Del Toro and Mr. Favreau swayed studios towards PFX, but I can’t wait around for that to happen. I plan to keep making modest movies like Harbinger Down that rely on PFX. If the audience responds positively, the PFX resurgence will grow. If not, we’ll join the theramin and become a faint echo from a quaint bygone era.”


John RosengrantJohn Rosengrant
Co-Founder, Legacy Effects

“Of course there is a future for Practical Effects. Hey, they provide a spontaneous, tactile quality, an actual in-the-scene feeling. They provide not only a visual reference for an actor but something to actually perform with. In Real Steel, for example, having actual robots for the young actor to work with was essential.”

Iron Man 3

Legacy Effects created partial and complete suits for the “Iron Man” films and “Avengers Assemble”, used both on camera and as reference for the visual effects teams.


Mike ElizaldeMike Elizalde
President & Creative Director, Spectral Motion Inc.

“I have never wavered from my position that practical effects will always be relevant. The huge pendulum swing that occurred over the past two decades in favor of digital effects – where practical effects would have been more effective – has lost its momentum and is beginning to swing the other way. This discussion has raged for a long time, but the proof is in the meetings I take weekly with young, upcoming filmmakers. The dialogue in those meetings is the same, time and time again. They want their creatures to be practical.

“They need the tactile accessibility for not only their audiences, but also for their cast members. Practical effects are emotionally engaging on a level that we can immediately relate to. When it comes to organic, living characters, pixels cannot stand in for molecules. Digital effects have their place and they are here to stay, but the prevailing sensibility among filmmakers is that practical effects should have never taken a back seat. I agree with them.

“I feel that when an artist touches clay, or paint, or any other tactile medium with their hands, they impart a measure of their soul into their creation. There is passion and life and an undeniable soulfulness that’s clear to the human mind. Their weight and presence are not an illusion, and that is something that we all recognize on both a primal and an intellectual level. I feel no greater joy, creatively, than when I stand back and look at something I have been sculpting or building with my own hands, and see the piece claim its place in the tactile universe.”

Russel Lukich of Spectral Motion works on a parasitic "roly-poly" for "Pacific Rim".

Russel Lukich of Spectral Motion works on a parasitic “roly-poly” for “Pacific Rim”.


Howard BergerHoward Berger
Co-Founder, KNB EFX

“One of the many questions I get asked frequently – aside from if I have fun on Halloween – is how VFX has affected the world of special makeup and creature effects. This sparks two feelings. One is how frustrating this often-asked question is. The second is how much I enjoy working with VFX, and utilizing their tools and art to enhance ours.

“It all started with Jurassic Park. When we saw that first shot of the dinosaur walking across the screen, we looked at one another and said, “We are extinct”. After numerous discussions among the shop owners, it seemed there were three ways to deal with this potential new threat:

  1. Get out of doing special makeup effects and join the digital revolution, which a few shops did. They are now extinct.
  2. Fight the digital revolution and convince ourselves that anything VFX can do, we can do practically.
  3. Find a way to integrate what we do best, and work with VFX to create a brand new magic trick for filmmakers and audiences.

“We at KNB EFX Group chose option 3.

“At first it was a bit of a struggle, as certain film makers wanted the new “state of the art” way of doing things, even if the practical solution was the better way to go. For example, when we worked on Little Nicky, the director went digital for a certain gag. If we’d been allowed to accomplish the effect via special makeup, it would have looked heaps better, and not been the strange, floating mess that ended up in the final film.

“There was grandstanding from both sides. We’d come to set with mechanical puppets, set them up and shoot a few takes, only to see the VFX supervisor whisper something in the director’s ear. The next moment we’d hear, “OK, lets move the puppet and get a plate shot, just in case”. Well, you can guess what happened next …

“When we were awarded The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in 2004, we knew this would only work if we all came together and formed a team. Luckily our VFX supervisor Dean Wright and Bill Westenhofer from the late Rhythm & Hues felt the same way. Take Otmin, the Minotaur. We made a huge suit and mechanical head that was worn by Kiwi actor Shane Rhangi. For full-body shots, Otmin was ours from the waist up, and R&H’s from the waist down.

“Otmin was a perfect blend of techniques, and the beginning of a very successful collaboration between special makeup and digital VFX for KNB. We love making creatures, and now we can create anything by working hand in hand with VFX. It’s a great marriage of the two arts.”

Otmin - KNB EFX

Beth Hathaway and Clare Mulroy from KNB EFX prepare Otmin for . scene in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”


Tom Woodruff JrTom Woodruff Jr.
Co-Founder, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.

“Practical VFX has never completely disappeared, but it has been vastly overshadowed during the last two decades, as CG has become the primary tool for visual effects. Yet the audience knows the difference, and has grown steadily to be the strongest advocate for a balance onscreen.

“For the longest time, we couldn’t get producers and studios to consider that balance. Even studio VFX supervisors – for all their understanding of the value of real images – couldn’t turn the tide. In recent years, there has been some turnaround. The big studio ships aren’t exactly turning around and coming back to us, but more and more are dangling their dinghies.

“Our next challenge is re-educating people about what we do. The industry has a short memory. Today I sit in meetings where producers and directors ask if it’s possible to change the look of an actor’s face without rebuilding it as a digital asset. Alarming too, that the term “asset” has replaced the term “art”. We have to convince producers and supervisors that practical VFX can work – when they are designed with a plan of how they will be shot, and that plan is followed on stage.

“Is there a war between practical VFX and digital VFX? There is when you listen to the buzz of social media. Personally, I’ve always advocated balance. Our studioADI YouTube channel presents over a hundred clips of the work we’ve done for the past 30 years – a great deal of which works by overlapping with digital VFX. In fact, most of us working understand we’re all practitioners of the single art of visual effects – I myself have an Academy Award for Special Visual Effects. That term can’t be usurped solely for digital effects simply because of a misconception that we’re at odds.

“Yes, I’ve got a dog in this fight. Some of our best recent work at ADI has been altered, ruined or simply replaced in post by those who don’t have a big-picture vision. I don’t like seeing our art being downgraded to a service. I don’t want to close down my studio and send the artists away for good.

“The future won’t restore what has been compromised, but we do seem to be at the brink of a renaissance, with smaller films choosing an alternative to digital-only VFX, and big films understanding they can use the support of practical VFX. We’re not going anywhere. We just want to have our cake and eat it too.”

Director Tom Woodruff, Jr. tests makeup with actress Danielle Chuchran, for his crowdfunded feature film "Fire City".

Director Tom Woodruff, Jr. tests makeup with actress Danielle Chuchran, for his crowdfunded feature film “Fire City”.


Steve NewburnSteve Newburn
Creature FX Supervisor, Pacific Rim, The Strain

“It can be tough for a traditional creature shop to survive today. Profit margins are tight. Seven-figure paychecks are a thing of the past. Those who openly embraced change early on, incorporating 3D modeling, milling and printing techniques into their workflow, are generally still going. But CG has had 20 good years to dig in, and we are on the verge of a generation of viewers who don’t know what “real” looks like any more.

“I remember a practical effect from a few years back. The director allowed three takes – which took roughly 15 minutes – before saying, “This is taking too long. We’ll do it in post.” No explanation about what wasn’t liked, even though it was exactly what was asked for. Everyone on the crew sat there for another hour-and-a-half while they shot take after take of the setup, followed by clean plates and HDR for the VFX team – around 18 additional takes. The attitude of the director fueled the perceived failure of the practical effect. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Yet there are many good directors (generally veteran filmmakers) still willing to work with practical effects. And most of the digital artists who come to reference our work say nothing but positive things about it. Many say practical effects are what they wanted to do for a living but, because of their apparent decline, they chose digital instead.

Strigoi makeup

Strigoi makeup created by Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom for “The Strain”

“So what does the future hold? Personally, I think the industry will continue, but in constantly-evolving form. Creature shops are starting to look at smaller films, art projects and corporate work. This approach can keep smaller operations going, and is a good filler between other projects for the big shops.

“For both Pacific Rim and The Strain, we knew we couldn’t deliver the volume of work under the standard creature shop model. Our solution was to create a department under the production roof. This planted us firmly in the minds of the other departments – art, props, wardrobe, even construction – and resulted in additional work being sent our way. The producers saw that every dollar spent was going on camera and not into paying vendor overhead for months after wrap.

“With this model, we use the same crew we would as a vendor and, in most cases, those people are paid better … yet the ultimate price tag is cheaper. The producers have more control, and can see exactly where every dime is going. It eliminates our own need for clerical staff, as much of financials goes through the production’s accounting department.

“Further still, it encourages a more open-minded approach as to what tool is best for the job, and fosters a more fluid working relationship with the digital VFX team. As for the “practical vs digital” debate – it can finally take a back seat.”


Todd MastersTodd Masters
President, MastersFX

“Personally, I’m banking on a growing use of practical materials and FX. As more artists – both practical and CG – become more comfortable with integrating these tangible items, thing should continue to open up. Of course, practical elements don’t help every effect, but I feel they can often help keep things grounded, honest and organic. Even if only when used as reference.

Cochise - Falling Skies

The alien character Cochise was created by MastersFX for “Falling Skies”

“There’s little debate that, when possible, filming physical elements on set can be good for the overall production. Actors perform better to something if they can see it, touch it, experience it. Directors work better with a real monster than a tennis ball. Scenes can be blocked out more successfully, and the overall belief in the experience is far more satisfying. The trick is figuring out which methodology is best suited for each case.

“As CG has evolved, so have practical FX materials. Now our “real”  stuff looks and reacts like CG. Of course, CG has become more convincing as well. The art is in mixing them in a satisfying way. Ultimately, there’s only cool shots and good work. There aren’t sides to FX, until you choose to take them.”


Mark CoulierMark Coulier
Creative Director, Coulier Creatures FX

“Has there been a better werewolf transformation scene since An American Werewolf in London? Has there ever been a better or more popular creature character in a film than Chewbacca? Name an alien that has captured the audience’s imagination – especially children – as much as E.T. Has there been a better creature built since the T-Rex in Jurassic Park?

“The Jurassic Park T-Rex and raptors have never been bettered as real, believable characters and I think that is partly down to the mix between practical and VFX. It is, after all, about fooling the audience’s eye and creating characters that are real. Once you have a King Kong that does multiple somersaults, and a herd of stampeding Brontosauri with people running between their legs, it doesn’t matter how real they look; it looks impressive from a technical point of view, but it fools no-one.

“I see one technological Hollywood masterpiece after another and they are all starting to look the same. I think that lack of technology in the past forced filmmakers to be inventive about how the story was told. We should make sure that magic is not lost forever. Fortunately, there are filmmakers out there who still embrace all aspects of our craft. None of it should be discounted. We should use whichever effect tells the story best.”

Voldemort

Mark Coulier, working under creature effects designer Nick Dudman, sculpted and applied this makeup for Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series of films. The makeup was further refined with digital enhancement by MPC.


Conclusion

Despite the challenges of the last couple of decades, it’s clear to me that the practical creature effects industry is very much alive and kicking. Sure, it’s been forced to move with the times – and not always painlessly. But isn’t change inevitable, in all walks of life?

The practical shops that are surviving – in some cases thriving – are doing so because they’ve embraced that change. Some have done this by seeking ways to integrate with their digital peers, other by entering new markets, or by exploring new business models. Some have embraced all these things and more. Meanwhile, a new generation of filmmakers has emerged that is keen to explore the possibilities of today’s sophisticated brand of practical effects.

Throughout – and without exception – the creature-makers and makeup effects artists have continued to do what they’ve always done: used extraordinary skills to create amazing visions of imaginary beings. And if the above passionate – and sometimes impassioned – responses to my question prove anything, it’s this: however great the challenge, there is a viable alternative to extinction.

Evolution.

Now it’s your turn. Which side of the fence do you stand? Or are you ready to burn that fence down? Cast your vote below:


“Return of the Jedi” photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd. “Pacific Rim” photograph copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “The Chronicle of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” photograph copyright © 2005 by Disney Entertainment and Walden Media. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” photograph copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “Real Steel” photograph copyright © 2011 by Dreamworks II Distribution Company. “The Strain” photograph copyright © by 2014 FX Networks, LLC. “Harry Potter” photograph copyright © by Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “The Future of Practical Creature Effects

  1. we need both! CGI and Special effects have gone a long way we are on the cusp of something great and lets not be limited too the cost. We need blend of both

      • Awesome. Thanks for considering the idea. As a fan of miniature effects (especially miniature pyrotechnics) I’m very concerned about what the future will hold for it. As much as I love practical creature effects, I feel they’re still relatively visible compared to miniature work. Any time a new VFX heavy movie has New Deal Studios in the credits or lists model makes as part of the Effects team, I just have the urge the find what they contributed to the finished film, and sometimes I just can’t find out what they did because there not covered by the FX press. It’s sort of depressing really.

  2. As everyone knows you don’t blame the tools. If CG is bad it is not the fault of the computer. It is the fault of the artist on that computer or the lack of time they had to complete the project. Cost and time is a factor in everything we do. If your given too little then your going to produce bad work regardless of wether you use a computer or not.

  3. Isn’t it more of a case that the kinds of movies that require old school practical effects aren’t made that often? Like does anyone really expect Michael Bay to build 200ft real robots or for Godzilla to use a miniature puppet?
    When those rare movies do come around, like the makeup heavy Hobbit, or the puppet heavy Pans Labyrynth we do see a return to the same effects from the pre CG days. So I dont think the industry has changed as much as some of these (likely bitter they don’t get hired that often) interviewees would have you believe.
    Something like Star Wars VII I think will be one of these rare oppurtunities of a movie that will show a return to practical effects on a big budget, AAA level

  4. I’ve been very busy trying (with some success) to bring the art of realistic creature stop motion animated special effects (aka Dynamation®) into the 21st century for independent film makers. (I don’t even dream about being accepted by anyone in Hollywood anymore) And the irony is that the computer tech that at one time threatened realistic stop motion with extinction is the very thing that’s giving it a chance to come back.

    Just as with every other technique in making films, the digital world has greatly enhanced and made easier the business of shooting realistic stop motion. The compositing, color grading, depth of field issues, adding motion blurs and atmosphere and lots of other things have been made easier and the animation itself is even greatly improved because of our ability to see and refine the animation while shooting it.

    Just imagine how much the stop motion animation in films like The Empire Strikes Back and DragonSlayer would be improved and enhanced if they were made today! (not that there’s much wrong with them the way they were) Not to mention how much less expensive they would be to make today with no need for all the complex rigging and motorization involved with Go-Motion® because all that can be done digitally now.

    The first audience that needs to love a film is the audience of artists who are making it while their making it. 3D digital effects is a wonderful art but, it’s not the ONLY art that people want to watch and/or make. It is wrong to ever call ANY art ‘a dead art’… there’s no such thing.

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