We’ve been hanging out together for a while now. I’ve said some things. You’ve answered back. We’ve drunk coffee, occasionally downed a few glasses of beer. I think we can call ourselves friends. But, if this relationship’s going to move forward, there’s a question we’ve got to get past.
In short, there’s an elephant in the room.
The question’s a simple one. Nevertheless I hesitate to ask it because it frequently sets people off ranting. But fortune favours the bold, so here goes:
“Which are better? Modern CG visual effects, or the old school practical variety?”
I’m going to throw this hot potato high in the air by offering you my own personal opinion. To stop myself rambling on, I’m limiting myself to just one sentence:
When it comes to visual effects, I want it all, which means I want to be amazed by spectacle, entertained by storytelling and misdirected by cleverness, and quite frankly I don’t care whether you achieve that by wielding gaffer tape and piano wire or juggling geometry and pushing pixels, just show me something that looks freakin’ fantastic, and at the same time respects the truth that visual effects as a discipline has a long, long history that informs every single decision a VFX artist makes even today – especially today – and which reflects my own experience as someone who once made short animated films for theme parks using an ancient iteration of 3DS Max, creating digital models and camera setups that I knew – just knew – were influenced by all the old school techniques I’d ever read about in the books and magazines and (of course) in Cinefex, so much so that on one occasion when I had to rework a shot of a space station to incorporate an astronaut waving through a window (don’t you just love those clients who think you can add an entire animated human being into a shot in the blink of an eye?) – a change so last-minute that my best option was to replicate the camera move on a stock figure driven by a motion-captured waving gesture from an equally stock library and use a hasty travelling matte to comp the result into my already-rendered exterior, going in frame by frame with Photoshop to do a little extra tweaking – on that occasion what I had going through my head was not a breakdown of the digital world I was manipulating, but a powerful sense of how this humble shot held echoes of a thousand similar shots created over countless years by practitioners infinitely more skilled than me, whether it be tiny wooden people planted physically on the deck of the Venture in the 1933 King Kong, or live action stage footage of Luke, Leia and the droids projected into the window of the medical frigate for the final spectacular pullback shot of The Empire Strikes Back, or a digital First Officer Murdoch trotting nonchalantly over the deck of James Cameron’s miniature Titanic, and with all that in mind, and while I’m as susceptible to nostalgia as the next man when faced with a glorious Albert Whitlock matte painting or a particularly crafty photochemical comp, and go all gooey at the thought of all those romantic old school artisans toiling with real materials in the real world (much as I might go gooey at the sight of a magnificent and equally romantic tall-masted clipper ship sailing majestically over the ocean), I respectfully suggest that modern CG visual effects are absolutely as inspiring as their old school counterparts, because I firmly believe that by standing on the shoulders of giants you can see one hell of a long way, and I would also add that the behind-the-scenes stories – the VFX creation myths, if you like – are as endlessly fascinating as they ever were, because what drives them is not the gaffer tape, is not the pixels, is neither hardware nor software but wetware, by which I mean the human beings whose artistry, ingenuity and honest sweat continue to solve problems most of us can never dream of solving, and to deliver to our screens the most astonishing visions, the most compelling stories, the most dazzling, glorious moving pictures – in short, visual effects is all about the people, and that, in all this craft’s long and honourable history, is something that hasn’t changed, and never will.
Anyway, that’s what I think. Now it’s your turn to throw your hat in the ring. Just tell me what you think in the comments box below. But please, like me, keep your answers brief. I wouldn’t want anyone to start ranting.