The CG Elephant in the Old School Room

by Graham Edwards

ElephantWe’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.

15 thoughts on “The CG Elephant in the Old School Room

  1. A bit of topic but linked with the article above, I was discussing with a friend of mine about photorealism in visual effects and we came to the conclusion that you can’t get any more real than stop-motion/ old school effects. The models they used to animate were real, physically created in the real world then photographed and composited with other elements. A fine example would be in Indiana Jones in the tunnel escape. Cutting between miniatures and live action shots, audience couldn’t tell the difference. Watching an old documentary about the making of Indiana Jones with ILM, a lot of time was spent on the sequence to insure realism. One shot that only lasted 3 seconds got 3 – 4 weeks to make sure it was correct. A shot like that now would be done in 2 – 4 days, possibly with a little less care than the orignal. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; we just got to remember to take a bit more time and care in creating art.

    • I too love to see a beautiful miniature, beautifully lit, Matthew. And I adore the Indy mine car chase for its seamless integration of, well, more or less every trick in the book. But photorealism is by no means the only criterion for a successful visual effects shot, nor can we ignore the extra demands placed on the artist by digital cinematography. Miniatures that look great on film can look shocking in front of a 4k Arri Alexa. And can old school composites really deliver the truly invisible VFX we’ve grown accustomed to seeing – or not seeing – today?

  2. I agree with you, because we mustn’t forget it’s an evolution. It’s not really one or the other. There were huge miniatures made by ILM for Revenge of the Sith, plus thousands of computer models as well, plus makeup and costume designs. I enjoy watching older movies to find magnificent vistas made possible with matte paintings, and I have the same feeling when I manage to catch a scene made using forced perspective sets, and maybe a combination of different trickery.
    Like you, I want to be amazed, to be taken someplace I cannot physically or possibly go to, and I’d like the story to be engaging and compelling as well, to be visually entertained.
    And yes, I too have dealt with people (clients, if you like) who think that changing designs is just a matter of a couple of clicks…

    • Yes, Eric, I think it is about evolution. I don’t really like the term “old school”. It implies that the traditional techniques are somehow frozen in time, whereas of course they aren’t. Modelmakers continue to develop new ways of building miniatures. Make up and animatronics have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. While studio finances may ultimately drive the decision-making process, I’d argue that everything is still valid. But then I’ve always been greedy. Ask me what I want and my answer is invariably, “I want it all!”

  3. Well said! I was the VFX Sup at New Deal Studios for several years. They produce amazing models and miniatures, and that gave us the advantage of choosing the best technique for every job. Don’t have time to simulate digital rain hitting a windshield? Go out onto the stage and shoot it. And to date, nothing beats practical pyro. You’d be surprised how many feature films still utilize miniatures.

    My real challenge has been with the stunt industry, which I’ve been a part of for over 30 years as a fight coordinator. And the stunt world is freaking out about the CG elephant in the room, which is the one threatening to take their jobs.

    The majority of the stunt industry is convinced that CG looks like crap and we should return to more practical solutions. My response is that crap CG looks like crap CG, but it’s the good CG that you don’t see. I also point out that CG now allows us to paint out wires, airbags, ratchets and rigs, making practical stunts safer and even more dramatic. It’s just another tool and it will never replace a saloon full of stuntmen beating the crap out of each other.

    Here’s a link to the article I wrote for Inside Stunts Magazine:

    • “The best technique for every job …” I’ll go with that. And, with regard to stunt work, there are huge PR advantages in staging practical stunts, like putting Tom Cruise on the side of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper for “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”. Every technique, sooner or later, takes the role of hero or bad guy. When everything works in harmony, that’s when the VFX get really great.

      • And yes, that’s one of the other arguments the stunt industry has with CG. There is an audience that’s into seeing real danger – like watching a Jackie Chan film. You know there are real people doing really crazy stuff onscreen. The question is whether that’s part of the story or not. And when it comes down to it, story comes second when it comes to a Jackie Chan film.

        You can even argue that real stunts aren’t real stunts anymore. There’s airbags, wires, bluescreen, and stunt doubles. Tricks of the trade, whatever works. And in my opinion, it’s to tell a story. Otherwise it’s just the fourth of July or a stunt show at Universal. Lotsa fun, but not quite a movie.

      • Agreed. And I guess there’s a danger that remembering all that PR hoohah might take you out of the movie when you’re finally sat watching it in the cinema. That doesn’t exactly serve the story either.

  4. I think the biggest disappointment is going to the movies to watch a 150 million dollar movie to watch digital explosions. I want to see those dollars blowing up something real. Obviously this is not always practical but there is no wow factor in a cg explosion. I recently went back and watched the Rambo, Robocop, early Die Hard movies just to get a taste of the special effects that felt real.

    I can appreciate good CG and films like Tron Legacy couldn’t be made without it But why oh why do studios consistantly ruin films and tv with CG explosions. I know, cost and time constraints but come on. TV shows are also a good example of horrible CG. Even blowing up a car is done in the computer. A few TV shows which have been fantastic, are ruined in the final episode when the huge explosions generate laughter instead of awe.
    I don’t mean to bad mouth the hard work of our computer artists but studios really need to consider the practical approach. Or at least partially. I dare anyone to produce a more spectacular helicopter crash as the one in Skyfall which utilised miniatures AND cg. It looked incredible and it felt real.

  5. I worked for years at ILM to introduce realtime graphics to the vfx production process, because I feel that one thing we really miss with a pure sitting-at-the-desk CG approach is spontaneity and the happy accident. On a live shoot, an unexpected bird can fly by and simply make the shot. In an offline approach, if you didn’t think of having the bird, it’s not going to be there. The variability a practical pyro effect can achieve when an operator drags a wire across a nailboard to fire off a sequence of squibs is absolutely going to benefit from that organic process. When you can augment your live experience on set with generated elements, you can start to get the benefits of new visualizations, practically unbuildable elements, simulated outrageously dangerous stunts, and completely impossible characters in a live organic environment. I hope that is ultimately where we are all going 🙂

    • Yes, the best art is often born out of happy accidents. Maybe all software needs a built-in “screw-up” slider. Simply dial in your chosen degree of unpredictability, and let ‘er rip!

  6. VFX depend also on the audience’s culture. The people who saw the train arriving at La Ciotat filmed by the Lumière Bros. were afraid of a black and white silent train. 120 years later, every kid knows what CGI is (his video games) and how Gravity was made (and don’t really care). My point is, if it is true that the main criteria for VFX quality is emotion, being at service of a good story telling is essential to reach that goal. Willis O’Brien was aware of that. But maybe this is out of subject.

  7. I think that the best approach is the one where a mix of styles is used. A good example is the original Iron Man. I knew of Stan Winston’s involvement which meant that high-quality practical armours were used on set. I was also aware of ILM and other companies use of CGI to augment the illusion, underpinned by Jon Favreau’s aversion to the overuse of CGI. But it was only after watching the DVD documentaries, I was amazed to see how successful they were in selling the reality of Stark’s armours despite knowing the technology doesn’t exist as portrayed in the film (as far as I’m aware – who knows what the American military is up to…..)

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