Andrew Pankin, Alex Boivin and Jordan Pedersen have spent most of the last decade in darkened rooms – some of those rooms were movie theaters. Read on for their thoughts about the most important developments in the cinema of the aughts.
AB: What were movies like before special effects? Nowadays, people are all concerned about what film has the best CGI, at least as far as big summer sci-fi/action films go. Before movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park came along, did anyone care? Sure you'd get something like Star Wars every once and a while but those predate the era when mind-blowingly awesome special effects ruled the cineplex.
The old adage that movies these days sacrifice story for explosions is well worn territory, but I can't help but feel it rings true. Take a look at Matrix Reloaded. Granted, Matrix 1 was a goddamn special effects spectacular for the ages, but Reloaded got too high on itself and gave us a CGI fight between Neo and a couple hundred Smiths that looked dated before I ever started college. Then on the other hand you have the Lord of the Rings, another series of films that by their very genre have to be loaded with things that aren't real. But unlike say something like the Star Wars Prequels, LOTR does its best to use as many real things, extras, monsters, what have you in the film. And for that reason it still holds up. No matter how good CGI gets, its gonna look crappy in a decade or so and you can't sacrifice more traditional facets of filmmaking like story, feelings, what have you to get them.
That's what worries me about Avatar. Yes, it's the best looking movie I've seen in a while but by the time we're writing the 2010's decade in review, we're gonna be talking about how dated it looks and how it's just Dances With the Last Ferngully Mononoke ThunderDelgo. I feel similar about 3-D. Yeah it's fun for a while but it can't last. In a short while we'll be writing about how it the trend was just a cheap trick to dupe the average moviegoer out of an extra four bucks. You'll cry just as hard at the first ten minutes of Up no matter how many dimensions it has.
JP: I'm more interested in the special effects that you're not supposed to be able to spot from a mile away.
Granted, all special effects are intended to allow filmmakers to do stuff they couldn't do without some visual trickery. But I think some filmmakers (Michael Bay) begin the process thinking, "I'm going to cram as much obviously-CGI stuff into this movie as I possibly can so people won't notice the copious amounts of racism and misogyny." And I guess that's not an awful policy? I certainly know a lot of average filmgoers/high school kids who talk about "amazing graphics" (a misnomer which, by the way, makes me want to tear my eyeballs out) before they mention anything else. For films like Transformers, then, filmmakers want audiences to point out the visual effects when they recommend the movie to their friends.
But there's another type of filmmaker who'd rather that you not notice the stuff that isn't real in his movie. Boivin mentioned the LOTR trilogy, and I think Peter Jackson's a pretty good example (not so much outside of the LOTR trilogy, though). Sure, those movies had their share of ghost and evil elephant armies, but those were far from the most impressive sequences in the trilogy (actually, those were probably the two crappiest-looking things in LOTR). The things that stick out in my mind are the gorgeous CGI-assisted sets and the seemingly-infinite number of dudes at the Battle of Helm's Deep. Rivendell, for example, could have been built on a studio backlot, but Jackson wanted it to look as if it actually existed. So he shot some exterior shots at a national park in New Zealand and then added CGI to make it look "hyper-real" (if I may descend into buzzwordery for a minute). And he could have hired a bajillion extras for the Battle of Helm's Deep (Joseph L. Mankiewicz did it), but even he didn't have an infinite source of money. So he used CGI to add an extra layer of grandiosity to an already gigantic battle. But the thousands of tiny orcs in that scene are a far cry from the clanging robot balls in Transformers.
AP: The digital revolution has made it easier for for filmmakers to put increasingly impressive visual effects in their films, and to do it cheaply. George Lucas has stated that he will never again shoot on actual film because of the lower cost and the ease of post-production manipulation. The cheapness of digital film stock has benefited more than just the washed up, CGI-obsessed sellouts - many amateur filmmakers or smaller studios have been able to drastically cut overhead by shooting on digital cameras and editing on the equivalent of a home computer.
Along with film stock (which shouldn't actually count as a "special effect," but more of technological advancement), the aughts have seen the increased ability for filmmakers to supplement their with computers. Directors who rely heavily on computer generated imaging seem to fall into two camps: those who make it the focal point of their films and those who use it as a tool to enhance the overall quality of their films. My colleagues have mentioned Avatar (which was 60 percent motion capture) as an example of the former and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as an example of the latter (how else, except for CGI, could you convincingly portray a character such as Gollum?). The advent of superbly advanced CGI hasn't necessarily made it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff - it's just made it so we see more impressive chaff.