Brilliant visual effects work takes place around us all the time in the movies – yet we don’t seem to be quite so impressed anymore.
Last week, I had an overdue chat with an old chum of mine, and we began musing the taken-for-granted visual effects industry.
Around London, there are umpteen effects houses working for months on shots for films, that will look seamless. The work will be brilliant, is highly skilled, and world class. And barely anybody will bat an eyelid.
Not because the effects are designed to be implicit, such as something like Forrest Gump. No: because the standard is so consistently high.
So implicit and taken for granted is this work that when, for instance, we go and see an effects-heavy Fantastic Beasts film, the intense work put it to make the world seem real is expected. To the point where visual effects work is only really even mentioned if it’s not good.
On that, let’s all take this moment to remember The Rock at the end of The Mummy Returns.
This is where progress has taken us, for better or worse. Videogames have the same problem. Compare the visual look of a computer game from the early 90s to one from the mid-90s, and there’s a chasm of difference. Mid-90s to the end of the 90s? Much less so. The mid 2010s to now? There’s little to most people’s eyes.
There’s still occasional conversation about technical prowess in animation. Disney’s recent The Lion King rerun was photorealistic, and looked stunning. Too real? That was the argument, and that’s become a viable criticism now. But it was noticed, and talked about.
Yet in terms of a visual effect in the middle of a live action movie, when was the last time one of them made you go ‘wow’?
In the 80s and 90s, it was a fairly regular occurrence. I remember the flying car of Back To The Future Part II, and wondering how they did it. The White House blowing up in Independence Day. The big flood in Superman: The Movie. The T-1000. The T-Rex of Jurassic Park. Even 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. They all felt groundbreaking to me as I watched them on the big screen, and I had a sense of awe.
Yet in hindsight, the gap between those moments of awe was growing. That as visual and special effects pathfinding continued, so it became more accessible when you didn’t have a lot of money or geniuses at hand. Or both. In much the same way that the technology work on a Formula One car eventually makes it to the cars sitting on a second hand dealership’s forecourt, the effects work of bringing dinosaurs to life is the norm on half the TV shows by youngest seems to watch. Heck, the groundbreaking work done by the Who Framed Roger Rabbit team is now a standard of children’s telly.
Yet the sheer amount of labour to produce effects, if anything, has grown. Given that time windows for movie post production have shrunk, there’s oftentimes an all hands on deck approach to effects work. That more people are concentrated on a single production for a tight schedule, with digital shots being shared across various studios. Your everyday Hollywood blockbuster now tends to have a couple of hundred effects shot in it, whether it actually needs that many or not.
But going back to where we came in: how many of them now really register? I can think of just a couple of examples from the past two decades. In 1999, of course, The Wachowskis unleashed bullet time into the world, an idea that was soon copied by, of all things, a Deuce Bigalow movie.
But at the time, it was utterly ground-breaking, mixing a variety of techniques for a moment that cost nearly $1m alone (for a film that cost just shy of $65m), that also took months to make work. The story goes that so far fetched was the idea of realising bullet time as written into the original screenplay, that it was a factor in Will Smith turning down the role and taking on Wild Wild West instead.
Bullet time was one of the many talking point of The Matrix, but it was clear that visual effects work had really taken a step forward, and given audiences something they hadn’t really seen before.
There are films that followed that were visually striking, such as Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, for example. And following that, there was the stunning work of WETA in realising Gollum across The Lord Of The Rings movies.
But following Gollum at least, I can’t remember feeling the same again until I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception, in 2010. It’s the physics bending sequence from that film, that looked stunning on the big screen. Even then though, I knew somewhere in my heart of hearts that it was a piece of computer work done by brilliant people. The mystery wasn’t quite what it used to be.
I’m not saying brilliant work hasn’t been done. Gravity looked amazing, the world of Life Of Pi was stunningly realised and Blade Runner 2049 was a flat-out joy simply to look at. Furthermore, the recent Planet Of The Apes trilogy – as well as being excellent – is an interesting look at the progression of performance capture capabilities married up to visual effects artistry.
In each of these cases, though, I felt like I was watching brilliant applications of visual effects work, which is arguably what the idea should be: to service the story that they want to tell, rather than letting the visual effects work dominate. With the best will in the world, when most of us think of Independence Day, for instance, it’s effects first, story second. And thus when the sequel finally rolled around and the visuals were less of a talking point, the film got a much flatter response.
I do think part of the reason too that we’re less wowed by effects is arguably that a lot of modern cinema has been demystified. Increasingly, we know how things are done. That you dress an actor in a tight bodysuit and cover them in ping pong balls, and you can put them pretty much anywhere with enough skill and computer processing power. You only have to look on an actor’s social media feed to find some example of that. The curtain has long been pulled back.
In fact, if anything what’s become more impressive in the world of VFX is when an awful lot is achieved for not much. I remember warming to Skyline more than most, but also, it felt like an audit of what $20m could buy you in digital work. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, though, is something of a standout. That he was able to wrestle the effects he needed at home, using his own computer and some off-the-shelf software. That suddenly made it all feel reachable, although that slightly overlooks the genius of Gareth Edwards.
But then watching the latest Avengers movie, which of course has much to commend it, it’s a testament to how far the whole industry has come. 12 different companies worked to make an entire CG-villain, as well as all sorts of worlds and characters come to life, and most of us didn’t blink twice about it. That’s testament to how far the industry has come, and the efforts of those involved.
Yet it also goes back to that level of expectation. We’re at the point now where we only seem to notice if something is bad, so far has the bar being raised. But perhaps you can help me remedy that.
In the comments below, how about leaving some examples over the past 10-20 years of where effects work has really impressed you. And let’s salute the brilliant people all over the world who continue to push the industry forward.
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