Now that the sky is no longer the limit in vfx, The Pixel Priestess thinks its time to pick and choose our 3D usage more carefully.
So, theres this thing about visual effects: so much about them is incredible; the people who create them are tirelessly inventive, able to weather storms of producers, executives, directors, supervisors and artists who, like themselves, stay and create for all hours of the day and night, weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries kind of astonishing. But I often find myself wondering why. To serve the story (if there is one)? To serve their own curiosity, creativity and artistry? To chase elusive rewards and awards? To pay the bills? Maybe its a bit of all these. Years ago it must have been for the chance to create something weve never seen, something that would change the way we perceived reality. As weve pretty much shown we can create anything now, though, the days of being able to get away with producing something that merely looks cool are over. We have to create indelible images that resonate; we have to fulfill our unwritten job description of making magic of mediocrity, or else whats the point?
I remember a conversation around 1996 with a writer/director whose name Ive long since forgotten. He wanted to know what he could do with computer-generated visual effects; specifically, he wanted to know if he could incinerate New York. Well, at the time digital fire wasnt quite possible, so he would have needed practical fire. Both solutions were impractical and would have cost way too much to solve his hypothetical problem. Now that we can, in fact, create anything we want with CGI, including torching the Big Apple, I wonder why we would want to? I mean, weve just covered the poor city with an apocalypse of ice and snow for a story that Im sure paled in comparison to the finals reel. If someone is going to burn New York, I hope they dont burn the screenplay first.
Visual effects are a means to an end; a way to bring imagination to the screen, but the imagination has to be there in the first place. As Ive stated before, we can look way back to the origins, to Melies and The Lumiere Brothers, to the man in the moon, and the tiny ballerina dancing and disappearing in a whiff of smoke. We can look at Gertie the Dinosaur and see why Winsor McCay wanted to stun his audience into thinking he was interacting with his dinosaur friend. We can marvel at Edwin S. Porters Great Train Robbery and imagine the audience shrieking as the great train barreled towards them. Looking forward a bit to Darby OGill and the Little People, we see an incredible feat of forced perspective and rear projection barely contested until the magnificence of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rocketing to space, we remember the slitscanning techniques invented by John Whitney and put into practice by Doug Trumbull, Bob Abel, Con Pederson and others whose work gave us the distinct feeling we were actually taking that journey. And then, of course, Star Wars shattered all barriers in every galaxy.
So why do we go to the movies? To see something great, to escape a bit, to watch superhuman characters do ordinary things or ordinary characters perform superhuman tasks? To eat popcorn in the dark? Of course, those of us in the visual effects industry (or vfx-adjacent), go to watch our friends work, to understand first-hand why we havent seen them for months; to see what wonders theyve been creating in their darkened 18% gray cubicles. We go for the explosions, certainly, but why did we love Spider-Man? Because Spidey looked great? Sure, but more importantly, all the post-screening jabber was how surprisingly good the story was. Why didnt we hear much about The Day After Tomorrow? Because there was just too much disbelief to suspend.
Im really wondering how Ill feel about The Polar Express. Im so nervous about this film. Every preview I see creeps me out and I really want to like it to believe that this is another attempt to conjure a magical world with extraordinary images. But so far, the characters seem eerily real, but not quite, like somethings missing. I know that the idea was to recreate the painterly look of the book, but Chris Van Allsburgs book is magical; making faithful xeroxes of his characters seems to result in some odd kind of forgery where both the original and the copy suffer. I really hope Im wrong. But remember Jumanji for a second. Made almost a decade ago, this film attempted animals of a kind way before the Mighty Joe Young remake showed how great fur could look. Yeah, I remember it wasnt great, but I do remember that it tried something new and brave; tried to bring some new visuals to Van Allsburgs story. It was a great attempt to put something new into practice. Maybe The Polar Express will do the same thing, and like the boy in the story, I just have to have faith.
And then you look at Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. This was an awesome example of someone having an imagination and recruiting the folks available to forge that dreamscape onto the screen. OK, so the story has all kinds of holes and improbabilities; and sometimes I got the distinct impression that our actors were indeed sitting on a stage surrounded by nothing but bluescreen, but so what? My disbelief suspended, this film took me to another reality entirely, to a different world; and it left me with a feeling that I was actually watching someone live out his dream to bring his imagination to the screen. In fact, it becomes almost insignificant whether you consider the piece to be a success or a failure because what they attempted was so brave. Im not here to comment on the work other people did (director and actors), and I dont want to hypothesize whether the hours and days Darin Hollings, Scott E. Anderson and crew took to realize this film were well spent (Anderson likened the experience to throwing tracks down in front of a moving train), but it was two hours that made me remember what it is to create something unique. And thats remarkable.
In 1998, composer Phillip Glass and theatrical director Robert Wilson teamed with Kleiser-Walczak for Monsters of Grace. For those of you who didnt see this piece (and I think there were only a couple of us who did), this co-production brought together that holy triumvirate of opera, theater and visual effects. What? And, remember, this was in 1998, when idiosyncratic director Wilson knew what he wanted (basically, several odd, surrealistic images a hand being slowly punctured; a shoe; a bicycle riding toward a house, if I remember correctly, projected 20 foot tall in 3D), and didnt want to hear that the technology wasnt available to create that yet. So, brave souls that they are, Kleiser-Walczak took on a totally non-lucrative job in pursuit of art and invention. I believe that they had to go to SGI in Monterey to find cpus to render the frames, and then they released two versions within a year of each other because the shots hadnt been rendered. Like true artists, they undertook this for the invention and it was super cool. Kudos still go to Diana Walczak and Jeff Kleiser for taking this on in pursuit of art, imagination and creation. Were these wasted pixels? Not at all. Frankly, Id rather spend my audience dollars on this than a well-executed snowstorm.
On that note, lets take a look at television and Father of the Pride. Please, someone, tell me why? And tell me how? Here is an animation studio filled to the rafters with really talented animators, modelers, lighters, etc., so how they could put their stamp on something tasteless, crude that ultimately doesnt look so good either, is beyond me. My conundrum is this: Cant we have something funny without needing to watch jokes that arent funny? Tasteless jokes can be funny look at Monty Python. Sadly, I think this is one circumstance no amount of good animation (lighting, modeling, direction aside) could save.
So, where is all this going? I have absolutely no idea. Now that we can create the universe earth, air, fire and water whats next? Whatever it is, I hope our time is well spent, both in front of the monitors as artists and in front of the screen as audience members, that the stories you interpret in the pixels you push add a dimension to the project. Or else, whats the point?
Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long.