Henry Turner looks back on the vfx milestones that graced the big screen during 2003.
The eye-popping effects of The Matrix Revolutions are now more of a milestone for not making the Academys vfx short list. © 2003 Warner Bros. Ent. U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda. © 2003 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd. all other territories (all rights reserved used by permission), unless otherwise noted.
2003 was certainly a watershed year for films featuring digital visual effects. Running the gamut from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, to the ceaseless action of the two Matrix sequels, Revolutions, viewers have never before seen such variety. In the realm of pure fantasy, one wonders whether we have ever been presented with something so flatly audacious as Underworld, with its fashion magazine veneer, almost, but not quite, camouflaged its lack of substantial narrative. Yet perhaps an even greater example of what might be considered the over-use of vfx was on display in the Matrix sequels, resulting in the now notorious omission of Revolutions from Oscar consideration. Speaking of the growth of vfx in the years since T2, Industrial Light & Magics visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig says, There is nothing that we cant create in terms of images. If you can think of it and communicate what you want, it can be created.
Photoreal Environments and CG Characters
Due to the growth of digital technology, some of the most striking use of vfx risks going unnoticed, in the photorealistic dramas such as The Last Samurai and Cold Mountain, which not only utilized CGI abundantly, but, perhaps, more importantly, took advantage of digital intermediate to achieve realistic atmosphere and scenery through alterations of natural decor.
As a creature, the Hulk arguably outclasses The Hulk proved, it is not to impose such lofty metaphoric and downright Freudian narrative on such a comic book fantasy. However, as a CG creation, Hulk may be the finest achievement yet concocted; technicians agree that the sensitivity of the facial close ups usher in a new era of realism in CG characters.
Technology Vs. Narrative
ILMs Brevig has experienced the pitfalls of the overindulgence that complete freedom of expression can invite. Now we can do anything, and if we build one giant creature, you can have a thousand of them for almost the same price. Im looking forward to when the pendulum swings back, and there are only as many CG creatures as you need to tell a good story. Just because we have a bigger hammer at our disposal, doesnt mean should use it at full force all the time.
A time-honored cinematic truth was again proven in this vfx crowded year: Story and character are still the foundation of a successful film, no matter what visual pyrotechnics are brought to it. After having spoken to visual effects supervisors and lead animators at ILM, Digital Domain, Asylum and Uncharted Territory, one theme was universally agreed upon: vfx cannot be the emphasis of a film story must come first, a directors overall vision must be the controlling factor in a film for it to inspire the fascination that will lead viewers to be awe of the spectacle. Its not just a question of less is more; its about suiting the quantity of vfx to the narrative scope not vice versa. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with its Nautilus Sub so large as to seem the size of a submergible Empire State Building, does not have any single scene that can compete on an emotional level with the impact of the resurrection of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, though she is merely a few inches tall.
X2 is a perfect case of an even blend of vfx and narrative, in which the vfx are carefully created to support and not overwhelm the story. There is an unforgettable sequence when Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) gives her life to save her partners on the plane that lies in the path of a collapsing dam. To their credit, the effects of the plane and water enhance the grief stricken feelings of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the other crewmen that are conveyed amid the turbulent spectacle.
T3 was a roller coaster ride, but unlike League, it never went quite so over the top as to obscure its characters with vfx. Its comedic overtones were more pronounced than in the first two films, both played in stone-cold Cameron style. Such humorous touches in T3 made the apocalyptic ending seem out of place. One is led to think that, like the Matrix, the narrative juice of Terminator did not truly warrant a trilogy.
Best in the comedic category was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and it is a prime example of vfx supporting the action of a film, and enhancing the performances through the seamless realism and imaginative fantasy of the digital effects. I doubt theres a single viewer in the world that would come away from that film remembering the pirate ghosts over Johnny Depps hilarious performance. As an example of vfx carefully tailored to suit both humor and adventure, Pirates sets a new standard of excellence.
But the hallmark film of 2003, and not simply in terms of vfx, was undoubtedly The Return of the King. Philosophically it presents a fascinating milestone. In the optical era, effects were still theatrical still an art of suggestion. But in the case of Return, we get the idea that director Peter Jackson never once had to compromise his vision, and hence was able to create a staggering epic, a 10-hour unity, in which vfx and performances co-mingle, creating the most powerful moviegoing experience seen in decades.
Master and Commander occupies perhaps the most innovative spot. Never before in film has a historical era sprung to such vivid life. But on careful examination, it was the harmony between all aspects of the film, everything from makeup to costume to the meticulous design of the miniatures and CG ships, with everything playing in unison that created what is probably the most convincing historical drama in decades. When we think of the historical classics of the past, such moments as the boat battle in Ben-Hur comes to mind, in which boats without sailors are shown, and the viewer must complete the scene imaginatively, based on the cues of the images, not the images themselves.
The Near Future of CGI
With Hulk and Gollum, 2003 brought forth the two most convincing CG characters ever created. Eight-time Academy award winner Dennis Muren of ILM thinks that a convincing human CG character is still years ahead. It has taken us a long time to get to the point that we can do characters that are somewhat recognizable as living things. Nobody knew what dinosaurs looked like. If you saw a real dinosaur, Im sure the Jurassic Park stuff would look really fake, but youve never seen one, and we did a good artistic interpretation of them. But if you start getting into a human shape, it gets a lot harder, because audiences have a reference point. The closer it gets to being human, whether its Hulk or Gollum or any of those things, the harder it gets to do it realistically. Because, for instance, in The Hulk, the creature is in the same scene with Jennifer Connelly, and your eye goes back and forth between the two of them, so the acting better be up to it, and they better look like they fit in there.
Soon, in such films as The Polar Express, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I, Robot and The Day After Tomorrow, we will see even more perfect accomplishments in CG characters and environments.
We are far from the time when, to put it in as broad terms as possible, a script is put into one end of a computer and a completed feature film churns out the other end. Not because it wont be possible, but because it is not desired. As we must accept living in an era of the most rapid technological advancements in the history of humanity, we also must make sure that we never forget that it is the flesh-bound aspects of ourselves that ultimately gives the heart and soul to any narrative undertaking.
Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.