At the current moment, the film industry is full to the brim with visually impressive CGI, or Computer Generated Imagery. Love it or hate it, CGI has become the dominant medium by which films are produced. The likes of film directors such as Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit) and James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic, Avatar) make full use of the vast resources and skill-sets available today, pushing the visual boundaries of film to create senses of space or motion which would otherwise not be possible. The beginnings of mainstream motion capture in the late nineties (Jar Jar Binks anyone?) introduced a whole new horizon of opportunities for character portrayal by directors that was too tempting to miss.
However, what can be intended as big and impressive is not always big and impressive. To use a fast food analogy: sometimes a burger and chips are good. There is a consistency to what you are to expect. You are perhaps momentarily pleased, but ultimately it’s one burger in a sea of fast food takeaways. Sometimes when there is too much of a good thing it means that it loses its impact, and this seems to be the case with CGI.
Alternatively, there is a huge variety of alternative special effects which are memorable, endearing, terrifying, and all of these put together. The use of alternative methods, whether it be motivated by financial or artistic reasons, is what makes a film stand out and be memorable. Co-incidentally, there seems to be a correlation between the inclusion of stop motion animation, costumes, puppetry, animatronics, and physical film sets with a film’s status as ‘cult’. Which become immortalised in the hearts of those who appreciate them for what they are: a homage to rarer skills and crafts that are slowly disappearing.
The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987) made full use of a range on novel costumes and puppetry. Jim Henson’s Mystics tribe members in The Dark Crystal were controlled by a combination of professional dancers and mime artists performing in conjunction with remote control operators. Together, these operated facial and arm movements. Similarly, in the unedited version of Star Wars: A New Hope, Jabba the Hutt was composed of three individuals: Dave Barclay, Toby Philpott and Mike Edmonds. Inside a huge suit, they independently operated eye and hand movements of the left and right hand sides respectively. Jabba’s base structure was made of fibreglass with airbags to mimic rudimentary facial movement, covered with latex and painted.
In the leap of faith scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, blue screen was used, and a technique called forced perspective was applied. Small scale models and painted backgrounds shot at a certain angle created a forced appearance of wider perspective which was used to create the huge impasse. This technique permits to avoid using CGI or building large and costly sets. Some directors have also taken the opposite approach with the size of set used for special effects. Jim Henson opted for a huge forty-foot high tunnel filled with latex hands for one of his many iconic scenes in Labyrinth. A system of pulleys and puppeteers wearing gloves to grab the heroine, Sarah, was then used to create the illusion.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception utilised a mind-bending amount of computer-generated scenes but surprisingly one of the most satisfying visual scenes to watch, the fight-scene in a hotel hallway, was created entirely out of a huge rotating set and camera techniques. The corridor was designed to turn a complete 360-degree rotation. Of course, this effect could have been achievable by CGI, but there is an intangible quality which viewers recognise when watching something and seeing ‘real’ interaction between actor and setting.
Personally, I am an advocate for a combination of both CGI and traditional or experimental special effects in film. If something can be physically made, then make it. It might not be as completely polished and dynamic as that which can be achieved by computer, but real sets, costumes, and hydraulics produce a believable sense of interaction and physicality which is just not the same otherwise. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking, but film for me is about escapism, about putting myself in the role; what would I do in that situation, where would I go, how would I interact. With CGI, no matter how good, we are always aware that the actor is interacting with nothing but green screen and visual cues in place where something spectacular should be. CGI works best to enhance the real, not mask it completely. In this sense then, the ‘real’ is the best illusion.