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Horta's View from the Stalls: Digital Overkill in a Digital World - Visual Effects in the Movies

April 25th, 2003

In 1982, Disney released what is in my opinion, the first movie to ever successfully marry computer effects with live action scenes and actors.  The saga pitted Jeff Bridges, a computer gaming programmer gone rogue against an evil electronic A.I. that abducts him into a cyber world and places him in combat scenarios against hordes of battle vehicles and humanoid programs.  This movie - Tron - was in essence the Matrix of its time.  Since then, Visual Effects technology has been used to create character enhancements and action scenes that previously would have cost production companies millions of dollars in time and materials.  A technology so advanced, that we now have CGI characters playing important roles in movies.  A technology that is so well received and relatively economical that the advent of completely digitally animated features are common place. A technology which has trickled down to every day use in video games and small screen productions.

And a technology that is so excessively used in film, and at times so poorly rendered, that it smacks of the campy falseness that was a Godzilla costumed, Japanese actor, stomping through a miniature of 1960’s Tokyo.

T M I?


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Not to offend die-hard Godzilla fans mind you, or you aspiring computer visual effects specialist, because for one, I am a Godzilla fan from way back and I am annually parked in-front of the Sci-Fi channel during their October Godzilla marathon.  Believe me, campy, cheesy over sized lizards are my passion.

Two, I am a die hard technologist, and Generation X-er who not only appreciates the hard work and effort behind the 3D-modeling, rendering programming, CGI, and various other skills involved, but I regularly pray at the alter of Bill Gates while back flipping, high kicking, and round house punching my way through a well designed game using a half naked, bouncy, digitally rendered babe named Divinity on my X-Box.  Believe me, I salute you computer artists, and subsequently so do the good people of Kleenex Tissues and Saint Ive’s Hand Lotions.

But... (and you knew the "but" was coming)

There are some movies that did it right, and others, that just plain did it wrong.  Instead of treading through the murky depths of what can be a very categorized field encompassing a wide array of technologies and techniques, I will instead look at specific movies and scenes that were impressively done and I will look at other movies that weren’t so impressively done.  In the interests of server space and tired fingers (there are so many movies using and/or abusing digital effects these days I could write a book) I will concentrate on the top-earning visual effects movies of all time, and some particular movies that I feel need to be pointed out for one reason or another. [Author's Note: The original top 10 list that inspired this article was compiled by www.digitalmediafx.com, a group that provides content and information mainly for people who are in the industry.]

Top 16 Visual Effects Movies of All Time

The following is a list of the highest grossing FX movies of all time.

Visual Effects Movie

Company

Total

1) Titanic

Paramount

$600.8 Million

2) Star Wars: A New Hope

Fox

$461.0 Million

3) Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Lucas/FOX

$431.1 Million

4) Spider-Man

Sony

$403.7 Million

5) Jurassic Park

Universal

$357.0 Million

6) Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

New Line

$337.5 Million

7) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Warner Bros.

$317.6 Million

8) Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

New Line

$313.4 Million

9) Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

FOX

$309.1 Million

10) Independence Day

Fox

$306.1 Million

11) Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Lucas/Fox

$302.2 Million

12) Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

FOX

$290.2 Million

13) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Warner Bros.

$262.0 Million

14) How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Universal

$260.0 Million

15) Batman

Warner Bros.

$251.2 Million

16) Men in Black

Sony

$250.7 Million

Note: "Visual Effects Movie" refers to a film that heavily relied on special effects in the telling of its story.  Visual Effects can be model-based or computer generated.  Results are based on how much money the movie made in the U.S./Canada Domestic box office and may include money made in re-releases (depending on circumstances).  In addition, the list does not allow for inflation or higher ticket prices.  The original list is at http://www.digitalmediafx.com/specialreports/topfxmovies.html

Men in Black

Starting from low to high in terms of box office numbers on this list and working our way up, we have Men in Black.  A feature which I felt crossed the line regularly with their use of digital visual effects, only to be saved thanks to the on screen chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Frank the Talking Dog was well done, and so were many of the scenes involving various space aliens and technology.  But it’s always easier to animate something that doesn’t exist in real life, because no one can really say what an alien with an exploding head looks like when growing a new noggin, or what worm aliens should look like when drinking coffee.  Still, these effects-laden films have to remember that digital effects, computer rendering, and modeling, is far from perfect, mostly because it looks too perfect on screen!  The clarity and smoothness of CGI characters, slightly off color and shading, and almost too fluid motion, makes for glaring examples that can overpower a scene with its blatancy.  Occasionally, MIB did the smart thing balancing a mix of CGI, Special effects robots, make up, and live models for this film.  Because it could have been a lot worse and because the acting and story helped pull my attention away from all of the CGI, it is in my personal "Did It Right" category.

Batman and The Grinch

The next two films on our list were surprises to me but welcome ones nonetheless.  I group these two films together because more traditional effects magic were used in the making.  Computer animation was held to a minimum and modeling and make up specialists took the lead.  More movies should do it this way; at least until the computer VE (Visual Effects) side of the house is perfected.

Not much to say on The Grinch.  There wasn’t a chance in the world that any type of visual effects would have been able to direct the audience away from Jim Carrey's acting.  Mostly make up effects here, and I believe that if you can’t notice the effects, if it doesn’t pull you away from the story, then it "Did It Right!".

Batman, which used a lot of green or blue screen shots (Placing an actor in front of a blue or green screen and then inserting the back round later) and city modeling, played well in the dark comic book world that was Gotham City.  It might not have been so in another film.  However, the fight scenes were tight, realistic, used simple camera shots, and great martial arts choreography, really making this movie memorable.  A more recent visual effects movie similar to Batman that isn’t on this list, but I feel really shows an important contrast, is the Blade series starring Wesley Snipes.  The first Blade being well done, and the fight scenes being just as impressive as the first Batman movie.  However, Blade II, which I still found to be thoroughly enjoyable, made the mistake of using CGI for their vampire on vampire fight scenes.  Particularly noticeable were the acrobatics preformed by Wesley Snipes character Blade and the Leonor Varela character Nyssa during the GOD lights fight sequence.  Also of particular note was the end fight scene between Blade and Luke Goss character Nomak.  Again, production companies using any type of visual effects have to remember that new technology and methods doesn’t always mean better or more entertaining.  I would personally prefer not to see digital effects in action sequences.  If you need to make for a more stunning sequence, The Matrix style wirework plays well and is visually stunning in most respects.  My call on all of these films, Batman, The Grinch, and Blade "Did It Right!".  Blade II, in most vampire on vampire scenes, "Did It Wrong!"

Star Wars: All Of Them

No big surprise here in regards to Star Wars.  Currently holding 5 of the top 16 spots, this is again a perfect example of how it was done right the first time, and on the second go around, just didn’t quite make it.  George Lucas pioneered some impressive modeling techniques and make up work during the original production of Star Wars.  Ground breaking work to which my words just can’t do justice (Note: Death star scenes where X-wing fighters were making strafing attacks on the surface, used miniatures and drive by camera work off the back of a pickup!).   On its recent re-release, the George Lucas studio and George Lucas himself, decided to add some upgrades via CGI.  In my opinion, all of these scenes are obvious and not worthy of the original visual effects craftsmanship.  The Star Wars opening scene with the chasing Imperial Destroyer is still one of the most realistic and awesome scenes I have seen to date and it was done in 1977.  In regards to Star Wars Episode 1, just three words: Jar Jar Binks!  My call for the Star Wars series, great movies, awesome story lines, great acting and the first time around, "Did It Right!". On re-release and on the newer series, "Did It Wrong!".

Independence Day

The visual effects in this film were stunning.  The shots of the alien saucers floating above various US monuments and in orbit were amazing and I couldn’t tell just by looking at it that they were all digitally inserted.  Some of the F-15/alien ship dog fight scenes were suspect, but overall, an amazing job.  Animatronics/puppeteering type technology was used for close up shots involving the aliens and the blue/green screen shots were flawless.  Fox did it right in this film and coupled with a fantastic cast and script, the only surprise here is that it isn’t closer to the number 1 spot.  Simply put "Did It Right!"

Jurassic Park

I was going to duo this film with Independence Day, but it was so well done, and the technology used to create the dinosaurs so groundbreaking, it needed its own line.  One of the first to use CGI on such a large scale, Jurassic Park really demonstrated to other production companies and film makers that the sky is the limit in terms to what you can do with effects, as long as your budget is sky high as well.  I can still pick out the CGI, but only because I know dinosaurs have long been extinct.  Close up shots of the dinos were animatronics and it was all superbly done.  Hey, we have all seen clips of the old stop motion dinosaurs from the movies past, and the scenes in movies where nothing but animatronics (Skins and artist created sub-dermals stretched over remote control robots) were used.  Anyone remember Baby - Legend of the Lost Dinosaur?  By the end of this movie, I was hoping that Baby would just die.  Jurassic Park, "Did It Right!".

Spider-Man

I don’t know where to start with this film. A big Marvel Fan, and Spider-Man fan myself, I was happy to see a live action Spider-Man film being released into the theaters. The acting was fantastic and I really loved how they brought the character to life on the big screen; not many characters can make such a successful transition. But I was really not impressed with any scene involving Spiderman climbing, jumping, and web slinging through the city streets. I was down right disappointed in the fight scenes between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. The movement of CGI characters just doesn’t look right. No, I have never seen a crime fighting spandex clad human with the powers of a spider making his way through a city, so no I don’t have a point of reference to which I make that comment; But I do know what looks real and natural and proportioned and Spider-Man CGI was not. As unfortunate as it is because I really loved the movie, the CGI in the film in almost every action scene, "Did It Wrong".

Titanic

When I first saw this film on the list, I was very surprised, only because the visual effects weren’t of long extinct animals, super natural beings, or aliens and alien technology. The technology wasn’t as a character in the movie like the others. Titanic was a movie that used visual effects to recreate an era and an environment and strikingly so.  How appropriate that it resides in the number 1 spot, because it is number 1 in my personal list of movies that flawlessly utilized digital effects to help present the story.  This movie was shot on a partial mock-up of the boat in a huge water tank.  The background was digitally inserted, as was the vast ocean.  The sinking of the ship and violent collision with the Iceberg was digitally rendered then inserted.  Titanic went completely over budget and was a huge risk for everyone involved.  Hands downed, "Did It Right!".

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RINGS MAN... THE RINGS AND THE POTTER??

Because I would prefer not to be hunted down in the streets and flogged by a crowd of readers lead by Bruce Nash for not mentioning it, lets take a look at Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and the Harry Potter movies. Bruce actually updated the Digitalmediafx chart to include the newer movies which is why it's a top 16 as opposed to a top 10. Afterall, as my editor so keenly pointed out, Lord of The Rings raked in $313 million and The Two Towers over $337 million. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone brought in over $317 million with the sequel, Chambers of Secrets only bringing in a modest $261 million; (That was sarcasm by the way). Sorry Grinch, MIB and Batman, time to move over, here comes something with bigger box office takes. The first movie in both of these franchises are without a doubt in the "Did it Right!" realm. However, I wasn’t necessarily impressed by everything I saw. It looks like the cave troll that attacked both Harry Potter and the Fellowship graduated from the same University of crappy CGI. (Would that be CCGIU then?)  Other then that, both prequels were brilliant. Harry deserving particular mention for the Broom flying scenes during the Quibbage Event, and The Fellowship for the scaling effects used to make the hobbits (played by full size actors) appear smaller then their co-stars. And then we have the sequels!!! What is it with these two movies anyway? They must be sharing visual effects companies because the house elf in the Chambers of Secret looks just as crappy as Gollum did in the Two Towers. And good thing for Harry that the Mr. Riddles snake wasn’t in more of this movie or I would have really went off the film. Conversely the ying to their yangs, came in the form of the amazingly created flying car sequences and again with another awesome broom flying Quibbage game for Harry Potter. In Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, the CGI tower modeling and environmental inserts were equally brilliant. Those particular CGI marvels, along with excellent acting, fantastic story lines, and superb cast chemistry help propel both into the "Did it Right!" category.

A Constantly Changing List

To be honest, this list will probably be defunct by the time this year is out.  With the exception of Titanic and the first Star Wars, we can expect the rest of this directory to be updated annually. Digital effects in movies have made for great movie magic and will continue to do so for years to come.  This year alone we will see The Hulk, X-Men 2, Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines, and the Matrix: Reloaded hit the screen and the production of big budget movies with big budget effects isn’t showing signs of slowing.

Digital effects can be a great thing if done so in a subdued manner, or when the movie using them is pioneering, but when main characters and huge scenes rely on the technology, watch out because it is going to distract.  With the exception of the Matrix (I wish it was on this list, because it should be a bible of how action computer visual effects should be done), some of the most visually appealing and realistic movies I’ve seen are early 80’s and 90’s films that relied on make up and sweat as opposed to numbers and processors.  Movies are fun because they pull you into a whole new world with whole new characters and scenarios, but the illusion is easy to break when hit with "in your face" CGI and technology. Just remember, if you watch a movie and it looks like Intel and Microsoft will appear in the credits, then someone has just committed digital overkill.

(Author End Note: The field is growing and changing on a regular basis. Especially by movies who aren’t afraid to do something new and exciting for a first time. Wired Online Magazine has a great article on The Matrix: Reloaded which is a nice read)

Additional source: www.wired.com

Source: www.digitalmediafx.com

Filed under: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, X2, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Hulk