Samuel Brace on practical effects and CGI…
Fantasy is better when fantasy looks real.
For the most part, cinema is our escape, a door of which to travel through, a portal to somewhere that isn’t here. To suspend our disbelief is part and parcel of going to the movies, and the best of these movies are the movies that are most effective in facilitating that suspension. But a huge part in us allowing our imaginations to be set free, and truly investing in the world of the film, is seeing locations and characters that look real. Unfortunately, the power and convenience of CGI has started taking this authenticity away from us.
Fantasy and sci-fi are the genres that lead us to these places away from reality more than any other. By their very nature they are unlike the world that we inhabit. Their role, first and foremost, is to tell us a story and then to whisk us away to the world that encapsulates that story. This can be achieved via an engrossing and well imagined storyline, by committed acting and detailed writing. And just as importantly, by presenting to us a visual word that looks as if it could exist — at least somewhere far off in space and time. This is now a rare sight. Hollywood’s (and the world’s) reliance on computer animated effects has provided us with films that become all but outdated a year after they arrive. Sometimes they don’t even look good at the time of release. It’s a travesty and entirely avoidable.
This Christmas, I sat down and enjoyed one of the great fantasy films from my childhood, a film I had fond memories of, but hazy memories at best, with no real sense for what the film actually contained. This film was The NeverEnding Story, and oh is it magical. I was instantly struck not just by the positive reaffirming message of hard work and never letting go of your aspirations, but by the level of craft and physical realness that brought the film to life. The fantastical portions of this movie are set in a make-believe land of monsters and magic, but Fantasia (the name of this place) looks (and still looks) incredibly real — that’s because it mostly is. The locations are predominantly real places, the characters are puppets and prosthetics. Virtually everything you see can actually be touched and felt. This is what is missing from modern fantasy movies; that physicality that can only be achieved by actually building and crafting. CG can look great at times (and only for a time) but it is always missing the presence that only a real object can provide.
Sure, The NeverEnding Story can look a little goofy at times, and by using puppets you deny yourself the dynamism that a CG model can provide, but the positives far out way the negatives. By putting the spectacle of action aside, and by embracing more tangible and physical characters and settings, The NeverEnding Story allows its gripping tale and characters to take over. This movie (released in 1984) stands in stark contrast to a set of films that were released nearly thirty years later — The Hobbit franchise. The Hobbit already looks dated, the effects already fake, the world instantly unreal to behold because the filmmakers chose convenience over physicality. This is made all the more frustrating by the fact Peter Jackson and co did things right with The Lord of the Rings. They took the time to build and to use prosthetics for their creatures. It took longer and restricted the action, but no one will deny which set of films looks better. As a result of similar practices, The NeverEnding story is vastly more re-watchable than films of a similar genre released decades later. Fantasia looks like a place you can go to and touch. By contrast, the lands of modern day fantasies look weightless, empty and fake.
The biggest and best example of the virtues of practical effects over CG, can be seen in perhaps the biggest franchise around today — Star Wars. Apart from the bad story, bad acting and bad writing, the biggest fault in the prequels was that they looked cheap. The worlds, characters and props, didn’t look as real as they did when the franchise was at its peak. And what did Disney provide us with when they brought Star Wars back? Physicality. Practical effects. Craft and detail. The CGI chairs of Episode III were gone, we were now going back to real world locations and the building of props. Yes, more time and money was parted with in order to achieve this, but the films have been rewarded by us fans. Not only has this effort garnered good faith from audiences, it has provided us with a more real and tangible world to observe on-screen. The result — along with the better acting, story and writing — has been the far superior films of The Force Awakens and Rogue One. This isn’t nebulous, guys. This isn’t hard to figure out.
Hollywood needs to learn from the success of Star Wars, the failings of The Hobbit and by going back and watching films like The NeverEnding Story and seeing what is oh so clear. The proof is in the pudding, gang. The results speak for themselves, and the results will be seen not only in the appreciation of fans but by the product lasting the test of time. We don’t need vastly complex action scenes for fantasy or for any other tale to work. If the emotion and story is there, limited real life physical creations and practical effects will always rule the day. This should always be the main rule of filmmakers when it comes to creating the worlds of their films. If you can’t build it, don’t bother. If you can’t make it, it’s not worth it. If the actors in your films can’t touch it or see it, just forget it.