Tom Jolliffe looks at the use of old school effects and filming techniques and whether they still have a place in the CGI age…
Computers are a wonderful thing. The computer generated image has take cinema up to a point where almost limitless creative possibilities are at a film-makers disposable. You can create a whole sequence within even need a camera to begin with. Everything is easier. Anyone can edit footage at home and create a film. Even added visual FX (albeit crude) have become a staple of social media amusement. You too can have ears like your doggy. Congratulations.
Like a lot of technological advancements in order to make life easier, it also makes things a little too easy at times. The less creatively inspired director of photography can be assured, as long as he’s left a clean canvass, that a film can be visually emboldened during the grade. If there’s an action sequence involving an all guns blazing shootout, there’s no need to see live muzzle flashes, squibs and bullet hits, when all those things can be done in post.
Here’s the thing though…Maybe CGI has hit its top end. It’s been a few years now since a CGI sequence or creation blew me away. Was I the only one who thought the young CGI Will Smith in Gemini Man looked like a walking nightmare (walking out of a PS3 cut scene)? How much better can CGI get? Is that necessarily a good thing? From resurrecting dead actors, to taking much of the on set creative troubleshooting out the equation, to making stunt sequence feel lacking in the inherent sense of danger that would come from stunts back in the day, there seems an over reliance on CGI now (the safety issue I appreciate, but still, stunt crew revel in the insanity of flipping real cars etc). Many film-makers who began in low budget, and spent their formative film years having to find imaginative solutions to creating elaborate sequences, have since fallen to the relative comfort cushion of a CGI team.
I think of Robert Rodriguez making El Mariachi for the cost of a car, and having to conjure bloody shootouts, or indeed, even with a bit more budget in Desperado, orchestrating mass carnage that is all captured on set, within the frame, and compare to some of the CGI heavy films he’s done this century. I get being ahead of the curve can be important (and likewise, see James Cameron who has always been a CGI fore-runner, but has slowly lost that old school pazzaz) but sometimes having to disappear off into rooms with a variety of departments in the hope of being able to pull off shots that would seem impossible to get on camera, and pulling it off, creates astonishing results. There’s something to be said for Tom Cruise seemingly risking life and limb in his Mission: Impossible films.
Guys like Chris Nolan and Quentin Tarantino still champion the old ways, and still (Nolan particularly) offer some magnificent spectacle, whilst using CGI as sparingly as they can get away with. Okay, for younger audiences (I am an old git…) I appreciate the finale of Avengers: Endgame may look jaw dropping. It leaves me cold. Devoid of thrill and hoping the credits aren’t far off. The best parts of the Marvel films for me, are people sitting in rooms wisecracking at each other, because it’s people in a room…sometimes even an actual room. A big, almost exclusively CGI sequence comes up and I feel the Danny Glover wash over me and declare, ‘I’m too old for this shit…’ Likewise, take away the massive money that the Marvel films are making, and their big CG heavy rivals largely seem to be bombing. Is the appetite still there? Is anyone going to watch Bloodshot in a couple of weeks? Again, I’ve said it before too, but the biggest companies and biggest films also seem to monopolise the best CGI teams, and the remaining films look years behind in quality. There are passionate indie films making good use of CGI by using it sparingly (part necessity/budget) but exceptionally well. If you take Ex Machina as an example, and that’s the way to do it. When a film looks live action then shifts into what looks like a video game cut scene, it’s glaring. It takes you out of the picture. Instead of saying ‘wow’ you say ‘what?’ (ref- Mark Kermode).
Indie seems to be where that brazen, relentless search for creative nirvana is still most prevalent. I’ve worked with companies who are both limited to doing practical gore, makeup, prosthetic etc, but also, have a genuine desire to do that anyway. It might just be that the kind of things Bob Keen and Rick Baker were known for (gruesome gore, creatures, and animatronics etc) may not be an outdated idea just yet. A passionate core making indie horrors are still spending hours making slash wounds, creature makeup and all manner of ghastly things that will be shot on set, as opposed to a guy running around in green spandex to be replaced later. Yet some of these films are often dismissed as cheap, or lazy, which is a shame, because a great deal of effort goes into them. For the sake of balance too, CG artists also put in hour upon hour, and get given way too much to do on tight turnarounds at times, but this is because too much of a films overall creative responsibility has been swept over to them.
Watching Hard Boiled the other day, lead me to forlornly wonder if we’ll ever see anything of the like again. Of course we won’t, and I grant you that it must have been an absolutely maniacal group of stuntmen performing the feats in John Woo’s classic, but to be so blown away by action scenes is rare now. Fight scenes still have that ability, and again, sometimes it’s great to have a camera pull back and let us see the action. Particularly if a Tom Cruise, or Keanu Reeves is leading the film and performing most themselves, and getting pounding through breakaway tables and walls. You also have a plethora of great action stars, perennially locked in this floating middle ground between being a cinema star or a straight to video specialist. Someone like Scott Adkins, a one man visual effect all on his own. Whether he’s with Jesse Johnson or Isaac Florentine, he’s a leading light in action cinema, not getting nearly the audience he deserves (see also Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, Adkin’s Triple Threat co-stars).
So whether it’s high impact fighting, complete with bloody hits (made on set) or shootouts, or monsters and everything in between, here’s to the continuing use of practical effects to achieve the shots.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/