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Special Effects Unplugged: Movie Magic Before Computers

As another CGI company files for bankruptcy, let's recall how movies used to be made, before digital effects changed everything.

Kathy Shaidle


April 2, 2013 - 7:00 am
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I’ve asked movie and music industry insiders to explain their respective businesses to me, and never end up any smarter than I start out.

How can Lyle Lovett’s album sales amount to $0.00?

How can Return of the Jedi still be in the red?

Or take Ed Driscoll’s post last week called “Hollywood’s Special Effects Industry is in Crisis”:

As Life of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, the venerable facility that created those effects – Rhythm & Hues – declared bankruptcy, and they’re hardly the first to close their doors due to financial problems. Debra Kaufman pulls from her 25 years of experience covering the industry to take a close look at how the creators of some of cinema’s indelible images are falling prey to dysfunctional business models.

As you’ve likely guessed, the bloated, ever-evolving technology required to bring those Jurassic Park raptors to virtual life is so costly, it burdens production companies with insurmountable debt.

We often read about how many weeks or months — or even years — it takes to create glossy special effects that last only seconds on screen.

Is that really a sound business model or a smart, efficient way to make anything?

I hear Buddhism is big in Hollywood, but surely they’re not basing their creative process on the making of sand mandalas – are they?

It wasn’t always like this…

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All Comments   (4)
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Well they did a movie, Hugo, about the guy who invented some of the first effects.

BTW, there have been some movies, like the last Batman series, where the use of less CGI and more traditional effects made the movie better in my opinion.

PS The animated movie The Incredibles took 2 years to make. And you can see why.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I spoke with Dan Curry, a visual effects editor on Indiana Jones and the The Temple of Doom as well as some of the Star Trek Next Generation movies. As late as Indiana Jones effects were still relatively simple. He poked holes in the film emulsion with a thumb tack to achieve a sequin look on a big shining curtain.

If you look at some films that are significantly atmospheric from the Film Noir genre, they usually achieved ambience by strategically positioning lights. It's very weird to me that makeup, costume and basic set design are being trumped by digital scene painting. The results are generally janky like they'd be better of using Brechtian elements or not making these movies that they can't get one of the Jackass guys to do a basically real-life stunt for.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I know that Harryhausen is a pioneer, and considered the master of stop motion, but even as a kid, I found that his stuff looked jerky. I much preferred some of the work in the original Star Wars movies, where they use a combination of camera movements and blurs to "sell" the frame-by-frame stuff.

I always thought that Buster Keaton's use of controlled camera angles, forced perspective and simple in-camera effects was brilliant. The sheer athleticism of his work is pretty impressive too.

You are right in saying that modern films rely too much on digital imagery. I find a lot of pictures now have that curiously constrained look that results from all of the action taking place on a small sound stage, and many digital animators just can't resist taking thinks too far.

One curious exception to that was the work in the recent film District 9, which was so understated in it's CG effects, (and so well animated), that you could forget it was digitally animated and accept the aliens as real beings. That experience is very rare in modern film-making.

I absolutely loathed Avatar - not just because it was a piece of horrible story-telling, but because every few minutes the animators would do something especially jarring and "wrong" looking with one of the principal characters. The animal life was just wrong, wrong, wrong. It was like watching a video game for three hours.

My work colleagues and I have all worked in the video game industry, so I can absolutely understand how an effects company can go under in a hurry; but the cause is wishful thinking and poor business sense, and has little to do with the relative complexity of the effects work in modern films.

It also isn't helped by an antiquated and bloated studio system and rapacious, stultifying unions.

In a way, it's curious that movies are costing so much, because the reality is that it's far cheaper to produce a feature quality film now than it has been at any time in history. There's something amazing and tremendously disruptive going on right now, and it's almost completely unremarked by the movie industry:

There are several young, independent film makers who have equipped themselves with whatever tools they can scrounge up, and have built small but profitable companies producing short films and releasing them on YouTube. Some have even gone on to produce feature length films of surprisingly high quality. Too see examples of this, log into YouTube and search for Corridor Digital and Freddie Wong: both companies were started by young men who just wanted to make films, and who taught themselves the trade.

I suggest watching "Tether", "Sync", "Video Game High School", and a few of their short films.

I'm really impressed with the quality of their work, and with how they can produce consistently great-looking stuff on a budget that wouldn't cover lunch catering for a Hollywood studio movie.

Whats is perhaps even more important is that this generation of film makers is eager to share their craft, and they also produce tutorials showing exactly how they created each film - covering topics like lighting, camera work, sound design, effects, stunts, and pyrotechnics.

All of the actors and writers are amateurs, and these shops are decidedly non-union. At some point the screen writer's guild and SAG are going to realize what is happening and go into a full-on panic.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's fairly easy really and it comes from two sources. Hollywood writers can't be bothered to come up with very good stories anymore, so they cover by using an overabundance of eye-popping special effects in many instances. Computers have made this easier to do than ever. The problem is that they us so many that the budget is bloated and the effects houses are over-extended.

On the otherside, you have a populace that increasingly can't appreciate a story when it's presented and doesn't have the imagination to appreciate devices such as Blair Witch where the monster was all in your head (no, I'm not talking about the shakey cam which was only used to help encourage people to create their own monsters by confusing the actual issue of what was really going on). People these days suffer from atrophied imaginations that need to be force-fed everything because they can't be bothered to dream it up on their own.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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