I was born in the mid-1970s, and came up watching movies in what quickly became an amazing time to be a sci-fi fan. Viewers were treated to an ever-marching parade of awesome SF flicks: Alien, Aliens, Close Encounters, E.T., the original Star Wars trilogy, Blade Runner, Star Trek II . . . it goes on and on. These movies had great stories and characters. They also had great eye candy—visual effects.
Man, do I loves me some eye candy.
Of course, much of these groundbreaking VFX hailed from breakthroughs in technology: a combination of model-making artistry and computer-fueled motion control camera work, and crazy-convincing mashups of matte paintings and rotoscoping. It was tedious, expensive work; nearly all of it was meticulously crafted by hand, using real-world cameras, sets, paint, explosives and glued-together models.
This stuff was also strapped by real-world compromises and technological limitations. Those glory years were filled with real “bubblegum and chickenwire” stories; the “M” in ILM should’ve stood for MacGuyver. And yet, a hearty chunk of me still finds these effects far more convincing than the superior VFX technologies filmmakers now have at their disposal.
You’ll likely call me a nostalgic proto-curmudgeon, but bear with me. I’ll cite Star Wars. I’ll take the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi over the pod race in The Phantom Menace any day. Same goes for the stop-motion AT-AT snow walkers in The Empire Strikes Back over whatever the walking tanks were called in the prequel trilogy. Same goes for the hand puppet Yoda, versus the its frog-hopping pixel-powered prequel version.
Why? Because, as anachronistic as it sounds, this stuff looks more “real” to me than the newer stuff—and it’s that “reality” that cements my belief in those fantastical worlds. I believe this buy-in hinges largely on those old school limitations: the necessity of physicality; the demand that a thing be built before it could be filmed. The effects actually occupied real space, had literal dimension, and obeyed familiar (and completely unconscious) audience expectations of gravity and physics.
Take the Alien movie franchise. The first two movies were packed with skinny dudes in monster suits and—in the instance of the awe-inspiring Alien Queen—on-set puppeteers. Completely believable. Why? Because those were real shadows those actors were casting; those were real glimmers of light against their costumes. In contrast, Alien3 sported a rod-puppet filmed against a blue screen, an obvious post-production addition. (I admired the creative intent of showing a “new” version of the alien . . . but the design and execution were deeply flawed.) By Alien: Resurrection, we had full CGI Fakey McFakerton swimming aliens . . . and the Alien Versus Predator flicks were crammed with so much ill-conceived, physics-defying full-on CGI, I pined to see a zipper in the monster suit.
I’ve mentioned Star Wars. Poor Jar-Jar Binks has suffered a decade’s worth of ire. I didn’t mind the character much; he was there for the kids, he was funny. But despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, the creature was a walking film-flam cartoon; obvious CGI. His visual execution was a distraction. His lack of being “there” in true three dimensions undermined his believability. It created a visual, and emotional, disconnect.
(I’ve wondered at length if the great Jar-Jar backlash unconsciously stems from this. We wouldn’t grief this character if he appeared in a Star Wars cartoon, book or graphic novel—but his obvious visual incongruity spoils every scene in which he appears.)
Ever watched the recent Mummy movie series? They’re great popcorn flicks; adequate Indiana Jones wannabes. But few of the CGI effects failed to suspend my disbelief. This wasn’t because of their ambition (which was world class), but because their execution came up short. Dude, just give me a talking animatronic mummy or Anubis warrior. I can totally live with a talking puppet, as its presence provides visual continuity within the scene. It matches light, shadow, and depth of field because it’s real.
And speaking of Indiana Jones: The first three movies had some delightful old-school visual and optical effects (Nazi face melting for the win!), and real-life stunts. Compare that to the CGI-fueled swordfight / chase sequence in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s South American jungle . . . and the infamous vine-swinging Tarzan moment . . . and the temple-wrecking climax. Those sequences were more than death-defying—they were physics-defying, filled with feats normal humans simply can’t do. It was unnatural to our peepers.
I’m convinced that this unreality, whether we consciously recognize it or not, pisses off our brains. And when our brains get fussy, the story is doomed.
This isn’t to say that great old-school VFX occurred solely in the 1980s. Independence Day wasn’t a thinking man’s movie, but the filmmakers used real models for those spacecraft (including a full-size alien fighter, the ultimate in space-occupying “realness”), and real miniatures of the White House, the Empire State Building and other buildings in their city-wrecking sequences. When those skyscrapers went boom, that was real debris hitting the camera. You can’t beat that with a stick.
And this isn’t to say there aren’t movies with CGI that seamlessly—and thereby effectively—sell the fantasy. Terminator 2. The Jurassic Park films. Serenity. The freeway chase sequence in Matrix Reloaded. Starship Troopers. Iron Man. Transformers. (But not its sequel.) Of course, the very best CGI effects occur within full-CGI movies—WALL-E and The Incredibles specifically—because our minds actively alter their expectations when we see animated films.
In fact, I believe that’s what this boils down to: our brains and expectations. Our brains crave congruity—a commitment to dimension, depth and heft. I completely understand how supremely difficult it can be for VFX crews: They’re expected to bring a convincing performance and depth (and depth of field!) to a bunch of 1s and 0s. I also understand why directors want to defy physics and belief with these animated sequences—set the camera wherever you want! Come up with something entirely new!
I argue this newness may do more harm than good. Our brains get fussy.
I fully know that modern filmmakers cannot go back to those old-school VFX techniques. But there is great visual wisdom in those now-classic movies. If effects can feel as if they convincingly occupy the same space and look as the rest of the story, they can lend credibility and an equally convincing presentation to that story.
If moviemakers using CGI can do that, then this proto-curmudgeon will sing a different tune . . . and will buy whatever they’re sellin’.
J.C. Hutchins is the author of the sci-fi thriller novel 7th Son: Descent. Originally released as free serialized audiobooks, his 7th Son trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. J.C.’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Weekend Edition.