In the following clip, you’ll see an except from an episode of the Tom Bosley hosted show, That’s Hollywood. The show inspired my interest in special effects as a young child. Featured in the video is Ray Harryhausen, for those of you that don’t know of him, he created a brand of stop-motion model animation known as “Dynamation.” Among his most notable works are his animation on Mighty Joe Young (with pioneer Willis O’Brien, which won the Academy Award for special effects) (1949), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (his first colour film) and Jason and the Argonauts, featuring a famous sword fight against skeleton warriors.
I was particularly fascinated by the skeleton warriors as a kid. Skeletons and anything macabre were and still are my favorite things. I wondered “how did they make those skeletons come to life? I want to do that!”. A very hands-on artist as a kid, I was always painting, drawing, sculpting with what ever I could get my hands on. Watching That’s Hollywood on Saturday mornings, gave 10-year old me dreams of capturing motion and faking reality on film. Seeing this video again recently, I remembered some of where this passion of mine for motion pictures started.
Since becoming involved with digital media in the early 90s, I’ve seen lots of effects both good and bad, practical and CG, and I believe there can be synergy between model makers and digital compositors and animators. It seems that too often you see a CG effect where a practical effect would have looked much more believable. If you’ve seen Snakes on a Train or Anaconda you get my drift here. Though there are obvious budgetary constraints when trying to create slithering snakes of any size, movies like John Capenter’s The Thing showed the world that practical effects would still have legs (and tentacles and multiple heads) for years to come.
Artists in the 70′s and 80′s such as Rob Bottin were able to do things with rubber, plastic, and K-Y Jelly that even today’s finest CG modelers and animators would struggle with for months trying to get right in 3D. In the following clip you’ll see an excellent example of what imagination and practical effects prowess can yield.
In addition to the challenges of photorealism, CG physics engines become another matter entirely. Things don’t sway, bend, fall or interact physically in CG quite like they do in the real world. The final render always seems artificial and it’s indeed the final render that counts most. The plausibility of motion seems to plague artists today just as it did the stop motion masters of yesteryear. There are those of us that think the work Lucas and ILM did in the 70′s holds it’s own today. The later Star Wars films had incredibly realistic effects back then and they hold up pretty well now. The floating Yoda in Star Wars Episode II just didn’t seem right. A very nice thought considering Yoda’s buddha-like qualities of enlightenment but something about the whole thing was off.
While I do miss the good old days of pre-CG, I definitely love the seemingly unlimited toolset and ability to create entire worlds on the desktop. It’s shops like WETA for example that I am delighted are still in existence. Having worked on the LOTR trilogy as well as many other films, their artists are truly masters of their craft using both practicals and CG technologies.
There may be some kind of fancy math for a believability to budget ratio or B:B, but we haven’t heard of it yet. Some filmgoers and even filmmakers may make the horse and buggy argument in defense of CGI, while those that side with practical effects may argue that CG is just not real enough. Being a lover of both, I am merely paying homage to what I consider an important art form. It’s hard to contest the notion that real looks real. That is; a camera, flying through a physical scale model of a city with real lighting and shadows, usually looks ten times more realistic than the same city created in CG.
It may be overly romantic to hope certain crafts will never fade away, leaving us forever, even though it’s inevitable they will. But as they fade away, they definitely pave the way for new artists and new tools to wow us yet again at the cinema.
Though CG seems inorganic now, like all things it will improve over time. Real photons and real objects win the battle of realism vs. CG even in today’s world of high end hardware and software. Perhaps this is because, at least for now, they are still real.
*Update: we are sad to know that Ray has passed away this May 7th 2013 – may his art be treasured eternally