A question of reality and organics

If you look at movies made five years ago that have CGI you’ll clearly notice that they look, well, CGI. It might be that they look really plastic, too shiny or generally extremely unconvincing at best. At worst, they look completely CGI. Every year you see better and better CGI special effects, but even the most recent films can’t really convince the audience. Yes, they can entertain, but not really convince. Dark Knight Rises uses limited amount of CGI, and whenever you see it used it looks unnatural; inorganic. If the effects do not grow organically from the surroundings, then they look fake, and if effects look fake, the movie’s unconvincing, and if the movie’s unconvincing, then the movie is nothing short of stupid.

Believing in the world that is before you is essential. Whatever is showed on the screen has to make sense and work within their own setting. I’ll be frank; I couldn’t watch Avatar to the end. It was unconvincing CGI wankery which made little sense. For example; the flying mountains? If Avatar had been a fairy tale rather than a sci-fi story it would’ve made sense. And no, don’t start to tell me how it works, because it can’t work any way in the setting.

Take Ridley Scott’s earlier movie as a comparison; Blade Runner. Blade Runner is what you’d call an old-school special effects movie. Almost everything uses physical effects; buildings were costumed in strange devices, futuristic cars were build and matte paintings show the far horizons. Go watch the opening scene of the movie, and remember that everything in there has been physical. Few table models, a matte painting background and superimposed flames do not only look really good, but convincing. You believe in them. You see and believe in the world at large before you on the screen.

I’m not arguing whether or not physical /classical special effects are better than CGI, as there’s nothing to argue about; CGI will look inorganic and fake as long as they can’t match a good scale model work, like the ones in Blade Runner’s opening. However, CGI is the better option for modern film makers as it is cheaper and practically anyone can do decent CGI within few weeks. The tools at large are so easy to work an learn that CGI, and computer generated images in general, have become cheap and taken as something obvious and given. The same thing is going on in design, where people with nil-talent and wrong attitude as well as world view are punching through just because they’re good with computers. A designer who can’t make what he designs is worthless. In CGI there’s no limitation here; you create whatever you need in computer environment and that’s that.

Physical effects do not need an artistic take, they need a good craftsman, a master, to be pulled off well enough to convince the audience. Whenever I am talking about design and about my projects I seem to sway from the subject and talk about how it’s the craftsmen who do the art, not the artists, and it frustrates me. Currently there’s a confusion in the world who does what. Let’s use the convention where I had my showcase on Laserdiscs and such as an example.

The event’s organizers were stupid enough to have an artist to make all the images, designs and such. They also lacked certain kind of system that I call customer service. The artist sent pictures of her work as she was progressing with it, and the customers chose what looked the most ready to their eyes. Now, you see that there’s nothing wrong in this way to work, unless you’ve put even the smallest events that need proper papers and commercials. The blame can be put on inexperience over anything else, and I’m still feeling a little bad for the artist, as it wasn’t just the lack if information from the customers that made her work difficult, but the inexperience of the organizers as well. But I have high doubts that neither side knew what an artist should do when making commercials and flyers. Don’t put an artist to do a designer´s job. To put this in more common sense, don’t put artist to do craftsman’s work. I believe that this artist will become a master and crafter if she so chooses.

Seeing the behind-the-scenes fiasco the event was, I hope that the organizers learn from their errors. That, or ask from people who have been organizing events longer. There’s nothing wrong in asking question, but there’s nothing but stupidity to stay ignorant and fulfil your own artistic desires.

My dad usually gives the same response to my thoughts; there would be need to resurrect the old master-pupil institution, and I agree. I’ve said many times that Da Vinci wasn’t just a master craftsman, but an inventor and genius. He was an artist in his early days when he was a pupil, but a master has no need to be called an artist. This just makes me wonder why would anyone wish himself to be called as an artist, a pupil when they’re something more and beyond those initial steps. This also leads into question why so many wish to stay in that state of being nothing more than a pupil.

CGI special effects, as computer in general, really doesn’t demand you to become master any more, but that shows everywhere and in anything one does. What I call special effects are what people would call old-school special effects, physical, analogue or any other prefix that nominates other than CGI is just special effects to me. It would be wrong to call them any other than special effects, as they’re special and effects. However, CGI special effects are not special in any form, so we call them just CG effects.

Let’s use Godzilla films as an example of master craftsmen creating worlds. Take an hour long break and do watch the following documentary. It’s worth your time.

I have all the respect on Tsuburaya’s works (even thou I blame him on how Godzilla became children’s hero that he wasn’t) as he was a master craftsman. If you looks his films before Godzilla, the ones that tell about war, you see the insane amount of detail and care put on those details. Nowadays it would be unthinkable to create a physical model for a space rocket when you can make it in 3D, and make it more unconvincing. In the end of the film you see the explosion that they’re going to re-create, and what they do looks great. While the cheapest Godzilla films do look fake (as per diminished budget) the best of them will always look more realistic than anything that CGI can pull off. The reason to this is two things; CGI aims for real visuals (what special effects are by their nature) and that CGI is either not created organically from the scene, or inherently is inorganic. It’s an argued matter if CGI is inorganic by its nature or not, but that doesn’t matter if the artists working on them simply refuse to do them properly.

While special effects might look fake and pop out just like that, in most cases they’re completely convincing, because they are there physically. That itself adds to the movie’s world, and allows the actors actually act according to what’s there. One reason why the Prequel Star Wars trilogy is awful piece of trash is that the actors have nothing to act to. Even parts of the romance scenes were put together from different takes where the actors do not even talk to each other. Explains why there’s not chemistry between actors. The same is with physical effects, or in some cases source and cause of effects. For example, there’s a famous scene where King Ghidorah flies over a bridge, the bridge just falls. There was supposed to be a special effect where the monster’s gravity beam destroys the bridge. This scene might’ve been a failure in that sense, but it’s an interesting scene where you can see some of the workings behind the set itself.

From Western shores I’d we can talk about the original Star Wars trilogy, but to have far more camp and something to laugh at (because of awesomeness) please refer to the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. It’s a beautiful film in special effects, props and all that. It was made my masters, even if the superimposed scenes were a bit poppy. It’s really a sincere movie that needs more appreciation than it has had during the years.

And if you want honestly cerebral and interesting film with good technical execution, see The Man from Earth.

There is a place where CGI does work as a natural effect, and this is in a movie which is nothing but CGI, like the Toy Story. However, I’m afraid the CGI movies are misused and going the same direction as vast majority of animation as a whole; plastics. Avatar could’ve been one of the first and proper CGI film for adults, but it was not to be. Animation has incredible history of adult films, mainly the ones made by Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth, which utilised the medium in a whole new level and elevated animation to a different status. While Fritz the Cat is pretty bad film, I have to admit that it’s really an important one and has some good images and uses the medium very well. None of the CGI movies thus far have done that, as the film industry has concentrated on making the CGI better rather than using it in ways that elevate full-CGI movies from their kiddie status to something recognizable. Sure, kids stuff can be recognized as we’ve gone over before. In all honesty, the only real thing that CGI movies thus far have been recognized is how good graphics they have.

I find it kind of laughable that people are watching a Avatar and then calling Godzilla a kids movie, when it’s then other way around; Space Pocahontas (Disney version no less) VS the very embodiment of abused science awakened.

The death of master-pupil institution left a serious impact on every field, and in film industry you can see it by the lack of physical and real props, and it doesn’t help that current culture almost abhors master-pupil relationships and encourages staying as an artist. The question really is how can one create something real when he doesn’t even work with reality?

Creativity needs to be cut

During the last decade the way we watch television and films has been changed. We went from VHS tapes to DVDs, and we’re gradually changing to Blu-Ray (BD) until the next format war comes. I can’t but admit that BD format does allow better image quality and better sound, the only things that matter when talking AV quality.

Above: You can barely make it out in the DVD version, but there’s a tomahawk and a baseball bat on Gunbuster’s shoulder. The image is from, unsurprisingly, from Gunbuster the Movie BD release. Remember to click the image for larger scale

BD goes hand in hand with HD display sets. They’re sharper, more vibrant and all that. They still can’t beat nature’s wonders thou. On top of that we’ve been almost literally forced to see more 3D films than ever before. Outside those three people in Iowa and Zimbabwe, normal films experience is almost always preferred over 3D. The only film I’d like to see in proper 3D would be Avatar, but then again that film is dull as a butter knife and that money can be saved for better films, like Redline.

While the way we watch films and play games have been getting better in quality the content has not. As mentioned the Avatar film is dull. It’s nothing more than few hours of beautiful scenery with stupid plot. Games have become more “streamlined” and are about making the player a computer. Computing the gameplay should be the developers job, not the players. Modern games and modern films have one thing in common that prevents them being anything more than shade of the past; creativity. As the displays have grown the demand of use of those displays have grown within the industry. Games have more refined graphics and effects than the gameplay, and films have more and more advanced CGI and special effects than ever before. Only few people in film industry actually notice how people are laughing their assess out when coming out of movie theatres after seeing a bad CGI wolf. Even the most successful blockbusters have the same problem. Pretty much nothing looks real or assuring.
Let’s take an example of that wolf. In American Werewolf in London the whole transformation scene us made with practical effects. It nearly lasts three minutes and looks real enough to convince the audience that it’s painful and real. On the other side of the coin the transformation scene in Twilight: New Moon, which is made completely with CGI. It looks fake, as does the wolf that comes afterwards. It doesn’t even warrant laughs. The change is almost offscreen in one scene and basically happens in a puff of smoke. It’s like Magica De Spell had thrown one of those puff grenades at Scroode. Even the original The Wolfman transformation from 1941 looks superior to this in every aspect. I recommend watching this film anyway, so go watch it after you’ve read this. While the new Wolfman looks pretty nifty, it still looks fake because of CGI used.

Star Wars is perhaps the best example of all. I’m not going to go how he changed the original trilogy because we’d be sitting here for the next few days as I scream my lungs out.

What I’m going to into is the 3D. Lucas has similar fatal 3D fever as Nintendo. The prequel trilogy suffers because Lucas went all creative with it. Most of the scenes look empty, lifeless and fake. Ships are far too shiny and designs look more evolved than what came afterwards. They tried to explain this my that the ships were crafted by hands before the war but we all know that just a load of bantha shit. The spirit isn’t in there any more. The creativity of George Lucas wrecked the series. When he was in a tight schedule, had very little money and under surveillance he could do a masterpiece.
The same happened with Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto. When Shigsy was under pressure to make a good game, little resources and only six people with him he made the Legend of Zelda. Now, with 3D, pretty much all of Nintendo’s games have a become something completely different. Sadly, this time the change wasn’t for the good. I dare anyone of you to say to me that Mario Galaxy is still the same game as Super Mario Bros., or that the Skyward Sword (or any other 3D Zelda) is the same as original gold cart Zelda.

But Aalto, the Starfox 64 3DS is still the same game! tells a squinty reader. They just added 3D effect and better graphics! And that’s what’s wrong with both film and game industry; the 3D.
Just like Lucas, Nintendo feels that they have to keep adding stupid stuff that nobody cares about. At least Lucas hasn’t remade the original Star Wars with new actors and plot, unlike what Nintendo did with Lylat Wars. Why won’t Nintendo admit that the original Star Fox exists? At least Lucas admits that original Star Wars exists, but like Nintendo he refuses to release it.
I find it laughable that either bunch of people never realized that the older products have always sold better. The rather limited run of Star Wars DVDs with LaserDisc edition of the original trilogy sold out pretty much everywhere and are sought after. Super Mario Collection on the Wii outsold itself twice.

People who put creativity over their job need somebody to bring them back to ground level. Sadly, very few companies are going to have proper censors and editors telling them what works and doesn’t. Artists, directors, designers and all who need to use imagination and creativity in their job are like rough diamonds; they need somebody to cut them, grind them and polish them. Ideas need to picked up and selected, just like stories and ideas. Without somebody doing this the results become something that the audience might reject completely. Examples of rejection would be the re-edited Star Wars trilogy and the 3DS.

In June 2008 the Universal Studios had a fire which burned down their King Kong ride that had basically inspired Jurassic Park. The new ride uses Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong in 3D with some practical effects.
What I’ve read the new ride is thrilling for a second, until the the realize that it’s just a screen. After that it becomes a novelty that can be seen at home in Jackson’s own film. You could never see and feel the “real” Kong outside the original ride.
People who preferred the new Kong were people who never had experienced the older ride. A friend of mine told that it had become a shadow of what it used to be.

What 3D effects in films should be used it just that; as an effect, not as the main dish. Star Wars shone when practical effects were at large, and then it suffered suffocation when CGI was introduced. Super Mario Bros. shone when it was 2D platformer, and when it was turned into Super Mario 64 it became completely different game.

What games do not have to do is to convince the player that something they see is real. Games do not aim for realism, or at least they shouldn’t. Films on the other hand need to look real in order not to break the illusion. Unlike films, games are born from imagined things, stuff that are beyond anything physical. Films on the other hand are there, everything that exist on the screen has to make the viewer believe that it could exist in real life.
I’m saddened to see that there hasn’t been a film that has done that any better than Jurassic Park.

I’m going to do a post filled with screenshots from Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs. Not from the film, but from the Making of.