Undigital

19 December 2003

I understand that digital effects in film are the new rage, that they have forever changed what we see on the screen, but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. Old-fashioned models and puppets may have been obviously fake, but their limitations were, in some ways, good for film-makers.

For example, the space battles in the first three Star Wars films (which are actually the last three films, if you get my meaning) were created using models. The movement of the ships may seem odd at times, but it’s easy to follow the flow of battle, and it’s possible to become emotionally invested in the outcome. These battles, created without digital effects, are engaging and exciting.

Compare that with the last two Star Wars films (which are actually the first two films, if you get my meaning). The space battle in The Phantom Menace may be beautiful (though that’s arguable), but it’s dull. There are too many ships, and things happen too quickly. Worse is the land-based battle in Attack of the Clones. The battlefield explodes with a bewildering array of combatants, and laser fire flashes in every direction. The screen is filled with action. And it all sucks. There’s no narrative thread, so it makes no sense. The film-makers have become obsessed with their effects at the expense of their story.

One of the reasons I so dislike Peter Jackson’s Helms Deep is the endless digitally-created Battle of Helms Deep. It not only looks fake, it’s also overwhelming. I would have preferred a scene created without the use of digital effects. The constraints would have forced Peter Jackson to become more firmly grounded in reality, and to give the audience something with which to indetify.

Kris and I saw The Last Samurai the other night. It’s a decent film. The climactic battle scene is a mix of live-action combat and digital animation. The live-action stuff looks great, but the digital stuff looks to uniform, too artificial, too fake. It threw me out of the film.

Are the problems with digital effects primarily due to the infancy of the medium? Are the creators of these effects too tempted to go over the top, unable to show a modicum of restraint? Will things settle in the future? I hope so, but I�m not convinced.

The battles in The Return of the King feature a lot of digital work, too, but I’m happy to say that I was mostly impressed with the way in which it was handled. It seemed to enhance the battles rather than detract from them. I can’t imagine creating the overhead shots of the charge of the Rohirrim without using digital effects.

For my part, until the digital wizards learn to exercise restraint, I prefer my films to have very little digital enhancement. Part of what made Master and Commander so compelling was that the battles contained little, if any, digital work. (Maybe I�m wrong, but I don’t think so.) One reason that I’m reluctant to see Troy is the absurd scene from the preview in which we pan from viewing a single ship to viewing an evenly spaced fleet of perfectly identical vessels — the mythical “thousand ships” — an utter absurdity born of someone’s orgasmic passion for digital effects. It’s lame.

Comments

On 19 December 2003 (01:08 PM),
dowingba said:

Well, for one thing, the space battles in the first three Star Wars films (or the last three, sir, if you catch my meaning, that is) are “visual effects”, they just aren’t “computer effects”.

I have long had a problem with the influx of Computer Animation too. My biggest problem, though, has always been the textures. Up until 2001 or so, I hadn’t ever seen a computer graphic that looked as good as old style stop-motion just because the textures were always so crappy looking. In the last few years though, texture-modelling seems to have made great leaps.

The battles in all three LOTR movies seem chaotic enough to be a realistic depiction of medieval style warfare. I see no problem (except for the lack of any dialogue or flow in the Helm’s Deep scene).

My biggest problem with the Two Towers, is that the entire movie is just a build up to the Helm’s Deep scene. It’s a 3.5 hour foreshadow, that gets incredibly tedious, especially to one who has all but memorized the book. Also, because they stripped so much away from the Frodo/Sam/Gollum story, it seems like there isn’t even a point to it. They’re just wandering around from place to place. Frankly, except for a few minor events, The Two Towers could basically be ignored and the plot would continue flawlessly from where FOTR ends. Peter Jackson stripped so much away and changed so much that it ceases to have any bearing on the story.

On 19 December 2003 (01:19 PM),
Denise said:

I completely agree. Case in point: Chewie vs. Jar Jar Binks. There is no comparison. Put aside the fact that Chewbacca was one of my favorite characters and Jar Jar was little more than an annoyance – it was painfully obvious that Jar Jar was computer animated. Computer animation makes the character much less believable.

I still enjoy Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back much more than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

On 19 December 2003 (01:23 PM),
Joel said:

So, how do you rate the much-adored digital effect that is Smeagol? Or the Nazgul? Or is it just digital action sequences that get your goat?
I guess what I’m driving at is, I feel that in general you tend to inveigh against violent set-pieces in general (e.g. The Matrix’s lobby scene), not just digitally enhanced/produced ones.
On the other hand, I agree that the climactic battle of The Attack of the Clones struck me as an attempt to transport the audience via a bewildering technicolor chaos, rather than something visually… engaging.

On 19 December 2003 (01:25 PM),
Dana said:

I think the trouble with digital effects is a bit more subtle. Look — The Toy Story movies, and Monsters, Inc., are great movies. The effects are great and the stories are compelling. The problem isn’t digital effects per se, but a lack of restraint in their use by the film makers.

It doesn’t help that, while the textures have improved, the physics hasn’t. Toy Story works because it’s trying to look like an animated film, which doesn’t have realistic physics. When you try and make a photorealistic effect, but it doesn’t move quite right, that sticks out like a sore thumb. The Compu-Neo in the last couple of Matrix movies had this problem in some scenes, I thought, as did Gandalf and the Rohirrim’s charge at the end of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in TTT.

It does bug me when I see this sort of excess. The filmmaker is making a video game, not presenting a story, which is basically JD’s point, too.

On 19 December 2003 (01:26 PM),
Joel said:

Um, let’s rewrite that last sentence: On the other hand, I agree that the climactic battle of The Attack of the Clones was overproduced. It struck me as an attempt to transport the audience via a bewildering technicolor chaos, rather than something visually… engaging.

Yes? Better?

On 19 December 2003 (02:07 PM),
Dana said:

On further reflection, I think Joel is onto something. JD, I think your problem is certain kinds of overproduced set pieces, not digital effects per se.

Consider: You love the pod-racing scene in Phantom Menace, a scene chock-a-block full of digital effects. The Lobby scene in Matrix is mostly wire work and traditional effects, along with clever camera work, I think, as opposed to being digital heavy (although I’m sure there are digital bits layered in), and yet you hate it.

The complication of digital effects is that they tempt the movie maker into putting more of those over-produced, anti-story set pieces into an otherwise engaging film on a (comparatively) meager budget.

Constraints fuel creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention. If it’s easy to do, it’s harder to do in a clever way. Or am I just full of it?

On 19 December 2003 (02:29 PM),
J.D. said:

Joel said: So, how do you rate the much-adored digital effect that is Smeagol? Or the Nazgul? Or is it just digital action sequences that get your goat? I guess what I’m driving at is, I feel that in general you tend to inveigh against violent set-pieces in general (e.g. The Matrix’s lobby scene), not just digitally enhanced/produced ones.

You have a very valid point here. For those unaware, I love the The Matrix, except for the lame-ass “let’s shoot the fuck out of everything while doing somersaults” lobby scene. It’s an example of gratuitous violence and gratuitous effects which does nothing to advance the story. Many people love this scene. I do not.

I think that Gollum looks awesome, and I have no problem with him as a digitalized character. In fact, I think that Serkis deserves an Oscar based on the films I’ve seen this year. Gollum is great. (The Nazgul are not great. They look terrible. The scale is all wrong. But that’s less a digital thing than a vision thing. Peter Jackson simply sees them differently than I do.)

So I guess you’re right, Joel: it’s mostly digital action sequences — or, more specifically, digital fight sequences — that bug me.

Dana said: The complication of digital effects is that they tempt the movie maker into putting more of those over-produced, anti-story set pieces into an otherwise engaging film on a (comparatively) meager budget. Constraints fuel creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention. If it’s easy to do, it’s harder to do in a clever way. Or am I just full of it?

No, I think you’re dead on.

(And you’re right that I love the pod-race sequence, which seems to go against my prevailing preferences, but that’s because I love racing sequences more than I hate digital effects. I love race sequences. Quick. Name J.D.’s favorite kind of video game! First-person shooter? Nope. Real-time strategy? Nope. Role-playing game? Nope. Racing game? Yep! (And arcade racing at that, not simulation.))

In particular, I like this bit: “The complication of digital effects is that they tempt the movie maker into putting more of those over-produced, anti-story set pieces into an otherwise engaging film.” Over-produced, anti-story elements indeed! Perhaps the reason I like the Battle of Pelennor fields is that there are fewer pretentious shots of Aragorn posing in the rain, fewer “oh look how neat ten thousand orcs can look” shots, and that the battle sequences actually seem to served to advance the plotline.

So, this is an incredibly long answer to essentially tell Joel that mainly it’s digital battle scenes that bug me because their creators show absolutely no restraint, no sense of story when they make them.

On 19 December 2003 (03:02 PM),
Lynn said:

ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. He’s so ugly he’s cute and we just all fell in love with the way he walked and moved, as awkward as it was. In the “enhanced with digital effects” version shown recently on TV, they added a digital bathtub scene. “That’s NOT ET!” I shouted! He didn’t look the same, he looked like a cartoon. The real ET was huggable, this able-bodied thing in the bathtub was NOT ET. Digital effects just do not have the same “feeling.”

On 19 December 2003 (03:28 PM),
Denise said:

Interesting to note the difference between the women’s comments about this compared to the men’s (of course, taking Dana out of the equation, as she is computer educated and keep up with the rest of you): Lynn and I commented on the characters, and all the men commented on scenes. Mars vs. Venus, I think this is a good example.

Down with Jar Jar! Just had to add that.

On 19 December 2003 (03:37 PM),
Joel said:

Allow me to alight briefly on the stormy Venusian surface:
As soon as I saw that bathtub scene on a commercial I was like: “I am not going to see this version of E.T.” Then again we were all raised on muppets, weren’t we? Is it just that CGI characters are so real that they seem uncanny and, therefore, repulsive?
I don’t think so, though I’m not visual enough to explain why they don’t seem real (especially in Phantom Menace, where the characters plaid by real live actors seem so artificial that you’d think Jar Jar would fit right in). Gollum is the first effective digital character in a live-action film.

On 19 December 2003 (03:37 PM),
Joel said:

Allow me to alight briefly on the stormy Venusian surface:
As soon as I saw that bathtub scene on a commercial I was like: “I am not going to see this version of E.T.” Then again we were all raised on muppets, weren’t we? Is it just that CGI characters are so real that they seem uncanny and, therefore, repulsive?
I don’t think so, though I’m not visual enough to explain why they don’t seem real (especially in Phantom Menace, where the characters played by real live actors seem so artificial that you’d think Jar Jar would fit right in). Gollum is the first effective digital character in a live-action film.

On 19 December 2003 (03:38 PM),
Joel said:

sorry

On 19 December 2003 (03:44 PM),
Denise said:

I agree completely with Joel about Gollum – both times. Maybe I am stuck on Jar Jar because meese could nevers understood anytings he was sayings.

On 19 December 2003 (07:55 PM),
dowingba said:

My favourite games are a tie between Real Time Strategy and RPG’s. Can you guess why I love LOTR so much?

On 19 December 2003 (07:58 PM),
dowingba said:

Oh, and I remember while watching Star Wars Episode 1 for the first time, thinking “What, is this whole movie just a big Pod Race?” during the horrifically long Pod Race scene. I was rather dismayed. It’s Star Wars, not Little Kids in Pods Wars. Seriously, that scene could have been 1 minute long and conveyed the right message and advanced the plot. The Pod Race scene is a classic example of directors’ CGI-lust ruining movies.

On 19 December 2003 (10:50 PM),
Dana said:

Denise: I agree about the character vs. scene thing. The problem I have with the big set pieces is there’s nothing to connect with. You have activity, but no narrative story and no characters. It’s just events.

I think the core issue with digital characters not seeming ‘real’ is all in the motion. It’s how they’re coordinated, and how they move. The more realistic they look, the more weird they look when they move wrong. It sticks out like a sore thumb.

One of the reasons Gollum is so much better than Jar Jar is that he’s animated using motion capture. Andy Serkis, who does the voice (and plays Smeagol at the begining of RotK), was fitted out with a full body suit that had little colored spots all over it. Then, when they were filming the scene, they’d do it once with him there, acting as gollum, and once with him not there.

Then, they took a computer, and mapped all his motions onto the animated Gollum, who was inserted into the scene without Serkis.

This means that Gollum, for the most part, is moving like a person. He’s kind of like a full-body puppet.

Also, Gollum’s face is a lot more expressive than JarJar’s. And while I don’t think they did motion capture for the facial expressions, I do know they modeled it to look similar to Serkis’ own face, and they had film of him emoting in each scene (from the motion capture footage). They also had him involved in the animation step, sitting there and available to explain how he’d physically move his face to portray different emotions.

Basically, they used a person, had him act a role, then changed what he looked like using a computer animated figure. This is significantly different than what they did with JarJar.

Whew.

Just got back from RotK.

Wow.

Gotta say, this is one powerful movie. And the last half hour had me crying. I did not find the goodbye scene tedious at all.

On 19 December 2003 (11:16 PM),
dowingba said:

Gollum was my absolute favourite literary character ever since I read “The Hobbit” as a kid. I was very happy with the animated Gollum in the LOTR films. Some of his movements seem fake looking still, though, despite the fact that they were motion captured beforehand. His facial expressions are incredible. Unprecedented, clearly. Also, personally, if I had made the films I would have made his character alot more evil and alot less goofy. And what’s with him walking around in the day time? He never walks in the day time (or the night time) in the books. He only ever walks out in the twilight hours around dawn and dusk. He hates the yellow face and the white face! Ack! Gollum! Gollum!

After watching it the second time, I have a observation: in the scene with the hobbits drinking beer in the Shire, I swear Andy Serkis is in the background, as a hobbit. Peter JAckson had better make THe Hobbit. I need more Gollum!!

On 20 December 2003 (12:06 AM),
J.D. said:

Chris said: In the scene with the hobbits drinking beer in the Shire, I swear Andy Serkis is in the background, as a hobbit.

Absolutely, that’s him. It’s hilarious. He’s the hobbit with the giant pumpkin around which everyone is gathered. They’re admiring the pumpkin, rubbing it, wiping it with a cloth. It’s bizarre. I’m sure we’ll learn what it’s all about on the commentary track to the extended DVD next year! :)

On 20 December 2003 (12:15 AM),
dowingba said:

Pesky hobbitses with their precious pumpkinssss.

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