Helmers favor old-fashioned hands-on approach

A decade after films like “Jurassic Park” and “Toy Story” made flashy CGI reason enough to buy a movie ticket, a number of high-profile helmers are keeping it real with a return to old-school f/x.

A palpable resistance to computer technology has coalesced among filmmakers. In 2005, for every digital-driven tentpole, there exists an “analog” counter-example that embraces the not-quite-bygone era of practical f/x. While a giant CG ape ransacked a digital-matte Manhattan in “King Kong,” director Christopher Nolan wanted Gotham City to remain a combination of models and actual sets in “Batman Begins.” “Revenge of the Sith” may have found Jedi facing off against innovative new CG creatures, but sci-fi adventures like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Zathura” insisted on letting their actors share the screen with real rubber-and-steel aliens. Even “Madagascar’s” lavish CG production design is no match for the hand-crafted world of “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” or “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.”

“Zathura” helmer Jon Favreau compares the proliferation of CGI with a time “when polymers were first used in construction, and people started rolling linoleum over their beautiful hardwood floors.” His viewpoint is shared by many of his peers: CGI is good for filmmaking, but its widespread use has proliferated well beyond the level of talent and technology.

“I think the audience has become a little jaded after all those effects and those tricks, and (CGI has) started, in a weird way, to make the films seem smaller,” agrees Nolan, who worked hard to highlight the story of “Batman Begins” over its f/x last summer.

“There’s sort of this idea that everything is moving toward CGI, but there’s a kind of charm in fingerprinted clay animation,” says director Nick Park, whose “Wallace & Gromit” feature largely eschewed CGI in favor of a painstaking claymation process. “Having just been around the world with ‘Wallace & Gromit,’ I’ve been very encouraged. People seem refreshed by seeing traditional techniques.”

Favreau concedes that an elite class of filmmakers exists that has the “understanding, intelligence and open-mindedness” to create truly believable digital characters and environs — he specifically applauds Peter Jackson. But he contends that filmmakers are overusing — and misusing — CGI, creating mediocre cinematic experiences and jaded auds.

Helming Sony’s action-fantasy pic “Zathura,” Favreau says he worked hard to “strike a balance between analog and digital,” maximizing the use of physical props and practical effects. For example, while the arms and legs on the film’s lizardlike Zorgon characters were CG, Stan Winston designed latex alien bodies that could move about the set on real feet — a dynamic that allowed the creatures to be naturally lit and to interact more believably with the cast.

“I think (CGI has) bred a certain leth-argy in filmmaking,” Favreau says. “The more digital a movie is, the less you have to commit to anything specific. You don’t have to make decisions about lighting or camera position until post-production. It’s fostered this mindset where you have filmmakers saying, ‘Let’s just throw millions of dollars at this line item and let some f/x house take care of it.’ “

For his part, helmer Garth Jennings says going with more traditional moviemaking techniques for “Hitchhiker’s Guide” — robots were played by real actors wearing low-tech tin suits, while aliens were achieved with on-camera animatronics — “was very much a decision right from the start.” Jennings says high-end digital f/x would belie the whimsical, irreverent spirit of Douglas Adams’ source novel.

Jennings also says doing things the old-fashioned way makes comedy easier. “I can find out if a scene is funny right then and there, instead of having to wait six months for it to be made in CGI,” he explains. “And there’s a level of inventiveness you lose when you lean too much on the CGI button. Oftentimes, when you’re trying to make something real, and you have a whole table of people bashing their heads trying to solve problems, something wonderful comes out of that.”

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