The complaints are nothing new: Hollywood doesn’t make mid-budget dramas anymore. The assembly line of superhero blockbusters results in bigger, louder and less coherent movies. Easily distracted audiences demand an over-the-top set-piece every 15 minutes.
For many, responsibility for this seemingly escalating problem rests on the simulated shoulders of today’s computer-crazy visual-effects industry, which, they claim, has sucked the soul out of commercial cinema by churning out visuals like so much sausage, taking us on an endless journey of dinosaur attacks, superhero mashups and cities laid to waste that all blends together in viewers’ minds. Box office hits today, they say, are now more about spectacle than story, thrills instead of character.
“On any given day,” says Oscar-winning visual-effects veteran Richard Edlund, “there are more than 1,000 shots in the pipeline for the next Marvel movie. … I’m worried about the future of the industry, frankly, because the [mid-budget] $30 million-$50 million movies are the kind I like to watch.”
The original purpose and promise of VFX was to create things that couldn’t be achieved in-camera using more traditional special effects like pyrotechnics and makeup — in other words, to help create believable illusions. “You’re seeing something that can’t possibly be real, but you’re going to go with it because it looks real,” says Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor at New Zealand VFX house Weta Digital, creator of characters like Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and the “Avatar” world of Pandora.
So how did the industry become an assembly line? Many believe it stems from the ascent of blockbuster cinema in the 1970s, when directors were under pressure to come up with visuals of greater scope that simply couldn’t be created physically. Computers and digital technology enabled the transition.
For cinematographer Dean Cundey (1993’s “Jurassic Park”) VFX became a bigger piece of the tool kit just because it could. “Compositors learned how to do VFX in their basements, and they got wrapped up in it,” he says. “They were given a shot that had been storyboarded and said, ‘Not only can we do that — we can also do this.’ The director then said, ‘Hey, why don’t we also [add] this?’ The shots get bigger and some of it gets a little soulless.”
But while it may be tempting to blame vendors or directors for the boring sameness of today’s VFX, Laika Animation senior compositor and matte painter Mike Terpstra believes audiences should also be held accountable, since moviegoers vote with their ticket-buying dollars and convey to the studios they want more of the same. “All films in a franchise must maintain a certain look to retain continuity,” he says.
Despite all the criticism, however, VFX artists continue to push the envelope and produce amazing work. For Letteri, the secret to good visual effects is to ground them in physical reality, even if that reality is attached to something foreign.
“Ph.D.s come in and figure out these outrageously complex algorithms to fool a 10-year-old, but the 10-year-old is becoming more difficult to fool.”
Visual-effects creator Richard Edlund
“We wanted ‘Avatar’ to look like we went to another planet, shot the movie and brought it back,” he says. “That level of realism takes you beyond suspension of disbelief, but it’s very easy to break. When you make things too stylized just because they can be, audiences pick up on that.” As Edlund puts it, “Ph.D.s come in and figure out these outrageously complex algorithms and processes to fool a 10-year-old, but the 10-year-old is becoming more difficult to fool.”
Cundey cites the accurate portrayal of weight as an example of something that helps VFX mirror the real world: “As audiences,” he says, “we’ve seen enough falling objects to know if something is not reacting the way it should.”
And the craft continues to advance. The digital Arnold Schwarzenegger from “Terminator Genisys” that astounded when the movie was released just three years ago is already the new normal. Nonetheless, Terpstra thinks story still trumps effects, regardless of quality. “If we get hooked on the story early in the film, we’re more willing to overlook older-looking practical effects like puppets and enjoy ourselves,” he says. “Look at ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.’”
In fact, psychologists say humans respond to stories with unique emotional investment regardless of the quality of the tools. They’ll enjoy shadow puppets against a wall if the story is compelling. That’s why, for Letteri, the audience does half the work for the filmmakers. “Your job is to just not take them out of the story,” he says. “Don’t mess it up by doing something gratuitous or bad.” Or, some would add, mindlessly derivative.