Planning VFX: Traditional Techniques

Over a month ago I wrote a post about the advantages of computer generated imagery over more traditional ways of creating visual effects. Apologies for the delay, but here at last is the flipside of that coin: the advantages of old-school technqiues.

Here’s an alternate ending from Blade (1998)….

It was ditched after test audiences responded poorly to it. They had invested in the film’s villain throughout the movie and they felt cheated to see him turn into a CGI blobby thing for the final battle. The filmmakers cut the scene and replaced it with a sword duel between Blade and the baddie in human form.

This highlights CGI’s chief difficulty – it’s unreality. There is something disappointing about being served up an image that has been created with ones and zeros. It feels like a cheat. And that can take an audience out of the story.

In contrast to CGI, model shots tend to look more realistic but move less realistically, due to the unavoidable physics involved. But there can often be a charm to this motion that allows us to forgive it. Indeed, I think the best reason to use traditional effects today is when you want things to look unreal in a very appealing way. Take for example Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which used forced perspective and painted backdrops to create a beautiful fantasy world. Or The Life Aquatic’s stop motion marine creatures…. except that the animation was so good they looked real.

Some other advantages of traditional techniques over CGI:

  • Some techniques, like puppetry, can be achieved in camera, giving the actors something real to react to.
  • All the randomness of nature is automatically built in.
  • Effects like fire and water are theoretically easier, though in practice can be difficult to control and to scale correctly.
  • Today’s audiences are used to CGI and can generally recognise it, but model shots are perhaps more likely to fool them.

In writing this post I’ve realised how CGI has advanced even in the few years since I stopped actively developing The Dark Side of the Earth (an ambitious fantasy feature intended to include stop motion, puppetry, miniatures and matte paintings).

Almost no-one today is still shooting miniatures without enhancing them digitally. Savvy filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Duncan Jones and Sam Mendes combine models and CGI to get the best of both worlds. It seems traditional techniques alone can really only be used now as a deliberate stylistic choice. That saddens me. I’d be delighted if anyone can prove me wrong.

If anyone out there is contemplating using miniatures in their indie film, here are some tips…

Planning VFX: Traditional Techniques

Planning VFX: Computer Generated Imagery

Following on from last week’s thoughts on planning VFX shots, I’m now going to look at the issue of CGI vs. miniatures. In this post I’ll cover some of the advantages of choosing computer generated imagery, and next time I’ll look at the advantages of miniatures. As any regular readers will know, I much prefer miniatures, but I aim to be completely impartial in what follows.

To start off with let’s go back 20 years to Jurassic Park, the movie that really started the CGI revolution, and find out why Steven Spielberg chose this emerging technology over traditional techniques. (Skip to 13:12.)

So Spielberg favoured CGI because it produced more realistic motion. In fact, watching Jurassic Park these days I find the CG dinosaurs are easily differentiated from Stan Winston’s full size animatronics by the fact that the former move much more fluidly. Even when miniatures move “live”, i.e. without stop motion animation – vehicles powered by motors or pulled on hidden wires, for example – the motion is often less realistic than a CGI equivalent because the laws of physics dictate a small thing will always move differently from a large thing.

Next up, here’s a clip from Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher, in which I discuss how I arrived at CGI as the best method of creating the spectral umbilical cords the script required. (You can watch the whole of this feature-length documentary at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher.)

So control was the key thing there. There were 80 shots, many with camera moves, and the umbilical cords had to be locked to the characters. Trying to achieve this with string and cables was just not realistic, or would have required so much manipulation in post as to make shooting a real element pointless. CGI can be controlled completely and adjusted quickly, without the need for reshoots.

Here are some other pros of CGI over traditional techniques:

  • No shooting required, so no crew to pay, feed, transport, etc. On a micro-budget where the crew are unpaid, CGI is completely free, whereas any kind of miniature shoot will always have costs.
  • CG elements can be tracked to moving plates without the need for expensive motion control cameras.
  • There are far more talented and experienced CG artists out there than model-makers.
  • You can create anything you can imagine, without any practical or logistical restrictions.

Can you think of any others? Let me know. Next time I’ll look at the advantages of traditional techniques.

Planning VFX: Computer Generated Imagery