Old-School Special Effects Are Coming Back

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Special effects are supposed to enhance the worlds of the movies they serve, but in many cases, they do the opposite. Sterile and overused CGI has replaced the physical things—practical effects like puppets, animatronics, matte paintings, and miniatures—that once enticed viewers and forged unforgettable vistas.

These days, there is a tasteless uniformity to the visuals in movies that removes realism, and frankly insults our intelligence.

“I believe today is really all about money,” says filmmaker Rahum Brown of Brown FilmCo LLC. “It was like that before, but it’s gotten way out of hand, to the point where they don’t care about the artistry.”

Brown, who has shot, edited, and animated for clients such as Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniels and Harlem Children Society, believes that technology works well for the speed of production, but that it takes away from the “love” put into a mask, or a miniature. Sure, everything is quicker now than it was in the 1980s, but the result is a massive disconnect between the audience and movie universe. Even when practical effects *are* employed, he says, studios will likely “muck” them up with CGI.

“A puppeteer will make a foam-mouthy, blood squirting alien,” he says. “Then the movie companies will decide to add a glow to the eyes, or a smoky aura around the monster. Like, no, let there just be a monster—how the puppeteer made it.”

Filmmaker Allen Cordell also pines for the realism of the old days. “There’s something magical about practical effects,” he says, “that just evokes a sense of tangibility that CGI, as it’s widely used these days, fails to do.”

Cordell, who has created striking and absurdist music videos for Beach House and Dan Deacon, believes there’s a texture to practical effects that cannot be simulated. It’s something akin to a magic trick. “When a practical effect makes you wonder how the filmmakers achieved what they did, you know you’re onto something really special.”

That’s because it takes cleverness to figure out how to stage these sequences, how to light them, etc.

“There’s just something almost intangible and hard to articulate that’s lost when Yoda goes from a puppet to an animation,” Cordell continues. “Can you imagine if ‘Gremlins’ was made now, with CGI? How much would that suck?”

Of the pre-CGI effects films, Brown and Cordell agree on the essentials: “Alien” and “Aliens,” “RoboCop,” “The Thing,” and “The Terminator.” Cordell’s favorite film is David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” which would be hard to top today with its exacting body horror.

Brown marvels at the sets of the first “Indiana Jones” films, and the gore and miniature action of “Die Hard.” He cites “Blade Runner” as the “crème de la crème” of physical world-building.

“It may sound weird,” he says, “but I really miss filmmakers and artists not having many options. When you can’t use the sentence ‘We’ll fix it in post,’ your creativity will be pushed to the extreme.”

He misses stories, too, and how interconnected they once were with the effects.

“If you had limited resources, limited ways of maneuvering around a problem… like, how the fuck are we going to make a mother alien, and not only that, a mobile mother alien that jumps and attacks without it looking like Gumby?”

This unified process, he believes, made for a better story, better planning of shots, better editing decisions, and ultimately a better film. “When you don’t have anything, your steps have to be extremely calculated.”

So, who is using the best of old-school and new-school technology today?

Brown looks to J.J. Abrams, for one. Though he wasn’t in love with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he was impressed by the use of the “old-school practicals” from the first “Star Wars” films, and the fact that Abrams shot it on film.

George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” was also made this way. “Every shot in that film was in front of the camera,” Brown remarks. “All stunts, cars, explosions, and it looked great.”

David Fincher is a continuous source of inspiration.

“Say whatever about him,” he says. “but anyone who works on his films knows he will challenge and push you. If you sweep a floor on his set, he’ll tell you, ‘You’re not sweeping fast enough.’ We need more of these disciplined artists who move swiftly and challenge others around them.”

In the end, he thinks, we’re just not trying hard enough.

“I believe we can dig ourselves out of this grave of CGI,” Brown admits.

He sees hope in laser printing and technology that yields more precise measurements, and he believes the future of film lies in the hands of directors well-versed in both practical and CGI effects.

Cordell is similarly optimistic. He feels there’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot left to be accomplished.

“I love practical effects and want to employ them as much as possible,” he says. “To me, it’s the ultimate form of filmmaking.”