Rick Baker retires, and CGI wins

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Nix Eclips. Visit his blog!]

Well, I guess that’s it. Rick Baker is calling it quits and retiring from the make-up/special effects biz.

This might be the first real sign of the end of an era. When an Oscar-winning artist throws in the towel, we might just need to take a serious look around and decide if this is what we want the future of cinema to be: a world of soulless ones and zeroes pretending to be something with substance. And if not, what can we do to help stop that from happening?

Alright, that’s a tad melodramatic, but I am a bit concerned with the future of practical effects. It’s kind of a shock to hear such a talented artist say “I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast. That is not what I want to do, so I just decided it is basically time to get out.” And: “…the CG stuff definitely took away the animatronics part of what I do. It’s also starting to take away the makeup part.”

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There’s a long history of movie geeks (especially horror) bemoaning the overabundance of CGI effects that seem to be taking over film. I’m sure Hollywood has its (dumb) reasons for overusing it, but there’s an extremely vocal group of film fans that would like to see a return to a more natural form of effects work. Not just with makeup, but also stunts and even sets and locations.

And before anyone asks, yes, I think that CGI can be used quite effectively, and shouldn’t be relegated to Pixar and DreamWorks films. But there’s a fine line to walk to make it work.

People love to bring up Jurassic Park as a huge CGI spectacle, while forgetting that the majority of the effects that you see in the film are physical creatures created by Stan Winston’s crew and touched up with computers. They only really went full CG for four minutes. That’s four minutes out of 14 minutes of dinosaurs on screen in the first Jurassic Park.

Rick Baker retires, and CGI wins

Think about that for a minute. Not only are there barely any dinosaurs in your dinosaur movie (kindly leave the new Godzilla alone, thank you), there are barely any CGI dinosaurs in the movie that supposedly proved you could do everything with CGI. And it took a full year to properly create those four minutes. Do you think the studios nowadays want to take that much time to make sure everything is done well?

Having those physical creatures not only helps with suspension of disbelief, but also gives the actors something to, you know, react to. Take a look at this behind the scenes test of the full size T-Rex, and look at how scared the guy is feeding it styrofoam, the second time.

That guy is afraid his hands will be bitten off.

Better yet, listen to Stan Winston himself: “When that Tyrannosaurus Rex, which weighed 25,000 pounds, 12 tons of dangerous machine, was smashing into a car, I guarantee those kids, they didn’t have to act afraid. The audience can feel that, the audience can tell the difference when something is completely animated, so that’s the magic of mixing animation and live action. I think that should never go away.”

Recently, Ian McKellan admitted to breaking down and crying on the set of The Hobbit because he had to interact with photographs of his costars while shooting on a green screen. “And I cried, actually. I cried. Then I said out loud, ‘This is not why I became an actor.’ Unfortunately, the microphone was on, and the whole studio heard.”

Remember in the Lord of the Rings trilogy how they used lots of in-camera tricks to make the hobbits smaller than the humans? It seems the more freedom and money you get, the more you just say fuck it and drop it in in post. This is demonstrated by New Zealand being replaced by Naboo, or whatever, in the Hobbit films.

Rick Baker retires, and CGI wins

And therein lies the biggest problem. CGI allows you to do anything you can imagine in your wildest fever dream, which begins to stretch the limits of believability to the breaking point. How are we supposed to relate to a character that can defy the laws of physics when they’re supposed to be a regular person in an irregular situation?

Joe Dante sums it up quite nicely in his discussion of the Gremlins reboot: “…the first two movies were entirely dictated by the technology. The reason those movies are what they are is because of what we were able to do or not do. And now, you can do anything, anything you can imagine. The question is, why? Why do we want to make another one of these? And if we do, how is it going to be different from the first? If it’s so different, the people who liked the originals aren’t going to embrace it, you don’t want to do that. But on the other hand, the technology is really outdated now. Are they going to look the same, are they not going to look the same? Do they have the same properties?”

Jaws was dictated by the technology that didn’t even work. What if they remade Jaws today? Try to picture that movie and see what a studio with a $100 million budget would do. I imagine it would be “More shark, dammit! We need to see the shark jump out of the water and bite a person in half! People paid to see the shark, you idiot!”

More does not equal better; it just equals more.

Rick Baker retires, and CGI wins

It’s been mentioned here before, but I think one of the most blatant examples of pointless CGI fuckery is the remake/prequel (or whatever you want to call it) of The Thing.

We were promised practical effects with computers augmenting them. Instead, they took all of the hard work of StudioADI and entirely painted over it with ones and zeroes. And why? If you take a look at their behind the scenes footage, you can see that the physical animatronics and puppetry looked amazing. The work was done and done well. What reason was there to ruin it? Did they think the audience wouldn’t find it realistic if the monsters didn’t flop around with no weight and no regard for physics?

It’s no surprise that after this experience, StudioADI turned to Kickstarter to raise funds to make their own movie, with all-practical effects. According to the movie’s official site, Harbinger Down is “the all Practical Effects (PFX) creature film the fans have asked for”, and “an alternative to big studio CG driven genre films.” (This is basically their big “eff you” to and non-copyrighted take on The Thing.)

And they’re not the only ones. Recently, a movie called The Void took to Indiegogo and raised $82,500, just to use for practical effects. Whether either of these movies are any good remains to be seen. But knowing that there are still some people out there trying to show that it can still be done is impressive.

I’m sure there are those who would say, “But if the technology has advanced, all this stuff is outdated and it’s pointless to keep trying to force it into modern films.” Please go and re-watch the original Jurassic Park T-Rex, and then compare it to the full CG Monstrous Rex or whatever they’re calling it in the new movie. Or the shots of Chris Pratt interacting with cartoon Raptors. Can you see the difference?

Many of us can.

It’s not that the technology is outdated (sorry, Mr. Dante). It’s that it takes time, effort, and talent to do it right, and incorporate the new tech as well.

It’s “cheap and fast” versus “done right”. And it looks like we’re losing in the long run.

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