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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  • Sardu

    To me, the LOTR films vs. the Hobbit films is a textbook example of how a good director went from using CG almost entirely right to almost entirely wrong.

    • NixEclips

      Legolas jumping from stone to stone like Mario was hilarious.

      • Sardu

        Yeah, he had some weird physics in the LOTR trilogy as well. That was the major reason I went with “almost” ;-)

    • GreenLuthor

      Kinda makes one wonder what Dead Alive would have looked like if Peter Jackson made it today…

      • NixEclips

        Two words. Van Helsing.

  • Immortan Scott

    The most baffling thing about The Thing prequel’s CGI replacement was how awful the CGI was. I could have possibly understood if the CGI was any good, but why cover over good practical effects with terrible CGI?

    • NixEclips

      Very true. I hope Harbinger Down rocks our faces off.

    • NixEclips

      And I’m not saying it would have been a “great” movie if they left the good fx in. Why would an intelligent creature, on its’ way to safety, reveal itself in the helicopter and cause its’ escape to be foiled?

  • Endorenna

    The loss of practical effects does make me sad; CGI combined with practical effects makes spectacular visuals, as seen in Jurassic Park, like the article said.

    I would like to point out one thing, though. The CGI artists are no less artists than the practical effects artists are. CGI might be, compared to practical effects, ‘cheap and fast,’ but it still takes an incredible amount of skill to make even half-decent CGI.

    It makes me sad that as practical effects disappear, CGI is more and more derided when it’s not the CGI artists’ fault, when really, both types of art should combine into amazing things instead of one being considered ‘better’ than the other at all.

    • NixEclips

      You are absolutely correct. They are artists, as well. Even Stan opened his own digital arm so he could integrate the two. It’s not the digital artists fault that the suits want fast and cheap. I did not mean for it to sound like the artists are the problem or they do less work. They are, however, not given as much time to do their jobs properly.
      Thanks for reading!

  • jlinn

    Part of the issue is also with the amount of money involved, they want to make it back as quick as they can. So it is far quicker to employ 500 digital effects artists from 10 different companies on 3 continents working 24/7 right up to the movies release date than it is to employ 100 from 1 company working 12 hour days until the movie is finished.

    • NixEclips

      Right? It’s the whole cheap and fast thing. They don’t really care about the quality, as long as it gets done. Even the trailers are rushed. “What do you mean the fx aren’t done? I see a dinosaur right there. Are you telling me you need more time to make it look MORE like a dinosaur? Put it in the damn trailer!”

  • R.D.

    I dunno, with Mad Max, Interstellar, and Star Wars Episode 7 emphasizing practical effects it may seem a bit overdramatic. I mean yeah there may be lots of poorly used CG…just as much as you always had poorly used and lame practical effects for all those bad movies nobody cares about any more.

    And of course, films that use a lot of practical aren’t necessarily better for it. The Bayformers movies use lots of on-camera explosions, destruction, and physical environments/sets. Doesn’t make them not suck. Likewise, the fact that something like Harbinger Down seems to market itself as ‘we’ve got practical effects guyz!’ instead of anything worth watching, and honestly nothing in the trailer suggested that to me, is a bit annoying.

    But that being said, more directors should consider blending practical and CG together better (tossing away one without the other doesn’t make sense in this day and age), and indeed as noted some are. So we’ll see how things transpire.

    • NixEclips

      Actually, the ( then) impending release of Mad Max is what got me working on this. It started a bit more hopeful and then the news of Baker retiring started to come out, which changed the whole outlook of the article.
      Yeah, Harbinger Down may end up sucking and its whole exsistence is just to show off the practcal work. But there are a lot of people that are going to watch it for that one reason.
      If only the studios would hear what you and.I and many others are saying. Don’t discard one over the other. Use them together to create something greater than their separate parts.

      • Immortan Scott

        Fury Road is a good example of a film using them together. It used CGI for things that couldn’t be doe practically. (i.e. Furiosa’s hand)

    • NixEclips

      My Facebook post: “Oh, Harbinger Down…. You tried. You really did. And it was hilarious. Perhaps you should hire a real director, next time. (And know your limitations. This was just too big of a concept to pull off on your budget.)
      Anyway, thanks for the effort! I got a great 80’s vibe.”
      So, yeah, it was a huge disappointment.

  • Cameron Vale

    I’ve heard it convincingly argued that audiences are actually partial to CGI. Even so, I still believe that the Jurassic Park myth was destructive, because it convinced a lot of people that CGI is an effortless way to create excellent visual effects.

    • NixEclips

      I just saw someone post that JP was just a cgi test disguised as a movie. Okay.
      Was this a personal conversation or can you send me to a link to a site re: audiences preferring cg? That has me interested. If it was a personal conversation, can you summarize?

      • Cameron Vale

        I guess it’s a combination. I remember seeing some video about The Princess and the Frog that cited this idea as a likely cause for the fading relevance of traditional hand-drawn animation and the crazy success of studios that create computer animated features. And talking with my brother about Marvel Studios, he cited how movies with simplistic plots heavily driven by CGI succeed reliably in overseas markets, citing Avatar and Transformers and so forth, and basically predicted that Gravity would perform well overseas for this reason.

        • NixEclips

          I guess having better stories isn’t as much of a priority, anymore.
          A generic action/spfx blockbuster can find a huge audience overseas because you don’t have to worry about cultural differences.

  • Kaelan Ramos

    Would love to see more practical effects, or even just higher quality CGI. This quick and fast CGI is what’s killing the FX industry.

    • NixEclips

      Or use them both, together. The studios learned the wrong lesson from JP. Like Stan was saying, we need to keep using both to compliment each other.

    • NixEclips

      But, again, it’s the quick and fast part that they really care about. Letting practical and digital artists (hell even the writers and directors) do it properly is not a priority. Get the movie out because there’s another one coming right behind it. This is especially true for summer releases. Every movie is a wannabe blockbuster, now.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    My two cents
    The reason CGI won is because it gives modern directors have the ability to put their vision on the screen exactly as it is in their head; without other people’s input. No more special effect people telling directors how it can be done. By removing the creative input of the special effects artist the director gains more control. As an example of this if you watch the special features of LotR you get to see a scene from RotK that was removed because it wasn’t at the proper camera angle. However many hours of work gone because it didn’t match the director’s vision.
    Unfortunately this allows directors to deny the reality that film is a cooperative art form that benefits from many inputs – storytelling. Even a novelist, a solo storytelling artist, relies on the input provided by the reader to fill in the blanks and bring the work to life. By excluding creative inputs film is in danger of becoming increasingly bland and predictable.

    • Muthsarah

      Yeah, but it goes beyond the director’s megalomania. The more the producers/investors keep treating moviemaking as chasing an ever-more-predictable buck based on an ever-more-refined formula, the more they forget that they themselves occupy only the far end the production line. They don’t want “auteur” directors with their own ideas on the finished product to get in the way, so they get rid of them and push for producer-directed productions with hired-hand directors. They don’t want SFX technicians (practical or CGI) to get in the way of their money machine, so they err on the side of the far more easily replaceable computer nerds. There are only so many Rick Bakers, after all. Technicians able to do that CGI stuff on their computer-things, dime a dozen.

      Then again, look at the recent “Jurassic World”: Incredibly expensive production with HIGH earnings potential. Directed by a guy whose most relevant experience was directing an indie flic. It worked out in this case (insignificant/powerless director, only B-level/nascent cast, thus the producers had all the power and all things but the SFX came mighty cheap –> one kajillion dollar opening weekend because marketing + nostalgia), so expect at least ten JW clones in the next three years, and a whole half a generation of Hollywood neglecting any other production method in order to copy JW’s formula. They’ve figured it out. They conditioned the audience to respond better than Pavlov’s dogs to B-movies with A-movie budgets, backed by AA-level marketing efforts, pushing 3D prices, Thursday midnight shows, leading to $50 million US Fridays, and $500 million international opening weekends. Based solely on anticipation and impatience. All while NO-ONE is willing to state that JW is even close to being as good as a far cheaper, more “primitive” movie made 20 years ago by an A-list director using “old-fashioned” techniques. Standards for quality have drastically lowered, even as prices have soared. They finally cracked the code. They can predict and control the audience. They’re living the dream. Money in equals predictably more money out. The machine has been realized. All hail the machine!

      If you want more “Jurassic World”s, baby, you’re gonna get ’em. By the boatload. Same with more “Avengers”, more “Skyfalls”, more “Twilights”. If, on the other hand, you aren’t interested in these things, you can GTFO, because Hollywood doesn’t need you. Grandma/pa. They have the rest of the world in the palm of their hands.

      Honestly, the narrow, cynical dollar won. Years of psychological studies, tests, and conditioning of the market have won. Business beat art. Franchises beat originality. Mass-marketing beat word-of-mouth. Front-loaded marketing and booking beat box-office staying power. Never before has hype meant more than quality. It’s over.

      There are always books. While they last. Go ahead and read them if you want anything different. Losers.

      • NixEclips

        I very much agree with many of your points, but the code is never cracked. Superheroes will lose their appeal to the audience just as the Scream ripoffs did. (Big differences between the two, but you should get the point.)
        And, like my original opening paragraph that got cut and replaced said: maybe the success of Mad Max will prove that audiences like things done more practically and things change, just a little. Cuz that movie had legs.