Dennis Muren-ILM Creative Director Says Special Effects Aren't Special Anymore

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  04 April 2013
It's a cliche, but big studio filmmaking is such a soulless and accountant-driven exercise at this point it's actually amazing that "they" let any movies through intact. Once the budget gets to a certain level, unless you have an amazing amount of clout, everyone is so concerned about their investment that they'll keep poking at things endlessly or mashing it into a safer and safer cookie cutter form.

A good producer will insulate the director and others from interference as much as possible, but there's so many other sources of meddling or dumb ideas or things that can fail along the way that it really seems like defusing a bomb before it explodes in your face.

I think on some level they are beginning to acknowledge that good storytelling and originality have a place, but only when those movies perform well. And a lot of the dumb stuff is performing well right along with it.

The other side of the coin creatively though is definitely the fact that given even a mid-sized budget, literally anything can be seen on the screen. Whatever your writer's and director's brains can come up with, it can happen. What separates the men from the boys now is people who actually have vision and interesting concepts and stories to tell, rather than letting the 20,000 centaurs be the only content.

Not that the spectacular doesn't have a place either, you still need those breathtaking moments, but you really have to work to make them have impact or be unique. How boring was Sucker Punch or Mummy 3 in spite of all the incredible things appearing on screen?
 
  04 April 2013
Quote:
If you're going to make a motion picture, don't just throw computer graphics in to make everything bigger or more. Don't have an army of 20,000 centaurs or whatever it is, if the story is better with seven centaurs. They've lost sight, making things bigger and bigger.


The problem is, I suspect, that movies likely get started by some guys sitting around saying, "I want to see 20,000 centaurs attack a place and blow everything up."

The next exec says, "Great! Get someone to write that up."

"How about that guy who wrote the last blockbuster?"

"Perfect. Call him up. Tell him he has until Friday!"

Kind of like when Kevin Smith was pitching to the studio exec who wanted a giant spider in the film no matter what film they were making.

Originally Posted by kelgy: One of my favorite films of the late 90s was the Mask of the Zorro and the production history was a mess where people came and went and no one person had complete oversight (there is a tiny bit of cgi in the movie--a computer generated tear drop).


A movie like The Mask of Zorro shouldn't even have CG, any more than The Three Musketeers should have Hong Kong wire fu fighting. I bet if they made it today, though, there would be a CG double of Zorro floating around weightlessly doing who knows what odd things. Maybe fighting 20000 centaurs.
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Last edited by teruchan : 04 April 2013 at 11:53 PM.
 
  04 April 2013
I think CG is useful these day for:

- making stuntman live safer
- be politically correct (like the fish in Castaway)
- save money in transportation (fake height in 7 Years in Tibet)
- make production faster (like using green screen / live background video of real location. you can film a sunset scene at morning! no matter how many takes)
- and much much more.


but it should never be the story just because.
 
  04 April 2013
Originally Posted by teruchan: A movie like The Mask of Zorro shouldn't even have CG, any more than The Three Musketeers should have Hong Kong wire fu fighting.


Its when Catherine Zeta-Jones is holding Anthony Hopkins at the end. I read at the time that she didnt cry so they had to add it in post.
 
  04 April 2013
I too think that films wouldn't be overrun with cg if it wasn't in the script to begin with.

However cg DOES make up for the lack of a story, whether we like it or not, we're paying for it whenever we got see it in the cinema. And we do! Thats why we're seeing films with scripts that would never pass any quality check 20-30 years ago. They've got effects to make up for it now. Saw Oblivion last night. Good example of a film which, without visuals, wouldn't have remotely interested me.

But I wonder, why could we not have some films with story, and some with vfx?
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  04 April 2013
Originally Posted by marcuso: I too think that films wouldn't be overrun with cg if it wasn't in the script to begin with.

However cg DOES make up for the lack of a story, whether we like it or not, we're paying for it whenever we got see it in the cinema. And we do! Thats why we're seeing films with scripts that would never pass any quality check 20-30 years ago. They've got effects to make up for it now. Saw Oblivion last night. Good example of a film which, without visuals, wouldn't have remotely interested me.

But I wonder, why could we not have some films with story, and some with vfx?


I think VFX/CGI have become the big explosion and car race of the yesteryear, which in itself is the gunfight and horse race of the yester-yesteryear.

And this, in itself, is like asking why there is not much story in kung fu movies.

While we hate it (maybe because we are 3d artist) but general audience lap it up. They don't see it the way we do, they see cgi/vfx the way an observer watches Starry Starry Night by Van Gogh.

If we wrote the word 'spaceship', normal people might imagine something like NASA shuttle. But by going to watch Prometheus, they now see a spaceship not unlike other spaceship they saw before. Its like watching Aliens for the first time. Previously all spaceship is clean and look like a hospital. Now a spaceship is dirty and dingy and look like a factory (the fact that they are cargo ship helps, of course).

Everybody can imagine a starry night. But only Van Gogh imagine the way he is and express it the way he is. And people want to watch that.

Maybe that why people flock to watch CGI movie. They just want to see new CGI 'art'.

How do you define alien planet? But Avatar allow them to experience one.

And studios just capitalize on it. But of course, improving the storyline would be great.
 
  04 April 2013
At the same time, I don't think millions of people would pay to go see a two hour ILM demo reel. There has to be something to hold it together with interest. Just like the kung fu movie, it only needs to be enough to string together all the cool fight scenes. Sure, better would be nice, but if they don't have to, why would they?
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  04 April 2013
Yeah, this is topic which has been concerning me for a long time and I'm happy that authority like Muren brought it up. I totally agree on overuse and misuse of CG and the fact, that traditional film crafts as script, characters, storytelling, idea or message are becoming coulisse to VFX.

I have also another concern derived from this: I think young begining independent directors, who are serious about creating really extraordinary and deep movies (and eventually are heading more to kind of alternative spheres rather then the commercial box office driven one) will relate and connect CG & VFX automatically with this kind of VFX porn in classic blockbusters and because they won't like it, they will get sceptical about actual usage of VFX in general.

I might be too paranoid here, but I have quite a lot of friends who are studying film direction and I somehow feel that if the only CG they see are film like Transformers etc. they won't get really interested in this techniques..

This brought me to create small compilation of making ofs from various movies, where I think visual effects (mostly invisible effects) were used in very nice, healthy and subtle way and really served the movie, not the other way round. Those making of is probably nothing new for you guys, but I felt like this might be interesting to show people outside of industry like: "see, you can use VFX also this way:"

https://vimeo.com/58021481
 
  04 April 2013
I definitely agree. I think story needs to come first, so much so that I left CG to pursue screenwriting. I think that bigger budgets are directly proportional to the lameness of the scripts. There are exceptions to the rule, of course but IMO, they're pretty rare.

On some level, I blame my fellow Canadian James Cameron for the state of the industry. The man is a mad genius, exceptionally talented, and impressively driven. It was Jim who made the first $100million movie (True Lies) and the first $200million movie (Titanic). While some have estimated that Avatar cost upward of $500million, the final publicized budget was $237million. When you add in Avatar’s $150million marketing budget however, and the costs of developing the special 3D camera systems used on the shoot, the total cost to make the film does actually come close to that half a billion dollar mark. Sure, his movies make a gazillion dollars, but each time the budget bar is raised it brings with it a new standard of expectation within the industry, at the cost of rational investment and worse, the total evisceration of story. There was also a perception that the more money a movie costs to make, the better it must be. Obviously, recent films have made a mockery out of that assertion and the public at large seems to be catching on, despite the number of movies joining the $1billion+ worldwide box office club.

Big budget films are all run through formulas by men in suits at desks in big offices who run focus groups and studies to try and determine the value of a script. Their mission is to construct films that are ‘four quadrant’ movies. These are movies that are built to appeal to young audiences, mature audiences, male audiences and female audiences. Elements of a film that skew it away from an even 25 percent, four-way split are reworked and adjusted to reclaim that careful balance. The true cost of four quadrant films is usually the watering down of anything that was written into the original script – the one that got people excited about the project to start with – in order to serve too many masters. Everything is compromised to protect that perfect 4/4 balance and the potential returns. The higher the budget, the less the studio is willing to risk favouring a specific quadrant. This has led most of the tentpole films of the last decade (or more) to be lacklustre at best.
 
  04 April 2013
I am quite surprised that The Matrix dared to be rated R for such a blockbuster type flick.
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  04 April 2013
Originally Posted by teruchan: I am quite surprised that The Matrix dared to be rated R for such a blockbuster type flick.


The Matrix was budgeted at about $65 million (unadjusted). If it had been $80m+ (in 1999 dollars), I doubt it would have been released as an R rated film.
 
  04 April 2013
I agree with him. I generally think that the older special effects before CGI were just used much more wisely. If you look at how modern films with CGI are edited and scripted, there's thousands of cuts and hundreds of VFX shots. Generally, the quality of work in VFX in these films is excellent. But the whole sense of awe is gone. Whereas in a film like Forbidden planet, the use of special effects is slowly built up and never overused, modern films just have it everywhere.

I still find the matte paintings in older sci-fi films to have a greater impact than modern VFX does. Part of the magic of old sci-fi films was that you didn't see everything, a lot was held back, never explained and never fully explored. That's a great device to use in storytelling. There's none of that now. If you look at a modern sci-fi film, they're identical to a standard action film, except there's some stuff that's futuristic. That's it- there's none of what used to define that genre left.





Originally Posted by Pixanaut: On some level, I blame my fellow Canadian James Cameron for the state of the industry. The man is a mad genius, exceptionally talented, and impressively driven. It was Jim who made the first $100million movie (True Lies) and the first $200million movie (Titanic). While some have estimated that Avatar cost upward of $500million, the final publicized budget was $237million. When you add in Avatar’s $150million marketing budget however, and the costs of developing the special 3D camera systems used on the shoot, the total cost to make the film does actually come close to that half a billion dollar mark. Sure, his movies make a gazillion dollars, but each time the budget bar is raised it brings with it a new standard of expectation within the industry, at the cost of rational investment and worse, the total evisceration of story. There was also a perception that the more money a movie costs to make, the better it must be. Obviously, recent films have made a mockery out of that assertion and the public at large seems to be catching on, despite the number of movies joining the $1billion+ worldwide box office club.


Right, and Avatar had such a mediocre story. You watch that film now on a dvd and it's so thoroughly unimpressive. I think films like Jason and the Argonauts and Forbidden Planet are still great stories and great films. We look back on them and think them to be a little cheesy, but look at transformers! Those films were so bad. The VFX were some of the best I've ever seen but the film was just horrendous.
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  04 April 2013
Clearly a compelling story will do much more for the quality of a film than a few really choice FX sequences. That said, the studios follow the money and often the safe money comes in the form of VFX heavy tent poles that are often meh... or sometimes good but rarely are great films. Nonetheless they put butts in seats so you really have to blame the audience there. Demand better films by not buying tickets for so so, meh or complete drivel. I'm talking to anyone with a ticket stub for "Battleship" specifically. Don't do that again, ok?

Granted nobody should expect great films to come from a summer blockbuster anyway. As mentioned earlier, it would seem the stakes are too high to take big chances so you instead get homogeneity.

I have great hopes for the lower budget and independent scene though in regards to finding great writing and directing coupled with tasteful practical & CGI FX. For example I found Duncan Jones "MOON" to be everything I could want in a science fiction flick. Great acting, interesting story-line with some decent story reveals, a great blend of CGI and practical FX. The miniature work on the lunar surfaces and vehicles was something you just don't see anymore. A brave move in the age of CGI if you ask me. Had the same film gotten the big budget blockbuster treatment I am sure it would lost most of what made it personal and emotional.

There is really something to be said for the constraints of smaller productions. When you have to be very selective every step of the way you will always end up with something more refined and innovative than if you were handed unlimited funds. It may not get all those butts in seats, but it will most likely be a better film with more innovative and tasteful VFX to boot.
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  04 April 2013
*Cough* Oblivion *Cough* Elysium *Cough*
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  04 April 2013
Oblivion and Elysium look homogenitized to me, not as bad as the higher budget toy franchise films but not exactly dynamic in plot or character or theme. They sound rather conservative.
Turn back the clock to the 80s with low budget independent film and you have much more variety and imagination.
Part of it may be due to cost, or changes in culture and film education (what movies filmmakers grew up with) or not letting professional screenwriters pitch stories that might have heavy fx concepts (unless they are also the director).
 
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