Crash Reports: Special Defects

Special Effects are truly something special. The makeup work from the amazing Lon snapshot20090425163256.jpgChaney in Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or London After Midnight had audiences reeling as he set a high bar for makeup. But look at what movies like Nosferatu and Faust did for special visual effects, and especially the science fiction Metropolis. These films may have been made in the silent era, but they’re amazing to watch simply because of what they accomplished with but a handful of people and practical effects versus today’s studios and their mega-million dollar effects budgets.

The problem: Money does not equal quality.

If you watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, the practical effects work of Rob Bottin still proves mindblowing over thirty years later. Today, would a major Hollywood studio actually spend time and money on practical effects, or just go with CGI? In the end, CGI is not always cheaper than practical effects, but in the United States, we live in an era where one incident can lead to major lawsuits. Therefore, with insurance contracts and a bevy of lawyers, CGI may be the cheaper deal for Hollywood because there is less risk taking with cast of crew.

Even so, most independent horror filmmakers have no choice but to go the practical route because you do get what you pay for. Absentia is a decent film with great characters and a solid story, but watch for that CGI in the tunnel and you’ll probably guffaw at its cheesiness – a level of pungent Limburger to rival a SyFy production. Writer/director Mike Flanagan should have shelled out more money to a qualified digital artist to fix that mess, or he should have come up with a more practical solution.

Many horror fans know the work of Rick Bottin, Rick Baker, Tom Savini (who often draws upon his experiences in Vietnam to create accurate looking carnage), Ray Harryhausen, John Dykstra, and Stan Winston, but few know CGI effects masters, unless you mention District 9’s Neill Blomkamp. But that will change in time.

During the interim, however, independent horror filmmakers are certainly taking chances with CGI, but like Flanagan, they have to be careful. Within the first five minutes of The Howling Reborn, a computer generated explosion had me laughing – and pressing the fast forward button. Later, two characters jump out a window, and the shattering glass is clearly digital – painfully so. Even the wonderful Japanese horror, Phenomenon got this one wrong with a broken windshield. Yes, this detracted from the movie, but only for a moment. Still, one moment can be enough.

Special effects are not the movie (hear that Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich?), but should help tell the story. We don’t need awful distractions such as fake blood spatter, which is laughable in its own right. The sad part is that more and more low budget films seem to be going the CGI blood route – I guess it beats the muss and fuss of all that fake blood.

Fake blood was used in my short horror Too Many Predators, and it was a nightmare. The “blood” could stain anything permanently and it was hard to control. My script had called for a blood spattered room, but with the product, we could only afford one little spot of blood. Sigh.

Regardless, whether practical or digital, special effects need to work to keep audiences focused on the story. If the effects falter, then the audience is pulled out of the world the filmmakers worked so hard to create. For instance, the CGI work in The Devil’s Advocate is fairly solid. I’m not just talking about the demonic changes in some of the characters: the water outside Milton’s office on top of the building is digital. Yet, as for Blade, once I saw this on cable, I balked because much of the blades, blood, and impalements during a fight scene were clearly “painted on” and that was embarrassing.

What are your favorite special effects laden horror films? Whether practical or digital, let me know what’s impressed you – and what left you cringing.

(Photo for The Thing from All Latest Moviez.)

8 Replies to “Crash Reports: Special Defects”

  1. I don’t recall that “Absentia” CGI part in the tunnel! I need to go back and check that out. Man, I could go on and on about the many impressive practical FX in not only horror but sci fi and action movies as well. I used to love the old sets and mattes used in the Universal horror films of old (then the Hammer films!) but those aren’t really FX, I guess. Mattes may be.

    Growing up it was always the great work of Harryhausen and Tsuburaya that impressed me. (Also loved the work of O’Brien of course). As far as horror, definitely Savini, Baker and Bottin (his work on “The Thing” is legendary). Then eventually KNB. Oh and Tom Burman, too! For sci fi stuff, though, I loved Richard Edlund’s work on Ghostbusters, 2010, Big Trouble in Little China and the Star Wars films among others. Meddings was another great. Winston was a God, bro. He was so damn talented. I do like what Dykstra did with Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and Dennis Muren has been very successful and influential with all of his work. Geez, Bill, I could go on and on.

    For CGI, though, it’s hard to name any, I suppose. There are sooo many hands in the pot when it comes to that stuff but I suppose the lead CGI Supervisors and Animators are the ones to recognize. I know Bruce Nicholson is one as well as John Knoll and the guys at ILM and WETA. I love the CGI in the Lord of the Rings films, D9, Iron Man, Titanic, Gravity, Star Trek and King Kong among some others. The Star Wars prequels were way too much in parts, though, as well as those Transformers movies.

    Sometimes, like in Casino Royale and even The Dark Knight, the CGI that is subtle and well placed in order to tell the story is usually the best. But one CGI moment that comes to mind, as truly one of the worst, has to be that weird ass looking Scorpion King monster at the end of “The Mummy Returns” with The Rock done up all in CGI. Oh man, that looked so horrible and definitely cringe inducing.

    Oh and on a final note: I recently read a blogger’s review of Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the reviewer didn’t like it because the FX looked too fake and he thought that because modern FX has come such “a long way” that “The Thing” seemed “outdated” and “unimpressive” Ha! Can you believe that? Oh well. To each his own, right? This was a very cool post, Bill! I had a blast reading this one. Great job, bro! Thanks.

    1. Hey, Vic. Thank you so much for the amazing response!

      Mattes are definitely special effects and can also add or detract. The matte used in STAR WARS to show Obi-Wan above an abyss when retracting the bridge is fabulous (Alec Guinness was actually just six feet off the ground.)

      As for Dykstra, I was impressed with his stop-motion dragon in DRAGONSLAYER, which relied on computerized movements of the creature to make it seem real.

      And you’re so right about THE DARK KNIGHT. I couldn’t agree more!

      As for that blogger: When I watch the original KING KONG, I know the special effects are lame by today’s standards. However, with a sense of history, I certainly appreciate what the filmmakers created. For instance, I love the original THE WAR OF THE WORLDS even with its oftentimes questionable effects because of the production overall. We all need to keep things in perspective. I’m sure in fifty years people will laugh at old movies that must be played on a screen instead of experiencing them in full detail on a holodeck!

      Be well, my friend!

      1. Yes! That Matte shot of Obi Wan is practically iconic!

        Tippet and Dykstra’s work is phenomenal on Dragonslayer. Man, I LOVE that movie. I also dug the great CGI work from Lasseter and Muren for “Young Sherlock Holmes” I think that was early PIXAR work, too.

        I totally agree with what you said about the appreciation of the hard work and creativity involved in older productions. I always will respect the great ingenuity that the early FX pioneers displayed.

        WAR of the WORLDS is a very good example. Even when you can see the strings holding up the alien machines, you can still get a sense of awe. And those death rays and those cool sound effects! Such an awesome sci fi flick!

        1. I love DRAGONSLAYER as well. I always watch that at least once a year.

          You know, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS still freaks me out. I watched it two weeks ago and left it feeling emotionally whacked as I normally day. It’s one of the few movies from my youth that still gets to me.

  2. while I haven’t seen it, I do know that all the blood in the movie Zodiac was all digital, but that was one case where the digital blood was done right. The other difference between not knowing CGI artists vs knowing practical effects artists is that CGI stuff is often split across different teams even with different FX companies and there’s not always a single head overseeing everything, where practical effects are still done by a team, but there’s usually a single artist overseeing everything personally.

    1. Perfect statement, Bubba! You’re so write about the small practical teams versus the many associated with CGI – and that’s why the credit list on big budget films never seems to end.

      Thanks so much for your insight!

  3. I love this discussion and am fascinated by special effects. Unfortunately, I usually can’t see the difference between makeup and CGI unless it is really bad. The Cabin in the Woods is one of my all time favorites, starting with poking fun at the construct of horror and ending with that murderous unicorn. With that story, I would have overlooked a lot, but the visuals were consistent (minus a little eye rolling with some of the blood). Hemlock Grove has one of the most amazing werewolf transformations I’ve seen. It was disgusting and didn’t at all fall in line with what I expected. Sometimes the artist’s vision can prove to be distracting – if I have an expectation based on prior experience and something completely off the wall walks out, it can be disappointing. Hemlock Grove proved to me that there are exceptions. Knights of Badassdom was highly entertaining, but it was for the wrong reason when the monster walked out (which was unfortunate! we loved the actors and premise).

    1. Yes, that transformation in “Hemlock Grove” is fantastic. And since you brought that up, you reminded me of another excellent film with awesome CGI, which is BLACK SWAN (I still say it’s a horror film). Oftentimes, I wonder if the effects are sparse, then the money for CGI seems to be put to good use. But if a features relies on nothing but computerized graphics, the budget had best be through the roof.

      I haven’t seen KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM, and thanks to you, I probably will not. Believe me, I’m grateful for the warning.

      As for THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, I really enjoyed it, but when the monsters are initially unleashed, there is some cheesy CGI, especially with that snake. Otherwise, I love the film (the best poking fun at horror film since Wes Craven’s SCREAM).

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Camela!

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