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Monday, August 08, 2005

"Special effects are the new movie monsters..."

"...their visual excess gobbling up the real story." That's the headline in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

Pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub wasn't impressed by movies like "The Matrix Revolutions" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." At some point between 1958's "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" and this year's "Fantastic Four," "special effects have become more of an arms race and less about supporting a story," Hartlaub writes. "And even as technology improves, most blockbuster special-effects movies are leaving audiences with more of a feeling of numbness than wonder."

Toward the end of the piece, Hartlaub writes:

    "Fantastic Four" is an example of a story built to serve the special effects, instead of the other way around. It's a misguided pretense that too many studio check-writers adopt -- to get your money's worth, audiences need to notice the effects, not forget about them.

    A strong argument can be made that the best special-effects movie of the past 10 years was "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" -- where every computer-assisted cannonball, amputation and gale force wind looked like it actually happened in the 1800s on the open sea. Every effect in that movie enhanced the vision of author Patrick O'Brian and the film's director Peter Weir.

After spending last week at the SIGGRAPH graphics and special effects conference in LA, it was hard not to share Hartlaub's concern about effects overwhelming story-telling. But then I had a somewhat heartening conversation with Jim Rygiel, who won three Oscars for his work on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

I asked Rygiel whether we've finally arrived at the moment where no visual image is impossible to create. "I do believe that you can do anything now - at great expense - but the possibilities are all there," he said. We talked a bit about artificially-intelligent digital characters, which I'd just spoken with Stephen Regelous of Massive about. These characters wouldn't need to be animated frame-by-frame - they'd be smart enough to take direction from a human, like "you enter the room, feeling anxious, and walk to the table."

Rygiel emphasized the importance of story, character, and performance over everything else.

Rygiel said, "I have no doubt that we could make digital characters seem absolutely real. I'm questioning the soul of the character. I think `artificial' intelligence is a good word. We're talking about dumb automatons." Actors, he said, are "good at what they do." Rygiel's next project is "Bunyan and Babe," which will feature live actors performing alongside a computer-generated blue ox.

We also talked a bit about the democratization of filmmaking:

"When I started out, with `The Last Starfighter,' it was really tough to do the one spaceship flying around. Today, anyone could do it at home."

"You can get a $2000 high-def camera, and make a film today by yourself, with CG software on your laptop, and distribute it globally. I see a lot more of that happening - more independent stuff that will give audiences more choice."