Wednesday 28 September 2011

Animatronic Kudos Deserved.

Godzilla's pal, Gorosaurus. Man in suit! Man in suit!

I just got finished watching a documentary on BBC4 about the depiction of dinosaurs throughout cinema history. And I have to say I'm pretty pissed at it.

In terms of the modern depictions mentioned, Jurassic Park was obviously the big mention. And well deserved as well as it's still brilliant. I saw it on the big screen at the weekend on re-release with a shiny new digital print and it's lost none of its thrill and wonder.

What has partially pissed me off is the cynical discussion of CGI in the documentary. Jurassic Park gets the lion's share of attention but the 1998 version of Godzilla and Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong are also brought up, mainly to slag off "Hollywood" (completely omitting to mention that 98's Godzilla was written and directed by a German) and also to have various critics appear in the usual head shots to criticise CGI saying that it has given filmmakers too much power. This is a fair argument, as any shiny new tool that brings in audiences will guarantee its overuse and dilution, even if it was as one sided as usual. However, it's not the criticism of CGI that has annoyed me, but the complete lack of any mention of the puppets involved.

Everybody who thinks visual effects in movies today automatically thinks of CGI and nothing else, never talking about people like Stan Winston or the Henson Workshop, making incredible prosthetics and animatronics that should blend seamlessly with CGI. Everything has its place on the screen, all coming together to create the ultimate illusion. An entire industry, a while slew of craftspeople and artists who work their behinds off are ignored because lazy programme writers want to go for the obvious. The T-Rex attack on the cars in Jurassic Park is a great example of the two techniques being combined for the sake of the shot. A full body animatronic T-Rex was built and is seen in its entirety in several shots (one or two shots have the puppet do one thing in the frame, leave the frame and re-enter as CG, doing what puppets cannot) and I've read that Spielberg was adamant that CG be used where animatronics would not would, not filling the screen with CG as so many people like to think. Nor did the programme makers stop to consider that Jurassic Park was the first movie of its kind to attempt to show the anatomy of dinosaurs and how they truly might have moved in a more accurate light (although, paleontology being the science it is, ideas and theories are constantly shifting). It might not have been spot on, but at least they tried.

I suppose it is true that the CG work as amazing when it blends so well with live action puppets but I get so annoyed when people generalise about VFX like this. It's lazy, it's cynical and its insulting to the people who create these creatures. A look at the work of Guillermo del Toro is a great example, particularly in Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy 2, where huge creatures are not necessarily CGI but sophisticated puppets featuring more intricate design than most high end computers would be able to render. The full bodied puppet used for the troll, Wink, is amazing. And what's more, light shines off them naturally, which must surely be the bane of a CG modeller and lighter - it's always a give away.

This even goes for virtual sets as well. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars Prequel trilogy, so many shots of wide environments, such as the city of Minas Tirith, Helm's Deep, the Podrace Arena or Chewbacca's home world of Kashyyk, are based around huge miniature sets that are augmented by CG. Model and puppet making are not extinct as people say and are still around. I only wish people would talk about them more instead of insecurely concentrating on shouting about CG. It only feeds the ignorance of the audience.

Which is not to say that I'm anti-CGI. I'm not. In fact I've had a few loud debates where I've wound up defending CGI. But everything has its place and it rarely takes one technique to create the fantastic.

Well, rant over. I'm off to watch scantily clad cave women be harassed by stop motion dinosaurs. Or get a Lemsip and sleep. Whichever first. God bless the BBC, despite my rant.

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