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Practical Effects Masters on the Pros and Cons of CGI

By David Konow

We chat with creature effects artists about their thoughts on how CGI should be used in film.

A little while back, I had the pleasure of talking to a number of my favorite make-up artists, including Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London, Men in Black) and Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow). One question I had to ask them was how they were able to survive in the age of computer-generated imagery. In recent years, it seems as if audiences were getting tired of movies with overdone CGI, so I figured we would all have fun ranking on it together.

But to my surprise, I found out a number of practical effects masters were not anti-CG at all. Rick Baker made an especially good point to me when he said, “CGI is an amazing tool, and it’s only as good as the artist behind it. I think if you have a very talented director and give him good tools to use, he’ll make a good movie. If you have a crappy director and give him good tools, he’ll still make a crappy movie." And indeed, as another effects artist told me, “We obviously wouldn't have movies like Pacific Rim without computers, but the flip side of that is we get movies like Van Helsing.”

“My feeling is CGI makes it better,” says Tom Savini. “It used to be a challenge to try and create what was in the script. Now anything you can imagine can be created on the screen. I love CGI when it’s done well, I love the stuff they did in The Mummy. They still use the make-up guys to design the creatures and that’s what they work from. I don’t think you’ll see make-up effects guys hanging out on corners with signs that say: WILL DO EFFECTS FOR FOOD.”

Savini worked as an effects consultant on George Romero’s 2005 flick Land of the Dead, and he was able to get traditional make-up and CGI to go hand in hand. “You know, it’s very tough to make zombies scary,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do to the face and the clothes. Before we started shooting Land of the Dead, I suggested we do some CGI zombies, so you could have a big, blaring hole in someone’s chest or half their head missing. George said, ‘Yeah, yeah, maybe like eight really super CGI zombies as well as the make-up zombies...’”

“CG can do effect so smoothly, and so often, that it can go overboard,” says Joe Alves, the production designer of Jaws and Close Encounters. “CG can be absolutely perfect, and it’s in the discretion of the director not to over do it. There’s a convenience with CG, but I think it can be used very well. I’m not at all anti-CGI, because some practical FX are just damn difficult to do.”

A big problem many fans have with CG is when it's not done well, the filmmaker comes off as lazy. In movies like The Exorcist and Jaws, you had to constantly reinvent the wheel to create realistic effects, and you really had to earn your victories. Creating an effect on a computer was not an option then. These days, when a movie relies too much on CGI, the story can lose its reality, and audiences can get bored with it in a hurry. As Baker says, “Just because you can pretty much do anything with a computer today doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing to do.”

As we all know, the shark in Jaws was a very tough practical effect to pull off, and it looked great when it worked. Jaws fans are certainly grateful the shark wasn’t done with CGI, but Alves wished the production had CGI for one continual snafu. Spielberg wanted the ocean’s horizon to be completely clear so that the audience would feel like the three shark hunters were truly alone in the middle of the ocean. This meant spending a lot of time waiting for sailboats to clear out of the horizon. (Some of them had to be paid off to get out of the way.) “Today you can just cut them out with CG,” Alves says.

One reason why many fans have been so anti-CGI is we grew up during the golden age of practical effects, and hold a certain nostalgia for those types of visuals. Many of us still have strong memories of the innovations that came from the early eighties, and that’s why so many fans are so attached to practical effects. As Matt Cunningham, who did visual effects on Starship Troopers, says, “I grew up during the era of the best practical effects creations on the planet, John Carpenter’s The Thing being one of them. Rob Bottin’s work in that movie is without a doubt some of the greatest foam and greasepaint burned to celluloid. The spiderhead effect blew my mind. It was so good that when I was young I truly believed that could happen because there was no way that effect was fake. It looked too good. That was really the boom of makeup effects. So I love practical and always will.”

Some directors, like Peter Jackson, have successfully combined practical FX with CGI, like he did in Lord of the Rings. Bringing the two worlds together gives the actors something to perform against, instead of acting alone against a green screen.

“There’s a magic that happens when you have a really great actor in a great make-up."

“I personally think you’d be crazy to do something like The Nutty Professor as all CGI make-up,” says Baker. “There’s a magic that happens when you have a really great actor in a great make-up. He’s there on the set, he can improvise and do things. If he’s on a motion capture stage with a bunch of markers on his face, even great actors have a hard time in an empty room. They’d much rather be with other actors they can perform with, and sets they can look at and respond to. You get something out of it I don’t think you can get any other way.”

One of the biggest turning points in effects was Jurassic Park in 1993, which blew open the door for CGI creatures. When Phil Tippett saw how well the CG on Jurassic Park looked, he famously said, “I think I’m extinct.” (The line was even written into the film.) “The fact that I could even make a living doing make-up effects was a dream come true,” says FX artist Eddie Yang (Iron Man, Doom). “It was always in the back of my mind that one day this might not be around, but I was having so much fun the first few years when I first got into it, it didn’t even cross my mind until Jurassic Park. I think that’s when everybody started getting scared!

“The big make-up effects shops have seen more periods where there’s not a lot of work coming in,” Yang continues. “People are asked to take vacations a lot more, or there’s a lot of lay-offs. People have had to adapt, and I saw the transition, but I don’t blame them at all because the freedom with CG is incredible. If I were directing a film, I’d want that freedom too.”

As Cunningham reminds us, there was groundbreaking CG before Jurassic Park, namely in The Last Starfighter and Young Sherlock Holmes, “But at the time I felt like I was watching a bad video game, so the whole effect was lost on me,” he says. “Jurassic Park blew me away. They really did bring dinosaurs to life. It was too much to believe. The best part is they blended practical and CG to make one hell of a monster. I was elated and sad at the same time. I couldn’t help but think that all those foam latex creatures I loved so dearly were going to vanish.”

Yet instead of resisting change, the classic make-up artists like Baker and Savini have embraced it. Perhaps today’s effects artists learned a valuable lesson from one of the greatest make-up who ever lived, Jack Pierce, who created the classic Universal monsters like Frankenstein and the Wolf-Man. When foam latex became the new way to do make-up, Pierce refused to go along with the changing tides, and it put him out of business.

When Cunningham went to work with Phil Tippett on Starship Troopers, he was very surprised to learn that the master of stop-motion effects was going to be working in CG. “I couldn’t believe I was going to work with the guy who put motion to some of the greatest monsters and machines in Star Wars. When I learned he was handling the CGI effects for the giant bugs in Troopers, I was confused. What?! Tippet is handling computer effects? The master had converted, or was forced to embrace the inevitable. He did, and it was awesome.”

Cunningham continues, “It was during those long months in Wyoming and South Dakota that I learned about CGI and watched dailies to see how the bugs evolved from bright orange poles to living breathing creatures. But that didn’t stop me from hanging around the practical effects guys like Kevin Yagher (creator of Chucky). They still had the coolest stuff on set with all the blood parts, blood, and dead bodies. So my love for practical continued as my understanding of CGI evolved.”