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.”