Not so special

The time was that an event movie would be as much about a new visual effect as it was about the story or the actors in the film. Take Terminator 2 for example and that ground-breaking morphing effect. Other examples include the shockwave effect in Star Trek VI, which was later employed in the Star Wars remastered cinema releases or the then incredble ‘bullet time’ of the Matrix, which is now an over-used cliche.

Bullet Time

Bullet Time now a cliche?

So much can be done now that special effects are only limited by the imagination of the writers and VFX artists. The liquid morph, first seen in ‘The Abyss’ and then ‘T2, Judgement Day’ was a major breakthrough as until that time most computer work was still confined to rod removals and some bluescreen shots.

The FX work of today in films such as Transformers3, The Avengers and such like are so far in advance of the films of yesteryear that sometimes the viewer can’t tell whats real from what is CGI (except when it comes to people).

But this embarassment of riches is not without its problems. There is no doubting the artistic skills of the talented folks at Lucasfilm. However, look at the latest Star Wars films and there is so much action going on in the frame that the audience don’t know where to look. This has a de-humanising influence and compromises the story telling, and it’s not just Star Wars. Take the CG overload of 2012, where the end of the world is rendered in impressive but soul-less CG fashion. Little thought seems to have been spent on the characterisation and the film becomes a kind of video game.

Star Wars Clutter

My eye is drawn to the … oh and the…and the. No, my eye is not drawn to anything in particular.

Never is this more evident than in Transformers 2, where large explosions blast rubbery looking CG constructs of Shia LeBoueff hundreds of feet into the air. There just isn’t a sense of danger, no feeling that our heroes are imperiled. We then cut to a closeup of the hero wearing a clumsy ‘wow that was close’ expression.

So this is where the latest Bond films (no doubt inspired by Bourne) really triumph. We feel the sense of danger because the stunts are real and this lends immediacy to the action. Of course we know Bond wont die, but we can be drawn into the film – never sitting back and thinking ‘wow, that CG is good’.

Its been a long time since I last saw a film and came out thinking that I had seen a new and hitherto unprecedented VFX sequence. I guess that Inception was the last example (subsequent to The Matrix) that comes to mind, where the idea of the folding city more than the great CGI really had a powerful effect.

The increasing ease by which speical effects can be achieved has led to some excellent low budget movies. Take District 9, or Monsters and you can see how something as simple as Adobe After Effects, combined with artistry and excellent story telling can create compelling sequences.

Star Trek Blender Render

Star Trek Blender Render – the democratisation of VFX. This render was done by yours truly, using Blender.

This democratisation of special effects means that now anyone given enough time and technical skill can create VFX sequences. I have always had an interest in photo-real filmic effects work and as a hobby I have learnt the Open Source Blender 3D program. The banner at the head of this page was created in Blender.

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