You and your family gather around the living room for the annual tradition of watching the original RoboCop. Everything seems to be going well until RoboCop shoots Dick Jones so hard that he flies out of the window and mutates into a clay abomination on the way down.
It's an objectively terrible effects shot, but everyone shrugs it off because, well, that was way back in 1987. It's not like they had CGI back then, and it was already illegal to chuck a real actor to his death. Later that night, your partner really wants to get to third base with you, but you say, "Nay, my beloved, as we have not yet finished the masterpiece that is Tim Burton's Batman." And after Jack Nicholson clings to the rungs of a helicopter ladder for what feels like an hour, he descends awkwardly into a pit of animation. "But the movie was made in 1989, my dear. Even with a much larger budget than RoboCop, we can't expect it to have nice things when it's a grandpa film."
Warner Bros. Pictures
The next day, you withdraw your children from school and tell them that the only education they need is motherfucking Die Hard. At the end, Hans Gruber is clinging desperately to Holly's wrist, but John McLane unclasps her watch and Hans plummets to the streets below. Their "bad guy falls to his big, dumb death" shot looks ... pretty goddamned good. Not just good for 1988; that shot will look pretty convincing 50 years from now, when post-apocalyptic survivors mistake it for a documentary.
20th Century Fox
It's about here that you stop and ask yourself: Are special effects actually getting better with time? Is it possible that with all of the advances in technology (not just CGI, but prosthetics and animatronics), it's always been about whether or not the director knows how to shoot around their limitations?
You can look at the dinosaurs in Peter Jackson's King Kong, and wonder why they seem so wonky ...
... and it isn't because "Well, it's from 2005." It's because even though that movie cost $207 million to make, they were more interested in creating an overstuffed, sprawling King Kong epic rather than more focused, compact version that nailed every shot. The result was a largely pointless sequence which features dinosaurs that look laughable compared to the ones in 1993's Jurassic Park. You could say that Spielberg's film didn't feature anything on the scale of King Kong's massive slapstick dinosaur stampede, but that's the point. The moment Spielberg realized he couldn't shoot that scene without it looking stupid, he'd have cut it.
We know this because he famously refused to use the terrible mechanical shark in Jaws, developing an entire editing style based on avoiding it aside from a few key moments. That rule -- "If the effect looks stupid, work around it" -- has been the same since film was invented. Conversely, Jaws 3D (directed by a guy who was never allowed to direct anything else) is well-known for having one of the worst shots in history, one that would be improved if it was replaced by a three-year-old swinging a plastic bathtub toy and yelling "HERE COMES MR. SHARK!"
That movie had twice the budget of the original, by the way. Regardless of the era or the budget, effects are about what you choose to not put on the screen. Let's go back even further. In 1957's The Giant Claw, the world was ravaged by a flying ostrich puppet that had apparently been run over by a car before it was delivered to the studio:
Compare that to the stop-motion Rhedosaurus from 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms:
Warner Bros. Pictures
See the difference? If you need help, the difference is that one looks like a Muppet got rabies, and the other looks goddamn awesome. Note the way they're hiding some details in darkness in the latter one, and how the beast is standing right in the middle of a real goddamned amusement park? Both movies had low budgets, but both chose radically different methods for working around them. The Giant Claw's directors just shipped the task off to a production company in Mexico for them to handle it. The whole thing was so disorganized that the lead actors of the film didn't even see the design of the monster they were supposed to be reacting to until the movie was already in theaters.
Meanwhile, the special effects of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms were overseen by stop-motion Hercules Ray Harryhausen. The production's $200,000 budget (not even one week's worth of cocaine on a modern blockbuster) wouldn't allow them to build whole miniature landscapes, so he cleverly invented a split screen technique which involved inserting the monster into shots of the actual site, then using a bunch of clever tricks to hide the seams.
In fact, I'd say those old monster movies are maybe the best examples of good effects being the result not of technology, but effort and creativity. I'm a huge fan of classic Godzilla movies, and it always irks me when people make the blanket statement that the whole series is made up of B-movies featuring dudes tripping around in rubber suits. Check out the 1954 Gojira, and how detailed and atmospheric that shit is:
Oh look, there's another example of using night and shadows to help sell an effect. That's the work of Eiji Tsuburaya, godfather of Japanese special effects, realizing that if they showed Godzilla in broad daylight all the time, audiences would realize that there was no reason to be scared of a sweaty man dressed as a lizard. Compare that to frequent MST3K target Gamera, from 1969:
I'm going to take the bold position that audiences at the time knew that looked stupid, in the same way that we knew right in the theater that the Star Wars prequels' effects looked like video game cutscenes. If anything, the technology has let filmmakers do more effects shots, on a much larger scale. But they'll never develop a technology that will give them what they need: obsessive attention to detail, and even more importantly, restraint.
Daniel has a Twitter. Go to it. Enjoy yourself. Kick your boots off and stay for a while.
Godzilla costumes are still awesome, and you don't need anyone's permission to walk around in one.
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