NPF: THE LOST ARTS

By now you have probably seen the trailer for the latest installment in the "Hollywood ran out of ideas 25 years ago so here's the 917351st comic book superhero movie but hey, at least it isn't a remake" series, better known as Green Lantern. If you haven't had the pleasure, here you go:

OK.

Look at how stupid that looks.

No, I don't mean the acting, the plot, or the idea of making a film out of a B-squad comic book hero from the 1950s. I mean look at it. The cartoon-meets-Sega Genesis visual effects. The green screened everything. It is all clearly the product of the finest technology available to visual artists and filmmakers. And it's terrible. It's completely awful – fake, sterile, and desperate to make up for its fake sterility by jamming as much crap and kabloom-y effects as possible into every single frame of the film. Now contrast that with another film about people in outer space, one made without the benefits of quad core Mac G5s: 2001: A Space Odyssey (embedding disabled, so click through to see the Blue Danube docking sequence).

That was made with plastic models, a camera, and moving objects held in place with wires. Which one looks more "realistic" to you? Which one allows you to suspend your disbelief and feel like you're watching something that's really happening? Which one looks like what it is supposed to look like?

Sometimes I feel like CGI is killing movies. And sometimes it's so obvious that it ceases to be subjective.

I understand that there's a line between filmmaking as a skill and as a craft. Skill allows you to churn out a product that meets the prevailing contemporary standards, makes a buttload of money, and is immediately forgotten. Five years later it looks painfully, even embarrassingly dated. Craftsmanship produces something that holds up over time. Return of the Jedi was the product of craftsmen. The prequel trilogy is crass, mass produced garbage filmed in an empty warehouse.

Talented directors can do great things with CGI and other visual effects technology. Even in a bad movie, someone who knows how to use it can create a distinctive visual style immediately identified with the film (i.e., 300). It can also be used to seamlessly blend the real world with the director's imagination (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sin City, Harry Potter, etc). Or it can be used to make Avatar and The Phantom Menace.

The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness. The original Star Wars films were made with thousands of man-hours of tiny models. The scenes in 2001 took months to shoot to create the desired look. The original King Kong relied on the laborious stop-motion technique with its models (and rear screen projections for city skylines, another Golden Era technique that is now all but lost). Why bother now? Just click some buttons, hire some graphic designers, and make the entire movie inside a computer.

The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy. Consider the original King Kong compared to the christawful 2005 remake. In the first film every frame of the ape required hours of labor working with delicate sets and models, which in turn required dozens of hours of work to make. It encouraged the filmmakers to use the titular creature sparingly. If it's all digital, then why not have King Kong in every damn scene? Why not have him knock a few buildings down? Hell, it's all just clicks on a mouse. Another example, of course, is the new-vs-old Star Wars trilogies. If you have to build an enormous Imperial Cruiser model, you're probably going to shoot the scene with ONE Imperial Cruiser…because you don't want to build a second one unless it's absolutely necessary. So the original trilogy had a sense of economy. It was sparse. In the prequels, why have one ship when you could have…(*click click click*)…a hundred ships??? Isn't that way better? See how much it improves the experience to jam as much blinking, exploding shit as humanly possible into the frame?

I understand that a movie like Green Lantern is not intended to be a great work of art. It's a product churned out for the purpose of being merchandised to death. But the annual summer blockbusters are symptoms of the continuous dumbing down of the visual aspects of filmmaking. Twenty years ago even the summer blockbusters required some actual imagination and craftsmanship. Now "special effects" is synonymous with digital effects, and moviemaking treats the human actors as an inconvenience to be dealt with as quickly as possible and plugged into the laughably unbelievable, visually insulting movie that exists only inside someone's PC. The result is ugly. Very, very ugly. As film is a visual medium, producing something this ugly is counterproductive at best.

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88 Responses to “NPF: THE LOST ARTS”

  1. tybee Says:

    "who has the film rights to "Bored of the Ring"?"

    that was a National Lampoon publication, wasn't it?

    did anyone ever see "Hardware Wars"?

    and kong, a friend of mine's father was crew on a 52 during operation linebacker II (IIRC) back in the early 70's.
    that little excercise kept my scrawny butt from having to visit the brown disney land.

  2. mothra Says:

    It was, and is, still one of the most socially relevant musicals in our history.

    Actually, "Show Boat" was pretty damn relevant and dealt with racial/ethnic prejudice. Better music, too. Not that South Pacific is awful, just not my favorite Rogers & Hammerstein.

    Yes, sadly "The Book of Mormon" is way out of bounds for us with normal incomes–or below-normal incomes. I wouldn't be paying those prices even if there WERE tickets available.

  3. c u n d gulag Says:

    mothra,
    Yeah, I agree about "Show Boat." But I like the music in both about equally.

    But, I've got to admit that I'm prejudiced – I played Luther Billis in "South Pacific" in a touring show back in the early-mid '90's (and got great reviews).

    Also, too – "Porgie and Bess."

    And, who the fuck CAN afford Broadway prices? Rich people, and tourist's who save up for their trip.
    Shit, Off Broadway's too expensive, and OOB ain't exactly a bargain, either. Of course, I'm in Upstate NY, so I'd have to add Metro North and MTA charges to that.
    Which, when you're unemployed, AIN'T gonna happen…

  4. Entomologista Says:

    Movies now may in fact be better than movies used to be prior to CGI. It's just that the way our brains work has allowed you to forget all the terrible movies and only remember the movies that stand out for being really good. So you can say "Wow, Casablanca was awesome, movies back then sure were good!" while failing to remember the shitty special effects and godawful writing in The Brain That Wouldn't Die or whatever. You see, movie makers and screen writers have actually learned and improved their art over time. Most movies and TV from back in the day suuuuuuck because movie making was a new art and nobody knew how to do it.

    Now get off my lawn.

  5. MBL Says:

    2001 may be the most overrated piece of pretentious crap ever set to film. And for the record I think most of Kurosawa's work us excellent, for the guy who mentioned Seven Samurai up there.

  6. Major Kong Says:

    I agree with @Entomologista

    If all movies from the past were as good as Casablanca then Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would never have been invented.

  7. gaderson Says:

    Arslan wrote:

    "It clearly wasn't an Imperial academy; you think they would keep tabs on things like that. And how does he manage to fly an X-wing so well with no prior training, other than slaughtering helpless Wamprats in his T-16 back home?"

    Well, it can be done: 'Gran Turismo' Player Places Second at Le Mans 24 Hour. But, certainly par for the course for the 'hero'.

  8. EJ Says:

    Compared to location shooting and traditional special effects work: CGI is VERY cheap. You obviously don't know much about film making.

    Yet somehow James Cameron managed to spend $237 MM to make Avatar. You can spend a lot of money on CGI and still have it look cheap, if you're not talented, but at that level it's very far from "just clicks on a mouse." Hell, just to render the thing they had to use a server farm that's one of the most powerful supercomputers on the planet, and they've got very smart, very creative people writing the code to make it happen. CGI wasn't selected because it's cheap.

    (also, like clicking a mouse makes it easy or trivial? Do you dismiss the the Sistine Chapel ceiling because it's "just paint"?)

    Now, like I said, where I think CGI really shines is in lower budget, TV series-type productions, where cheap CGI vfx are a vast improvement over the cheap models and guys in rubber suits of days gone by.

    "You should check out the movie "Moon." It came out a couple years ago on a small budget and uses mostly models for effects, very little CGI. Very similar atmosphere to 2001 (IMO)"

    Moon used a lot of CGI, many people don't realize how much because it was well done, understated, and properly integrated with the sets and model work.

    Or take District 9, which on a relatively modest budget managed to mix convincing, fully rendered CGI aliens and spaceships with a gritty, real shantytown.

  9. gaderson Says:

    Nunya Said:

    "Star Wars was, when first introduced, so mind blowingly original that pretty much everyone gave credit not just to the plot line but to the imagination and genius of the creator. It's pretty easy to be smug when you simply improve on the works that others have created.

    Fuck… I'm a "get off my lawn" old man at 37. But seriously you smug little fuckers, you haven't invented shit yet. Talk to me in 10 years when your life's work becomes totally irrelevant and obsolete. It will be a shit talking for the ages my friends."

    I'm also at the tail end of the Gen-Xrs, but, I did enjoy the first Star Wars when I saw it as a kid. But I grew up. When watching the revival before the 'prequals' I was not impressed, other than being amused by R2D2 and C3PO. And, I think that as others have stated, once we got used to FX we could not be distracted by said effects to not see the poor story telling. Check out the Red Letter Media Phantom Menace Critique", especially telling is the little exercise to "describe a Star Wars character without using their 'occupation'". It's fairly easy to do for the 'original' trilogy, but, very hard for the second set. Or check out Everything is a Remix Part 2 where he shows some of the stuff that Lucas borrows, where as I seem to agree that Tarantino steals and re-uses to create something original, or at least Soul.

  10. Nomad Says:

    Strangepork appears to be unemployed. :o)

  11. Chris Says:

    Lucas created Indiana Jones: just saying. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best films ever. The other three films don't come close (the Last Crusade is pretty decent, though), especially the pile of shit that is the 4th one. But, you have to appreciate Raiders.

    I also think Star Wars and 2001 are both incredible films. One can say that they have outdated aspects or the directors borrowed things from others. However, these criteria don't come close to determining whether a movie is good or bad. These movies have so much more to offer. One could also say James Joyce ripped off Homer: that person would also be an asshat.

  12. Neal Deesit Says:

    More bad news. Things have gone to hell in a hand basket on the exhibition side as well:

    Do you remember what a movie should look like? Do you notice when one doesn't look right? Do you feel the vague sense that something is missing? I do. I know in my bones how a movie should look. I have been trained by the best projection in the world, at film festivals and in expert screening rooms. When I see a film that looks wrong, I want to get up and complain to the manager and ask that the projectionist be informed. But these days the projectionist is tending a dozen digital projectors, and I will be told, "That's how it's supposed to look. It came that way from the studio."

  13. Major Kong Says:

    Just to point out – 2001 is science fiction and Star Wars is space opera. They really are two completely separate genres.

  14. jon Says:

    You know which movies really sucked? The ones where the city of malaise comes together for a hero. Those fucking 70s films that are always cited as "electrifying" and "bold". Where New Yorkers (and it's always New Yorkers) gather in the streets and proclaim themselves awesome after some antihero hero stands up against the insanity of it all.

    Those movies sucked, but the Matrix movies did that with better effects. The result still sucked, but it had chicks in tight black outfits shooting guns.

    Jabberwocky is still the best movie of the 70s.

    And my opinion rules. Also, too. Et cetera, bitches!

    Additionally, I was happy when the schlock of Jurassic Park was made because I knew it was a matter of time before The Hobbit would be filmed. It took a little longer than I thought, but I'm a happy man.

  15. Arslan Says:

    Another thing about Star Wars- I am getting sick of lazy ass writers and jerkoffs who think that throwing a Star Wars reference into something makes it automatically funny. "OH WAIT A MINUTE!!! DARTH VADER SHOULDN'T BE ON THAT CROSSWALK SIGNAL!! LOL!!!" Every time someone makes an analogy to Star Wars when it's completely inappropriate makes me want to reach through my router and strangle them via the internet.

  16. Nom de Plume Says:

    There is nothing quite like the mention of Star Wars or comic books (or both) to generate a record number of comments, most of them the length of a doctoral thesis. For some reason, that is the most immutable internet rule.

    The truth is, the movie industry is pretty much the same as it's always been. I'm an older guy, so you might expect me to have a bias towards older movies (and you'd be right), but "classic" movies are every bit as much of a crapshoot as anything else. Seriously, sit down and spend an evening watching TCM or some other old movie channel, and if you can get past the dazzling names in the credits, you have just as good a chance of seeing brainless mush as you do in a modern multiplex. Sometimes better.

  17. Entomologista Says:

    Ok, The Green Lantern was total shit. Thor was 10 million times better. DC sucks!

  18. Entomologista Says:

    Just to point out – 2001 is science fiction and Star Wars is space opera. They really are two completely separate genres.

    Eh, I'd say space opera is a sub-genre of science fiction.

  19. Daniel Says:

    "Lucas created Indiana Jones: just saying. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best films ever. The other three films don't come close (the Last Crusade is pretty decent, though), especially the pile of shit that is the 4th one. But, you have to appreciate Raiders."

    Temple of Doom is almost as good as Raiders. Different type of vibe, but it's also one of the greats of that era of movies.

  20. Jason Says:

    For the record, The Phantom Menace used more models and miniatures than the entire original trilogy combined. It really is a matter of how you use the tool.

  21. Atticus Dogsbody Says:

    @Arslan: It clearly wasn't an Imperial academy; you think they would keep tabs on things like that. And how does he manage to fly an X-wing so well with no prior training, other than slaughtering helpless Wamprats in his T-16 back home?

    Actually, it was the Imperial Academy. That's where his friend Biggs went to study but left to join the rebels. Luke learned to fly during the time between the escape from the Death Star and the final battle at Yavin 4, which was much longer than it seems in the movie.

    Lucas had a whole story worked out for the first film, but was unable to fit it all within the confines of the budget, movie length constraints and the tech of the times.

  22. Arslan Says:

    "Actually, it was the Imperial Academy. That's where his friend Biggs went to study but left to join the rebels. Luke learned to fly during the time between the escape from the Death Star and the final battle at Yavin 4, which was much longer than it seems in the movie."

    So the Luke was initially inclined to join the Empire? He couldn't spare one line of dialog to explain that? And couldn't Lucas have thrown a montage in there or something?

  23. cleter Says:

    The Academy was an official government institution, and the government was the Empire. Luke didn't want to join the Empire, he just wanted to get out of his rural shithole and fly spaceships, and the Academy was a way to do that. Biggs was basically the same. Neither Biggs nor Luke thought much about the Empire, because the Empire's presence was not very intrusive on rural outer-rim shitholes like Tattooine. Biggs–like lots of college freshman from far-off rural communities–had a bit of an eye-opener, and he was sharing this knowledge with his friend Luke.

    There were some Biggs/Luke scenes that flesh this out, but they were cut out of the final release. Some of them are on bonus features of the dvd and on youtube.

    Also, what made Raiders good was more Spielberg than Lucas.

  24. Arslan Says:

    Ok but when you want to get into a government-run flight academy why wouldn't you want to alert the authorities after finding a rebel message on a suspicious droid?

  25. brent Says:

    Like someone above noted, there doesn't seem to be much of a point here except something that seems vaguely like "things used to be better." This is the familiar lament of a certain contingent from probably every generation that has ever existed – at least since the advent of language. Its rarely true and, more importantly, its not an especially useful complaint. That is even more true now given that the production and distribution of cultural artifacts is more accessible than it has ever been. Even if one is not creative themselves, its become a trivial matter to find ways to support whatever one thinks is better art.

  26. Xecky Gilchrist Says:

    Why bother now? Just click some buttons, hire some graphic designers, and make the entire movie inside a computer. The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy. Consider the original King Kong compared to the christawful 2005 remake. … If it's all digital, then why not have King Kong in every damn scene? Why not have him knock a few buildings down? Hell, it's all just clicks on a mouse.

    I'm still trying to figure out why this is bad. This whole post has the "tube amps and vinyl were better because warmth!" kind of vibe.

    And I'm solidly in middle age.

  27. Andrew Says:

    "Ok but when you want to get into a government-run flight academy why wouldn't you want to alert the authorities after finding a rebel message on a suspicious droid?"

    His desire to get into the Imperial Academy wasn't out of sympathy with the Empire's philosophy or government, or out of patriotism, but out of a desire to get off of Tatooine and for a poor moisture farmer, the Imperial Academy offers the only route.

  28. Andrew Says:

    Not to mention a great heaping dollop of naviete sort of precludes cool, level-headed, ice-hearted calculation. Remember, he fell head over heels with Leia when he saw her and immediately wanted to *help her*.

  29. Atticus Dogsbody Says:

    Luke was also somewhat annoyed with the Empire when they burned his Aunt and Uncle into crispy critters.

  30. Arslan Says:

    If he wanted to get into that flight academy so bad, what better way than by getting a connection in the local imperial garrison by bringing the evidence to them?

  31. Hazy Davy Says:

    You got featured on Metafilter. (http://www.metafilter.com/104716/I-Have-Seen-The-Future-And-The-Future-Is-JarJar )

    So, not only are you getting Televised recognition for your brilliant analysis and observation of politics…but even your NPF's are getting noticed.

  32. Jason Says:

    Arslan- I don't know anyone who failed to realize that it was an Imperial Academy that Luke wanted to attend. Also, he didn't think to turn R2 in as evidence because, as Andrew said, he was obsessed with helping the pretty girl in the video. He didn't need something special to get admitted to the Academy, his inability to go was based entirely on his uncle not letting him.

  33. John Says:

    I agree that there is an over-reliance on CG to give poorly directed films some oompf, but the real difference with CG is that many more people can now create those illusions (than the small teams in the before-time). It's not easier, btw, just better. The SW prequels don't work because Lucas was never a great writer and made poor casting choices, not because of an over-reliance on CG. They were physically impossible to make using traditional technologies, which is why he waited so long (too long) to make them. Whatever Avatar's failings might be, the CG wasn't the problem. CG makes it possible for those comic book films to look like the comic books they're based on. If that doesn't work for you, maybe it's because the comics had simplistic plots, ludicrous dialogue, and cheesy characters to start with. No, can't blame the comics, because they're part of our childhood too, like practical effects and miniatures in films. Yes, CG is a powerful new tool that can be exploited by the lazy (though it's hellish expensive, so that is one rich lazy person), but blaming CG for poorly made films is just as lazy – too easy a target when one doesn't want to do the work of saying why a film really doesn't work.

  34. Andrew Says:

    If he wanted to get into that flight academy so bad, what better way than by getting a connection in the local imperial garrison by bringing the evidence to them?

    Maybe no better way. But the instant he saw Leia, he wanted to help her *more*.

    That, and he wasn't being kept out for lack of connections; he was being kept out because his guardian wasn't letting him go. There doesn't seem to be any indication Luke was expecting he'd have trouble getting in on his own merits; he hadn't even tried yet to find out if it was going to be difficult to get in!

  35. Chris Says:

    "The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy."

    I usually love reading this site, but you've got it backwards. The problem with CGI is that is ISN'T easy.

    If it was easy, you wouldn't have written this post.

    Some of the best movies you've seen make extensive use of CG. If you've seen "The Social Network" or "Zodiac", then you've probably glanced at amazing CG work and not known it was there.

    The first thing to take away from modern movies is this: computers and advances in technology lower the barrier for entry. it just means you will see more mediocre crap, because the tools and knowledge are readily available to anyone with the drive to do it (good or bad).

    The second thing to take away from it is this: most movies are bad. Every year since the creation of the medium has had horrendous movies. The tools have changed, but talent is still required for greatness.

    *Talent* is rare.

    Mediocre people with large budgets make mediocre movies. Talented people with any budget are capable of greatness – but even then they swing and miss some of the time.

  36. Hazy Davy Says:

    At that MeFi reference I linked to, above, a CG insider gave an informed explanation about his position on "easiness" vs. "control" as the problem. (Much repeats what Chris says, above):
    http://www.metafilter.com/104716/I-Have-Seen-The-Future-And-The-Future-Is-JarJar#3766655

  37. 4jkb4ia Says:

    "The prequel trilogy is crass, mass produced garbage filmed in an empty warehouse"

    :)

    Actually, my husband dragged me to see Symphonic Star Wars or some such thing, with Anthony Daniels hosting. I had mercifully erased all the prequels from my memory, but in that, the prequel excerpts clearly had the best special effects that money could buy. They did not look as cheap as that trailer. But there was no story and no heart. And as my husband said about Revenge of the Sith, there was no strategic thinking. (He also gave up on that movie because in real life Padme would have read Anakin the riot act)

  38. 4jkb4ia Says:

    George Lucas could make those prequels look like what he had had in his head for twenty years, and so could James Cameron. The average CGI movie has to borrow that sort of vision from the comic book.