Friday, September 4, 2009

Claymation Ballooza!

I remember the glory days, when monster and sci-fi movies were full of fantastic creatures. They took the viewer on incredible journeys through wonderful worlds, and seemed to be made of magic. Yet Jason and the Argonauts, Flash Gordon or Forbidden Planet didn't have the fortune of industrial light and CGI. Instead they used old men in rubber suits, miniature models and claymation. Even the mining-cart-race-scenes in Inidiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were created with the use of miniatures. And it looked GREAT!

Then came the dark ages of computer animation. It started slowly, with a tiny effect here and there, but quickly grew until the monster of a movie called Jurassic Park entered the scene, and changed everything.
It wasn’t long before you couldn’t see a scary movie, without an artificial cartoon creep crawling across the screen. The animation has improved steadily with the years, but even now, 16 years after that jurasstic movie, there’s still a major problem with this form of film-making. Because it simply doesn’t look real!

The reasons for this are many, the prime one being that it simply isn’t real. It’s fake, created out of thin air, make-believe, hokey-pokey cartoonery. And no matter how good the animators get at it, it will never look as good as something that is material. For everything that’s real, is also “flawed”. Whether it be pores in the skin, the uneven movements of a human or the just minimally jagged edge of a seemingly flat surface. Everything in reality has tiny peculiarities in them, which make them imperfect, and thus a mimic of everything else in life.
CGI on the other hand, is always smooth. Picture perfect and splendidly spotless. And even though some amazing cartoons have been created by the help of it, it is still just that: amusing cartoons.

Take a kung-fu movie, for example. The whole point of any kung-fu film, is to get the viewer amazed at seeing what the human body is capable of. If the actors are replaced by animated fakery, like the embarrassing fight scenes in Blade 2, it becomes not only boring, but also embarrassing.

Meanwhile, claymation and general stop motion, has also evolved with the years, to a point where the effect is so mesmerizing, as in Coraline, Corpse Bride or even Wallace and Gromit, you can’t believe it is actually just lifeless toys, clay and dolls. Yet that’s exactly what animation is: the art of giving life to something that is dead.
And so, these stop motion features look much more amazing than any of the latest summer block-buster computer-cartoon frenzy. Because these miniatures are really THERE, and not just created out of thin silicone, so to speak.

Never was this more beautifully illustrated than when comparing the amazing original Star Wars movies from the 80’s, with the three trashy prequels which came later. If you don’t think about the terrible scripts, tacky gimmickry and family-friendly ruination of the three newest films, and just look at the visual effects, these 32-26 year old films still has the 10-5 year old films by the throat. And that’s with a budget 1/10th of the new films!

Movies like The Thing and An American Werewolf in London, proved perfectly in the 80s, that it is possible to create far greater monsters with the help of rubber and glue, than what the latest CGI atrocities can cook up.
And so, the old Godzilla movies will always look better than Cloverfield, any old Jackie Chan film will beat the crap out of The Matrix, and Lawrence of Arabia makes 300 appear wimpy.

That is not to say it’s all bad. CGI has been used to great effect, when it was to improve simple glitches. Like removing the indoor rain in the unfilmed scenes of The Crow, or when it was to achieve a special look like in the minimalist neon world of Tron, or any of the amusing fully animated films which has leapt out of film studios world wide the last 14 years, beginning with the first Toy Story film in 1995.

The magnificent tv-series Carnivale is the perfect measurement of how CGI can be a great tool. When it is used in the corner of the eye, to change scenery or add tiny effects, and not meant to be noticed, it is the perfect topping to a fantastic cake. Yet when it goes overboard, it gives off a foul stench, and creates a dish which no one will swallow. When CGI is put in the middle of the screen, at the very center of attention to create a whole new universe, it looks fake, wholly fake, and nothing but fake. It can be argued however, that the scenes in Carnivale which were devoured by CGI, can be defended by the fact that they are all meant to be dreams or visions, and thus not real in the first place.

Even the monsters in the Lord of the Rings movies really don't hold up, when scrutinized for longer than a casual glance. Even though they spent thousand of hours, and endless amounts of money on creating these massive monster mammoths, it still doesn’t come off as believable. If not for the quality of animation, then simply because what we see is governed by what we think, and the eye refuses to see a mammoth, when the mind knows with certainty that it’s really not there.

So why not let cartoons be cartoons, and bring the new generation of stop-motion animation back into big budget cinema? With the level of realism they are able to achieve today, it would certainly kick any fake CGI troll’s butt. Monsters used to be all sorts of awesomely cool, and can be again, if only filmmakers dare give it a second chance, and go back to playing with clay.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, I'm pretty sure you've seen Avatar, I know, the story is silly commercial shit but everyone knows the visual effects are just half a step to look real.
    I personally love all animation techniques, including CGI, maybe if Steven Spielberg had chosen Phil Tippett's stop motion technique to animate Jurassic Park, this film would not be one of my favourites and I wouldn't even be here writing.
    I think it depends of the standards each individual filmmaker tries to confirm, I remember I red in one article that Jim Carrey went to "Torture Management Program" (or something like that) during the production of The Grinch, just to maintain a good performance after being covered with many layers of latex during 3 hours day by day, yes, it's that terrible, maybe artistically it looks good, a good achievement, but it requires time and extra effort.
    Something I really hate is that everything on these days contains fucking lots of CGI, it sucks, there are even some movies that don't require it, and when the budget is low it just looks like shit from hell.