Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Special Effects That Hold Up and Those That Don't

The great video on the special effects of Bringing Up Baby was deleted along with the user's account, but fortunately he uploaded it again at a different account. Which is an excuse for me to bring up a question I've been wanting to pose for a while: what are some types of special effects that tend to hold up well over time, and others that don't?

The essence of a good special effect is that it's not recognizable as a special effect. Some effects are always going to be noticed because they portray things that can't happen in real life, like teleporting or boat travel. But most special effects are used to fake stuff that, theoretically, could be done for real. Like in Bringing Up Baby: it would be possible for people to be in the same shot as a leopard, and in fact Hawks originally intended to do a lot more shots that way, but in the end, special effects were used to make it look like Cary Grant was standing next to a leopard. And in Citizen Kane, special effects are used in virtually every scene to fake sets that Welles didn't have the money to build, or crowds of extras that Welles didn't have the money to pay.

It's fun to have these things pointed out to us after the fact, but these effects are successful because most people aren't aware of them. When I saw Bringing Up Baby for the first time, I knew Grant and Hepburn were in front of a rear-projection screen in the car, but I didn't realize that Baby was part of the screen rather than the car. (Presumably because Baby was filmed in the car, in front of the rear-projection screen, and then combined into one plate; I'm assuming they didn't actually take him into a car and do the road filming with him in the car.) I didn't notice that Kane was making his big political speech in front of a fake crowd. And so on. Most of these effects hold up over time; audiences don't watch the movies and point out how fake the effects look. At least not when they watch the movies for the first time.

But do some special effects have a special ability to hold up over time? Probably not, at least not exactly; it depends on how they're used and what they're used for. Rear projection can be fairly convincing for some things, though it's almost always totally unconvincing when it's used to make it look like the characters are somewhere other than in the studio (a car, a park -- though it works fairly well for trains). I think that CGI has a way of dating really fast, to the point that characters look like horribly fake cartoons almost as soon as the movie comes out, but of course there are plenty of uses of CGI that are more convincing than that damn CGI rodent at the beginning of Indiana Jones IV.

I do have a feeling, and it's only a feeling, that models often date very badly. There are good model shots, obviously, but a lot of the special effects that date the worst are models, like the awful model village at the beginning of The Lady Vanishes or the model train in The Smiling Lieutenant, which got the only unintentional laugh in the screenings I've seen over the years. Models are kind of like CGI (they're both three-dimensional constructions, after all); if they're not perfectly executed, they look like silly toys.

On the other hand, I think matte paintings have a habit of holding up well. Again, there are lots of bad matte shots, but when I'm surprised to find out that a shot in an old movie was faked, it's usually done with a matte. There's something about the way mattes blend in with their 2-D filmed surroundings, or maybe it's just that the painter has more of a chance to match his work to the style/look of the film than the model designer does. Whatever the cause, I (as a young viewer) was more easily fooled by the likes of Peter Ellenshaw than I was by almost anyone else.

Finally, I think the worst special effects shot in a great movie may be that stupid fake bird at the beginning of The Seventh Seal. It doesn't hurt the movie, though. If anything it helps by announcing that this is not a big lavish historical epic, but a low-budget, small-scale movie that happens to have a historical setting.

Which leads me to the final point: of course, the key to making any special effect work is for the movie to be good to begin with. We're much more likely to notice fakery when we're not caught up in the story.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads-up on the Bringing Up Baby special effects video, it's great! Didn't catch almost any of that stuff when I saw it.

Anonymous said...

Hitchcock's special effects could be particularly terrible. Jimmy Stewart falling from the window in "Rear Window" (and the sped-up reaction shots of the neighbors); the process shots in "Marnie," much of the Mt. Rushmore sequence in "North by Northwest." I'm always amused by the obvious studio cornfield that Cary Grant falls into in closeup.

Andy Rose said...

I have an old tape of news coverage getting ready for the first shuttle launch, and they show some "NASA animation" of what the shuttle mission will look like. It was done the old-fashioned way with models and mattes, and I was astonished at how realistic it looked. Even the launch sequence in broad daylight was pretty decent... much more realistic than NASA's contemporary computer animations.

Anonymous said...

That 1981 NASA pre-shuttle animation was farmed out to Universal-Hartland, the special effects unit of Universal Studios at the time. These were the same people who did the majority of spaceship/effects shots on the original "Battlestar Gallactica" series and they were used to working with scale model rockets and such. Plenty of old school optical matte and model work was used on the NASA shuttle simulation footage. Here's a link to a memorial website dedicated to that division:
http://www.universalhartland.com/code/hart01or.shtml

Anonymous said...

My favorite "unseen" effect is from the climax to keaton's "Sherlock jr"-- when the motorcycle goes over the bridge precisely as the trucks pass beneath and fill the gap. A very clever and nearly seamless split screen that I missed until it was pointed out to me.

Tom K Mason said...

I think some of the models in the 1970s James Bond films look terrible. One in particular always gets me: every time I see the villain's lair in The Spy Who Loved Me, it looks like a toy floating in someone's bathtub. When the dam breaks in Force 10 From Navarone, it looks like someone's playroom sprung a leak.

Rick Roberts said...

I have to disagree Tom. I think The Liparus still looks pretty good after over 30 years. You can tell it's a model, most movies you can, but what counts in the craftsmanship. However some special effects don't hold up too well in Spy like the obvious optical illustion of Atlantis being much bigger then it is and when it sunk.

Rick Roberts said...

Sorry, you were talking about Atlantis. Yeah, I think the exterior shots don't hold up too well.

Anonymous said...

The fakeness of the helicopter and train in Melville's "Un Flic" is always jarring.

Peter said...

The best special effect I've seen in an Ingmar Bergman film is the puppet theater in Hour of the Wolf.

stevef said...

It seems every Hitchcock film must have an obligatory bad FX shot. In 39 Steps, it's that damn helicoptor/gyrocopter/autogyro thing.

This may not qualify as a special effect, but nobody has ever, ever been able to justify to me the armadillos substituting for rats in the 1931 Dracula.