Making Magic

Lurtz by _guu_.

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of _guu_.

In response to my musings about the effects work in Lord of the Rings and Avatar, That Fuzzy Bastard weighed in with a strong, and I think persuasive, pro-Lord of the Rings  defense.  He writes in comments:

I think the featureless slickness of Avatar has a lot to do with dependence on CG, specifically with the way that a movie where every shot is CG (even non-Pandora shots got extensive digital reworking), there’s no baseline of reality.

There’s a story that Stanislavsky used to threaten his actors by saying he was going to put an animal on stage with them—“It will be so natural and real on stage, that you will all look artificial by comparison.” Similarly, when there’s a mixture of CGI and analog effects, you have something to compare the CG to. But when you’re in a totally digital environment, it’s very easy to end up creating effects that look cool in the workstation, but would have been altered if you had any real-world examples next to them. I’ve been struck by how lousy Avatar looks in previews, and how much more impressed people are when seeing it, and I think that’s the reason—it looks great so long as you’re not comparing it to anything.

And in a post on his own blog (huge props, by the way, for the Lester Bangs reference), writes:

We may never, as Lester Bangs says, agree on anything like we agreed on Elvis, but the LotR trilogy comes close. And just like the LotR books are a sort of compressed history of Middle Earth, so are the LotR films a compressed history of film. They deploy every special effects technique ever invented, from Meliés-style forced perspective to artificial-intelligence-driven CGI (with plenty of models, makeup, and mattes in between), and also makes use of every directing technique ever conceived, from the Griffith-esque battle scenes to contemporary digitally-controlled camera swoops. Like Joyce’s Dubliners, If every other film was destroyed but these, you could still extract everything that had ever been.