Why Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects were more real than CGI

The death of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen raises questions about the future of special effects, writes Ethan Gilsdorf. In the good old days, it did not take so much to trick the eye.

"There comes a point where people will reject digital effects and want movies where we actually did something in real space, and real time.” 

That's a quote from a film director perhaps the least likely to decry computer-generated special effects: Peter Jackson. Interviewed for the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, Jackson said, essentially, that as digital special effects in movies become increasingly advanced, we'll crave the real even more. Real, as in "real" fake -- physical puppets of gorillas and T-Rexes, Medusas and animated statues, not ones made from pixels. Real, as in physical models manipulated by hand and filmed one frame at a time, not rendered in some fancy computer program.

But Jackson's comment about a movie being something that happens "in real space, and real time" feels surprising, if not ironic. The director most known for creating miniature models and sets (and so-called giant miniatures, or "bigatures") for The Lord of the Rings, and seamlessly mixing them with digital trolls and elves, later turned away from the "real" miniatures he used in that trilogy. In his last film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson finally and fully embraced digital effects. It's a film in which nary a miniature or puppet exists.

Now, the death on May 7 of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen poignantly brings these issues of real and fake, analog and digital, info focus. Harryhausen's passing represents the end of an era. It closes a crucial chapter in special effects history. It's also a kind of turning point in film technology. From here on out, it's too late to return to the analog.

If you don't know who Harryhausen was, you've probably seen his work. The master animator is best known for breathing life into giant, writhing serpents, sword-wielding skeletons, and marauding dinosaurs in such fantasy adventure and monster movies as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Harryhausen was an innovator, and in many ways the father of the modern special effects craft and industry.

Harryhausen's trademark action sequences featuring animated model figurines -- always pictured interacting with, or more often, fighting with human foes, or crushing them, or biting them in half or flying away with them -- might seem clunky and old-fashioned when measured by today's standards. But in their day, the effects Harryhausen pioneered were cutting-edge. He painstakingly filmed his "creatures" frame by frame. The process was exhausting: The 4 minute, 37-second skeleton and human fight sequence from Jason and the Argonauts reportedly took four and a half months to photograph and Harryhausen had to readjust and film around 184,800 movements of the puppets.

Then, using his patented "Dynamation" technique, those skeletons and serpents could interact on screen with actors in a remarkable realistic way. The Dynamation process combined foreground and background footage by photographing miniatures in front of a rear-projection screen. Sometimes, he shot sequences through a partially-masked glass pane. Live footage would later be superimposed on the masked portion of the frame, and voila, the creature or creatures seemed to exist in the midst of "real" human-scaled action, or even appear to move in front of and behind "live" elements. Harryausen also carefully controlled lighting and color balance to make sure the image quality of his animated sequences matched the quality of the live action. His effects were more convincing than the standard use of optical printing and mattes. This was before green screen, folks.

The magic was unlike what anyone had ever seen before.

The fantasies his stop-motion artistry enabled inspired not only Peter Jackson, but George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro and countless other filmmakers. Even if the success of their films -- particularly the trailblazing CGI dinosaurs Spielberg employed in Jurassic Park (1993) -- ended stop-motion animation forever. That said, Jurassic Park incorporated its fair share of animatronic dinosaur heads and giant talons, which may explain why that movie still stands up so well today.

(Harryhausen may have even inspired Dungeons & Dragons. A great article at toplessrobot.com makes the convincing case that the creators of D&D were influenced by Harryhausen's animated skeletons, giant rocs and hydras.)

Harryhausen's passing represents the end of an era. It closes a crucial chapter in special effects history. It's also a kind of turning point in film technology. From here on out, it's too late to return to the analog.

This summer, in films such as World War Z, After Earth and Star Trek Into Darkness, viewers will be again assaulted with all manner of space battles, snarling creatures, armies of zombies, dazzling cityscapes, armadas of spaceships and strange lands stretching to some mythical horizon -- all created with a digital pen in a digital special effects program. If Harryhausen were alive and working in the industry today, he might be making giant robot movies like Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim coming later this summer, or movies involving swarms of goblins and orcs like Peter Jackson's.

But he's not. Times have changed. And not necessarily for the better. The death of Ray Harryhausen represents the end of "real" special effects, and the end of the "real" in fantasy. That is a huge loss for American cinema. 

What exactly is lost when we lose the rubber puppet or the Styrofoam model? It's not a question of artistry. Digital effects take incredible talent. Rather, the substance of the matter is related to what Jackson says, this sense of "real space, and real time." To me, the issue is realism vs. gravity. How real can these pixels feel? Can they truly have heft or presence? I would argue, no -- no matter how perfect the texture, rendering, shadow, and digital lens flare (as J.J. Abrams is clearly in love with in movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness) mixed and layered into an FX sequence's cocktail of CG imagery.

Sure, the effects look good, but they're not necessarily more "real" looking than the effects Harryhausen created. As Harryhausen himself said in a 2006 interview: "There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”

Indeed, his effects seem to work especially well for creating that sense of something to be conjured, some fantastical beast awakening. How would Talos, a man made of bronze, or a winged mythical harpy look and move if it came to life? Maybe a little jerky, a little stuttered, a little shaky, the same effect stop-motion creates.

But perhaps the debate about digital vs. analog effects balances on the fulcrum of taste. And the age and era one hails from. I, like many children of the 1970s, grew up worshipping Harryhausen. I was raised on Saturday afternoon monster movie shows such as Creature Double Feature. Those slightly awkwardly animated beasts were real. To my eye, no matter how lifelike it may become, CG still has an eerie, weightless, plastic quality. The better these special effects get, the weirder they look.

Star Wars was the first harbinger of change in FX, and the first true effects movie that was a popular hit, ushering in the era of the genre blockbuster. But even that 1977 film was made, largely, with stop-motion animation -- albeit computer-controlled stop-motion animation. Those were real plastic models of X-Wings and TIE Fighters dogfighting through the Death Star's tunnels. That 3-D chess match between R2-D2 and Chewbacca was made to look holographic, but it was filmed using Harryhausenesque rubber puppets. The ships, like the Millennium Falcon, had heft, and the light and shadow cast upon them looked right, because they were real. As longtime Industrial Light and Magic technician Paul Huston has said, all those "mechanical systems, plumbing, landing gear, laser blasters, vents, injectors, ducts, fuel tanks" were made of plastic. Some were "scratch-built and some were scavenged from plastic model kits."

The palpability of the real. I lament and mourn the scale model. I'd rather have a foam and plaster (or toothpick and duct tape) Rivendell or Tatooine, instead of one built brick-by-brick from pixels. The chicken-wire and plaster ruins of the Star Wars sets in Tunisia still exist. They have a presence. They leave behind a gravity that the digital can never attain.

Above all we have become spoiled. In Harryhausen's day, it did not take much to trick the eye into believing a film protagonist was being attacked by a giant bee or one-eyed giant centaur cyclops. Today, we are more discerning. We expect greater verisimilitude. Like addicts, we want more spectacular eye candy. And Hollywood, the eager dealer, delivers.

For the moment, we can tell the difference between computer-generated imagery and real live action photography. But as ILM's Huston himself admitted, the end is nigh. "As research continues and solutions and awareness develop," he said, "CG will become indistinguishable from actual photography." Movies such as Avatar, Transformers and Inception and keep pushing the boundaries, making the day that comes true arrive sooner.

But Ray Harryhausen's work endures. It contains gravity. Somewhere, there is a 10-inch-high seven-headed hydra, or ape, or octopus, or Kraken, or one of the seven skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. And, to my mind, in my mind's eye, that monster feels as if it could still tremble, and walk, and come alive.

Published 6:10 am Mon, Jun 3, 2013

About the Author

Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston GlobeSalon.comBoingBoing.netPsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.

100 Responses to “Why Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects were more real than CGI”

  1. Thariinye says:

    There’s an additional benefit from doing as much stuff ‘real’ as possible beyond what it provides to the viewers. It makes the actors themselves better. I’ll compare the Star Wars prequel movies to Game Of Thrones. While SW Eps 1-3 basically used as much CGI as they could, with copious green-screens, GoT made stuff as real as they could. Lots of handmade props, lots of large setbuilding exercises. The more context that an actor has, the less effort the actor needs to spend on imagining themselves as their character, and the more effort is free to spend on actually, y’know, acting.  It’s basically a version of enforced method acting. If you have the whole perceivable world treat the actors as though they were their characters, they’ll be more believable. The failure to do this is why even good actors had wooden acting in SW, aside from the terrible script.

    There was also a trailer for Pacific Rim recently that talked about this very concept. They apparently made the whole pilot area of the robot real, to give more context and power to the actors.

    • jackbird says:

      Except that Harryhausen’s stop-motion techniques also requires actors to play against an empty set.

  2. vonbobo says:

    I am so disappointed that Hitchhikers Guide didn’t do better in the box office.

  3. Christopher says:

    There’s another question in my mind: does CGI inspire kids to want to go into filmmaking, to make their own creations like the ones they’ve seen on the screen, the same way the creations of Harryhausen and others did? The article touches on this briefly–like Gilsdorf I was also raised on Saturday afternoon monster shows, and loved Harryhausen’s work. And it’s probably an unanswerable question. In spite of loving anything done with stop-action animation, and in spite of spending hours at the kitchen table making my own creations with modelling clay, I didn’t go into animation or even filmmaking, and some kids who now play with animation programs will very likely pursue careers in animation.

    But I do remember hearing an interview with one of the people who does special effects for Doctor Who, a show which, I think, often nicely balances the use of CGI and the “real”. He said he was inspired as a child by an exhibit of Doctor Who props he saw in Brighton, and he realized that making those things was a real job that people did, and it was a career he wanted.

    Pixels can’t be put on display the same way a model can.

    • DewiMorgan says:

      It’s an answerable question. The answer is “yes, CG absolutely does inspire people to animate” – and I’d wager far more are inspired than were inspired to try puppetry by Harryhausen’s budget-and-time-limited jerkovision. But more than that, it inspires us to want to create *interactive* worlds – something that was never even a possibility with something that takes a month to generate a minute.

  4. peregrinus says:

    CGI still isn’t convincing enough.  Very often it’s so visually and graphically oriented, that the underlying intended dynamic doesn’t come through.  Like aircraft viewed from outside flying through turbulence – those scenes are often cartoonishly silly.

    • jackbird says:

      I never hear ANYBODY complaining about Benjamin Button, which is the current pinnacle of achievement for realistic CGI, in these discussions.

      People don’t object to the CGI necessarily, they object to the film grammar. We’re still in the era of figuring out what works and what doesn’t aesthetically when the camera is totally unconstrained.  I think a lot of the unintelligibility of shakycam sequences in action movies comes from the animators and directors watching the same sequences frame-by-frame over and over again.
      These excesses will be reined in just as gratuitous lens flares, tunnel rides, and other bygone staples of CGI were.

      The final shot of The Sound of Music was one of the first times a helicopter was used as a camera crane.   The frame wobbles all over the place and you can tell Julie Andrews is being damn near blown off the mountain by the rotor wash.  Over the next couple of years/decades, both the technology AND the techniques were worked out to the point where objecting to helicopter footage would be silly today (especially in conjunction with ‘invisible’ CGI techniques like frame stabilization and rotoscoped matte painting)

      In other words – give it time – it always takes a couple of decades for the artists to catch up with the technologists.  

      • DewiMorgan says:

        Your helicopter thing is a great simile.

        I say the same to the 3D-haters. The problems with 3D are because some directors and DPs still insist on using 2D grammar with 3D movies – so, for example, they use *focus* to try to guide the eye to the right depth in the image. If the viewer’s eye is looking at a different depth, the thing they are looking at fuzzes, and they get an instant headache! They then have to make a near-conscious decision to stop trying harder to focus on the thing they were looking at, and to look at the thing they are being forced against their will to look at.

        Better 3D directors things like use motion, color, trajectories, and the probable position of the eye in the previous shot, to guide the viewer’s eye, instead. A whole new grammar is being developed.

        But in the meantime, people are growing to hate 3D and CG, which is a sad thing.

        • Jeffrey Fisher says:

          My problems with 3d movies as currently implemented are:

          A) uncomfortable glasses, or (i suppose) carry around your own pair of 3d glasses (which would also have to be prescription glasses in my case, cha-ching)

          B) you can’t tilt your head, and really want to sit in the middle.  I like to slump over.

          C) The movies are often dimmer than 2d movies (noticed in several different theaters including sundance-kabuki which ought to be doing it right if anyone is).

          Put all that together and i’ll take the extra $2-3 in my pocket from the 2d version every time.

          As to CGI, well one must compare masters to masters.  There are badly done stop motion movies too.  Probably gobs of them given the popularity of cheap cinema back then.  Hardly anybody sees those movies anymore (they come in 100 monster movies for $5 packs, so you can if you want too… though really I have a feeling the worst aren’t even in those).

          I think it would be a bit sad for humanity if a master like Harryhausen, at the top of his craft, could not make something that we would still find more enjoyable than the work of a less skillful practitioner with a few decades of extra technology.

      • TheOven says:

         Yep, I see this. A good example for me are those shots that look like a crane-shot, ordinary in every sense except that, at some point, we find ourselves travelling through some small gap in the ironwork of an ornate gate, rather than just over or under it. I hate those gratuitous shots that serve no purpose other than to remind us that it’s a CG shot and not really a crane shot at all. Bah Humbug.

        • jackbird says:

          It’s getting so they can do those practically with a quadcopter and a Red, though.

          See also the opening shot of The Birdcage, done optically. The effect has to serve the story or make the viewer think.

      • R Walsh says:

        Erm… I couldn’t make it through Benjamin Button, mostly due to the CGI… I don’t hate CGI – I hate cheap, quick low-ball CGI. Which is almost the ONLY thing allowed today. Jurassic Park had amazing CG dinosaurs. But they weren’t cheap. And they used real animators who understand the physical world. Too many CGI-only animators don’t get the physical world. And it shows. They might, if give the time, but…

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          I haven’t really seen anything that beats Jurassic Park or Starship Troopers (which did use some models) in terms of looking realistic. And they were made 20 and 16 years ago.

          One thing that might help a lot with credibility of effects would be if the United Nations would declare Teal & Orange to be a war crime punishable by the death of everyone involved in making the film.

  5. Vinnie Tesla says:

    You damn kids get off my lawn! And take your dirty pixels with you–they’re too fake! And too real!  Both–it’s awful. I think I feel a migraine coming on….

    • Marko Raos says:

       Maybe, but my 9-yo daughter prefers old-syle puppets and glass paintings to CGI in her films (while no stranger to 3d computer games to say the least). Incidentally, she cannot stand 3D movies as well. In my experience it’s the old fogies desperate to stay hip who are the first to embrace anything new regardless of its actual worth.

  6. Joshua Hutchinson says:

    I think the point the author makes that “the age and era one hails from” contributes a lot to the opinion on this is spot on.  I was born in the 70s but really came into movies in the 80s.  I remember then (and still to this day) thinking the stop-motion stuff was silly looking to a large extent.  It was too much “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to my young eyes.  :)

    And while gratuitous CGI is bad, good CGI can transport you to realms of movie magic unthought of before.

    Oh, and don’t blame the Star Wars prequels on CGI.  George Lucas is an idea man who should NEVER be allowed to write a script or come NEAR a director’s chair.  I am now convinced that he got lucky with the original Star Wars. Kasdan and Kershner are, in my opinion, the reason Empire Strikes Back is generally considered the best of the bunch.

    • Christopher says:

      I sometimes wonder part of the reason  Lucas “got lucky” with Star Wars is because of the very limitations he’s groused about. Because of the available technology of the time he was forced to work with real actors and puppets. Maybe I’m over-extrapolating, but I think those constraints may have reined in his imagination enough that he focused more on making a film than he did on making exciting visuals.

      • sam1148 says:

         I think a great deal of why Lucas got lucky was his wife Marcia Lucas, who was an award wining editor; and probably one of the few humans able to tell him “No, dear—cut that”.

      • Yes I agree. They had to build a new, horizontal feeding camera to fit inside the models of the surface of the Death Star. They were so preoccupied with the mechanical technology that the film finished with good looking tech on screen, and the actors played to it.

      • Yes, it was exactly this. Creativity is all about finding solutions to problems, and Star Wars was plagued by them. He had to rely on the (expert) advice of some very talented people too. Of the prequels, Lucas said words to the effect “pretty much anything I can imagine I can get on screen”. No creative process required on his part there then. Imagining is easy.

  7. Generally, I think CGI has been a pox on sci-fi/fantasy film-making.  Sci-fi fantasy had a last golden age in the final days of practical effects – things like Star Wars, Alien, The Thing, Blade Runner, and so forth.  I think you can trace the decline of that type of film-making to Terminator 2 and the emergence of digital effects, whereby it suddenly became possible to do anything on screen, but none of it had any weight or sense of real consequence or imagination.  The one film that gave me hope for CGI was actually Avatar.  I think that movie worked because it created a total environment in which your eyes accepted the virtual as the film’s reality – instead of trying to mix real and digital to emulate the real world, it was more like a hyperreal animation.  I think it can work in that sense, in creating complete virtual worlds, but in terms of replacing practical effects in predominantly live action films it’s like plastic surgery – just not seamless enough.

    • Thorzdad says:

      That’s interesting. I had the exact opposite reaction to Avatar. I felt the CGI was over-the-top and obvious in a very distracting way. I never felt immersed or comfortable with the environment. It was all so distracting and I felt like the CGI was more of a barrier to me.

      Of course, compare Avatar to the Transformers franchise, where every damned nut and bolt has to be constantly moving, moving, moving, and Avatar starts looking absolutely restrained.

  8. Marko Raos says:

    I’m not surprised Jackson is taking this stance. His early movies such as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles used huge amounts of non-CGI weird stuff, especially puppets. If they were done today with CGI they wouldn’t have a fraction of the charm and power they still retain.
    Personally I followed the invention and development of CGI as a true starry-eyed fan but now I pretty much changed my mind. There is this thing called “the authority of authenticity” which gives an automatic edge to anything “real” (even if it’s fake), especially when combined with shot footage. Today I prefer digital post only in color-correction phase or when going for hyper-realistic surreal effects (and you can even do most of those with some fancy camera work as in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Monsters, make-up and explosions? Not so much.
    In fact, I always wondered why no one is using the incredible advances in digital technology to enhance the animatronix elements rather than replace them. Maybe we’re looking at the dawn of a new age in film sfx. I surely hope so.

    • jackbird says:

      I always wondered why no one is using the incredible advances in digital technology to enhance animatronix elements rather than replace them. 

      They absolutely are.  Pick up a copy of Cinefex some time to see how very much practical effects work serves as a jumping-off point for the CGI.

      • Marko Raos says:

        Yeah, “jumping off point for CGI” – but what I have in mind is almost the exact opposite. Imo the “texture” of the real thing should be preserved with digital technology being used only for compositing and during the raw production itself (read computer controlled rigs and such). So, in this case you’d use CGI as a jumping-off point for model work.
        An example – design a spaceship in Maya, 3D print it, use the CG model in your rig-control software to set up shots, film the phyisical model itself and composit it with live action… Basically an evolution of the process used in original Star Wars movies.
        Another example – use advanced robotics to provide better control of animatronic creatures and scene components. Those technologies also made enormous strides in the past 20 years.
        I know that some recent films use similar techniques but compositing fully rendered 3D objects with live footage is still the norm.

        • wil says:

          Yeah, I think there’s this sort of “Practical vs CG” fight being suggested here but in reality when you’re vfx supervising a sequence that’s just not the way it works. You use the best technique to get the most realism.

          The problem with integrating films real models is with compositing. You can’t re-adjust lighting in post, you can’t tweak reflections or shadows if you change the background, you can’t do so much stuff you can in CG compositing. 

          On the other side of the coin are things like the Oblivion cloud apartment. Rather than chromakeying the whole thing they filmed real clouds in Hawaii and stitched them into digital panoramas. These were then rear projected onto screens all around a real practical set. It’s a great technique and one that made the actors feel very comfortable and allows the DP to use this ‘natural’ light to aid his own design. 

          It’s all just techniques :)

          • Marko Raos says:

            “You use the best technique to get the… Most Realism.”
            You see, maybe that’s the crux of the matter as some of the posters and the original article mention.. As Harryhausen himself said: “There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy. If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
            He perfectly expressed a feeling that I had for some time – that once you get past a certain point, realism stops being desireable. You loose a certain dreaminess, a sense of “fakeness” which paradoxically makes the thing you’re watching “more real than real.” Maybe it has something to do with “uncanny valley” phenomena or is it the exact opposite? In fact, I’m more comfortable with using CGI in mundane films to create hyper-realistic “realistic” effects that I won’t even be aware they’re there than when dealing with outright fantastic.
            It’s a matter of aesthetics really. If it was all about “realism” we’d be all reading photo-comics now…

          • wil says:

            Actually the point you make it a very interesting one. I had a conversation late last year with one of the Oscar winning supervisors from Hugo where he argued (and I could only agree) that Hugo was no a photo-realistic film and, in fact, that they had explicitly tried not to achieve a fully photo-real look instead opting for a more stylised approach.

            Good VFX is about technique, and technique is imbued with process, which will eventually lead you to a different outcome.

            Or as a mentor of mine once said “If you take the same photograph with a digital back and a film back, then you take them into their development phase – one the dark room, the other photoshop – you’ll end up with two different final images”.

            My argument would be that if we know what outcome we desire then we should pick a technique and process that will most likely lead us there. However I’d add that you can replicate the stop motion look with modern VFX for pretty much less money. Not that you can replicate the imagination and passion of someone like Harryhausen of course, but you can make things look as realistic, or as unrealistic, as you have the time and money to create.

          • wil says:

            In terms of CG production pipeline for compositing using models vs. 3D renders it’s a complicated discussion and probably beyond the bounds of these replies. What I will say is that having worked with models and 3D on feature films, obtaining a realistic composite with the later allows you much more flexibility and much fewer headaches.

            Not saying your idea isn’t worth trying. In fact I think the opposite, it could produce some really cool stuff. I do think it would be expensive to do it on a mass scale though. There are significantly more steps involved in what you’re proposing. And expense is a big thing in modern film making / vfx – just look at the recently deceased studios around the world.

        • TheOven says:

           Like they did in Jumanji.

  9. anon0mouse says:

    Original Yoda agrees.

    • rumanchu says:

      There’s a moment in one of the behind-the-scenes bits from one of the prequels (I’m pretty sure it was Attack of the Clones) where Lucas is telling the CGI artists working on Yoda that they need to make their model more like the puppet; I immediately thought that someone should have pointed out that the easy way to do that is to actually use the puppet.

      • anon0mouse says:

        Exactly.  I suppose it was pretty obvious that Lucas had a huge tech-boner while making those films and couldn’t resist going out of his way to avoid practical effects, even when they were both easier and superior to CGI.  It showed.  The prequels, in my opinion, are a CGI cautionary tale for future film makers.

  10. Todd Alan Johnson says:

    Great article!

    There’s another facet, however, which isn’t included here.Consider this: a movie doesn’t exist on the screen.A movie only exists in the minds of its audience.Bear with me.As the audience willingly suspends disbelief/engages belief, there is a boundary which the filmmakers meet, fail to meet, or cross. This boundary, insofar as visual effects are concerned, exists at the moment where the audience is shown the visual information they need in order to comprehend a) just what it is they’re looking at and b) connect that visual to the story.It’s vital the audience isn’t given so much information that they don’t have to put at least a little of their imagination into play in order to “finish the picture.” Digital effects too often cross the boundary. The audience no longer has to work AT ALL. This frees the mind up, in the moment, to do things other than imagine: to be critical, for instance.Conversely, whenever the audience has to work too hard to finish the picture, the filmmakers have also failed.Out of necessity and design, Harryhausen’s style and creations perfectly suited the films in which they were part.  More often than not, his creatures seemed imbued with personality and purpose. He also understood that active engagement of the audience’s imagination was key to an effect’s success.All are the marks of a master.

    • Anthony John Bonner says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Just like painting, reading and other activities, the best stuff requires an effort from the audience, so the piece of art becomes a more of a collaboration. Terry Gilliam films, like Harryhausen’s have that kind of delight of discovery, where you might suddenly realize, on your own, that  the boggle-eyed alien is really just two hands holding eyeballs. Of course, too much effort and the film beomes opaque, to little and it’s boring. Giving you everything, leaves you with nothing.

    • Girard says:

      The phenomenon you’re describing is one of the reasons why 24fps film “reads” as higher quality while 60 fps video “reads” as lower quality, despite being more “realistic.” The mind filling in the gaps engenders a kind of involvement moreso than seamless hyperealism does. The gutters in comics do something similar, if Scott McCloud is to be believed.

  11. Manny says:

    My 12-YO son is in a film program at his intermediate school. He’s decided he wants to be a film editor and he says he doesn’t like computer graphics because it means the editor can’t fix what the actors do. (He’s 100% behind the idea that there are three movies: the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you cut.)

  12. Tim Drage says:

    The J.J. Abrams lens flares example isn’t that great since he notably did a lot of them in camera on set.

    • wil says:

       Interesting thing about those lens flares: watch both movies back to back and you’ll probably walk away thinking the flares on the first one were better and had a more natural feel than those in the sequel.

      The reason for this is that the second movie was shot in stereoscopic 3D and, during testing, the techs discovered that the lens flares translated very poorly into stereoscopic rigs. This is because the lenses are in different positions so a small directional light sliding across frame will slip out on one sensor earlier than the other. As a result for Into Darkness almost all the flares are done in post-production from digital libraries.

      • thekinginyellow says:

        either the flares are real from using particular lenses or they’re all post using vcp optical flares. my bet is on optical flares plugin since andrew kramer and jj are buds.

        • wil says:

          I doubt the relationship between Kramer and JJ would have any baring on it. Most shots were handled by ILM and Pixomondo. I think both houses are compositing in Nuke and the VC Optic Flares for Nuke only arrived in April this year after ST:ID had been delivered. I’m guessing it’s mostly library flares actually with probably a few bits a pieces generated from plug-ins. 

  13. scottbp says:

    I find it interesting that Peter Jackson is held out here as a champion of the digital over physical effects. In his Lord of the rings movies he uses an enormous amount of physical effects from detailed costumes, stunts, forced perspectives. He has had revolutionary work in the area of motion capture which melds physical and digital. He has always been a fan of physical  and even in camera work, he has just also adapted to and used the modern tools of the day too.
    The thesis of this article is interesting to me though from a point of view of kids and teenagers today making films, for so little money they can make their space operas or zombie movies using cheap but ever better digital effects. Kids of today, and even more tomorrow, can make movies that we could hardly dream of when I was first trying it out. Some will be much terrible, and some wont.

    • hypnosifl says:

      The article explicitly mentions that he used a lot of physical models in Lord of the Rings, but then they went on to say that he abandoned this technique and used pretty much all CG for the architecture and monsters in The Hobbit.

  14. Nadreck says:

    People forget that, back in the day before computers, if you had to show Dr. Evil’s volcano headquarters in a movie you had to build it.  In “You Only Live Twice” the volcano/space port set was the size of a football stadium.  And when they had to show a ninja army assaulting it, well, they had to hire an army of ninja stuntmen.   The helicopter fight scene in the same movie cost the head cameraman his foot as his shadowing film copter hit an air pocket and dipped him into one of the evil henchmen’s rotors.

    The only way to save money was to go puppet – which also let you burn the set to the ground!  That was always fun.  The Dr. Who boys almost caused an industrial action when they burned the styrofoam Dalek capital city down leaving several inches of black goo all over everything.  They did it in one take, gave each other high-fives and tried to nonchalantly walk out past the incoming janitor with a “sorry about the mess”.  Needless to say, said janitor was not of the opinion that haz-mat and decontamination duty was in his contract!  If you’ve ever wondered why the show “U.F.O.” kept on showing the same flying-saucer-exploding-on-take-off scene over and over it was because it really did accidentally blow up on take-off and took the whole studio with it!  They were tinkering with really making the saucers fly and the rocket-fuel/mass ratios got a bit extreme.   

  15. snagglepuss says:

    The old saw goes, “The best effects are the ones you don’t notice” – Meaning the ones that successfully fooled you.

    For all our love of fantasy and desire for whiz-bang visuals, there’s a part of the human mind – the ADULT human mind, that is – That just can’t let itself get 100% convinced by FX. In the back of our minds, we’re always knowing that we’re watching a movie, and that fire-breathing, 60-ton flying octopus on the screen isn’t real, never was and never will be – No matter how cool or “realistically” it’s been rendered. That’s why things like digital or analog fake landscapes and backgrounds can fool us – We know that, well, there HAS to be solid land, with perspective and a horizon somewhere, so we don’t focus on those aspects of the image.

    (This, I think, is part of the reason that 3D sucks so hard – It feels like the film makers are trying too hard, that you’re the mark in an attempt to fool an audience, rather than convince them. That what they’re watching has weight and substance. Take a paper plate and swing it towards your face, stopping at the last second – You’ll feel a rush of wind and experience a sense of motion that you don’t feel with 3D, and your subconscious mind keeps track of these things.)

    And a discerning viewer can tell when an effect serves no real purpose to the story, other than to call attention to itself as a plot point. That’s one reason why I liked “Inception” so much – It never tried to convince me that what I was watching was “real” – It always kept me grounded in the knowledge that I was inside a dream, where the images and situations I was watching were by definition unreal, allowing for a ridiculous, but never off-putting, amount of preposterousness.

    Until film makers and theater owners can replicate the other factors of a real-world experience, such as temperature, humidity, smell and tactile response, those folks who really crave an out-of-body “immersive” experience are going to rely on drugs. Plain visuals just won’t cut the suspension-of-disbelief mustard anymore, and never really did – So, the harder they try, the less convincing they are.

    If anything, digital audio mixing is actually better at faking a real-world feeling than visuals – The Normandy scene in “Saving Private Ryan” was so expertly mixed and distributed throughout the theater, that the sounds of artillery behind you and the Doppler whiz of rounds zipping by your head seemed realler than any loving, lingering shot of the Enterprise or King Kong ever will.

  16. Isn’t that the same Peter Jackson who replaced actors in Orc makeup with a bunch of CGI cartoon characters for “The Hobbit?”

    • hypnosifl says:

      Hence the comment in the article, “In his last film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson finally and fully embraced digital effects. It’s a film in which nary a miniature or puppet exists.”

  17. rsayre says:

    For Harryhausen fans in the NYC area, a chance to see 20 Million Miles to Earth and Jason and the Argonauts on an 80 foot screen at the partially restored and jaw-droppingly opulent 1920s built Loews Landmark theatre at Journal Square in Jersey City ( a 10 min PATH train ride from lower Manhattan – quicker than Brooklyn!) Tickets are only 7 dollars. Popcorn is ONE DOLLAR! and of course, every show begins with the Morton Wonder Organ rising up out of the stage!  Loewsjersey dot org.

    • rsayre says:

      I’m not affiliated with the place, I just think its amazing and want to share it with everyone. It’s the best movie viewing experience I have ever had.

  18. GawainLavers says:

    If Harryhausen were alive and working in the industry today, he might be making giant robot movies like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim coming later this summer, or movies involving swarms of goblins and orcs like Peter Jackson’s.

    Or he would be working with Nick Park at Aardman.

  19. Terry Fairbrother says:

    CGI will never have the ‘warmth’ that stop motion has. You only have to look at the work that comes out of aardman animation to see that the old ways still have a long future ahead.

    • Petzl says:

      I don’t understand this POV.  stop motion was always primitive and artificial.  it’s not “warm.”  i didn’t like it those years ago when it was state of the art, and nostalgia does not serve to make me like it now.

      Just because most of today’s CGI is busy, overdone, and unimaginative (by being too Imaginative!), doesn’t mean its predecessor, stop motion, is a golden child.

      For my money, stop motion only “worked” when it was presented in situations where there was no danger of an uncanny valley: eg, Gumby.  When stop motion is used a “real” movie, you have to consciously ignore the jerkiness and absence of motion blur.  With Gumby, that’s just the way things are.

  20. DewiMorgan says:

    These bluescreen special effects. You can always spot them: Superman looks so fake, flying with a blue outline, I can always spot them and they are worse than when they did this stuff the real way, back in my day. We’d have had real stunt men held from a crane flying through the air.

    It’ll never be any good, and people should stop using bluescreen.

    • snagglepuss says:

       The easiest way to spot “good” FX, I’ve learned, is to use perspective: If something should be blurry or out-of-focus, but is crisp and even easier to see than other objects in the scene it inhabits, then it’s an effect – And probably an expensive one, which somebody didn’t want to be missed.

      • thekinginyellow says:

        try watching arrested development season 4. you can spot the green screen composites from a mile away! mainly because of perspectives being off and the crispness of the shots. there’s even one shot of an OTS that has a blue stroke around because they had shallow depth of field.

    • hi-endian says:

      If you can see the blue outline, that means the work is shit, not that the technique is shit; and honestly, who uses blue screens anymore except in very specific circumstances?

      • Brainspore says:

        …who uses blue screens anymore except in very specific circumstances?

        Virtually every show and movie made today uses chromakey effects (green/blue screen) for some scenes. Even shows you’d never think of as using special effects at all, like legal dramas. Why close off all the streets around a real courthouse to get a short conversation in front of the building when you could do the same scene on a sound-controlled stage for a fraction of the cost? Here’s just one group of examples.

      • Marko Raos says:

        Everybody. It’s just that the technology has moved on, although not as spectacularly visibly as with 3d object rendering. Compositing has gone a long way baby, and the fact that you aren’t even aware it’s there is just a testament to its maturity.

      • wil says:

         Haha, I don’t think either reply understood your point very well hi-endian. No matter :)

        For the record I think in general Blues are used more with:
        … film stock (blue is the fastest layer to expose in film),
        … when you think a blue cast is less disruptive,
        … when you’ve got to deal with green on set (like a green uniform or something).

        Green on the other hand is generally better for most digital cammeras because of the sensors. Many modern sensors use a debayering effect derived from RGBG setups. So effectively you’ve got double the green sensitive resolution in the un-debayered raw files.

        • Brainspore says:

          Actually the primary reason that blue and green are the most common colors used for chroma key effects is that they are the farthest colors in the visible spectrum from human skin, so if you’re going to key out one color without distorting the appearance of your actors then blue or green are your best bet. If we all looked like Andorians then we’d probably use orange backgrounds for the same process.

  21. wil says:

    I work in VFX professionally and I found this article to be part of an long and tiresome discussion that occasionally pops up on industry forums usually started by novices.

    The real truth is that a lot of the CG VFX in modern films is so real that most people (even professionals) don’t know where it starts and ends. The VFX industry is absolutely capable of making anything so real that you won’t know it’s fake unless someone tells you or it’s obviously unable to be true. We see it all the time with digital doubles, set extensions, FX passes – all this kinda stuff and unless it’s obviously VFX (space ship flying in space, giant hulk leaping from building to build) you often won’t even know it was fake to begin with. Seriously. It’s what we do. If you don’t believe me watch Star Trek: Into Darkness again and think where each set begins and transitions to CG extension. It’s tough work even for those who worked on the show. 

    Or what about the Mechanical  Writing Automaton in Hugo? Is the author aware that this was actually a real machine? Yes, the robot that draws the pictures was a real, working, automata. And in a number of shots it’s replaced with a CG version. Again, it’s hard even for the people who made those shots to tell the difference so it is amusing to here someone without years of experience saying that he can feel the reality of models.

    The artists who work in this industry that I know are all incredibly passionate people. Most of us are huge, huge fans on Harryhaussen and would agree that there’s a life in his work that’s incredible, brilliant and impossible to replicate. But it isn’t because of realism. It’s because the man had passion and drive. It’s in his animation, his staging and his creative control over the environments and sequences he covered (and often creatively developed). 

    For my mind the failure of most modern VFX is that it’s done for spectacle and not for emotional emphasis. VFX is a tool, like a dolly shot or pair of 50k’s. We use these tools to make films. And the trick is simple enough: don’t make shit films.

    The author may lament and mourn the real but I’d argue it’s only out of a sense of nostalgia.

    I just found the comments a little insulting (as if we don’t care for Harryhausen – probably the most noted inspiration for most cg vfx artists I know) and a little lacking in real critical substance. Look at the shots out there and you’ll see CG can already be invisible.

    • monstrinho says:

      I thoroughly agree. I love a bit of Harryhaussen as much as the next guy, but to blanket criticize the hard work of the hundreds of artists (and i use that term quite correctly) who work on a feature films, TV or print isn’t just insulting, it’s ignorant.

    • Marko Raos says:

      Absolutely, but what I call “rendered” CGI (3d objects comped into live or full CGI created shots) still needs to find its proper (imo limited) place in the filmmaker’s arsenal. At the moment, this technique is used as a bandaid for absolutely everything at the expense of what David Lean termed “the authority of authenticity” (soz, the term might be a translation of a translation, i heard the story from a teacher of mine who knew lean personally) – it’s the thing that made him blow up a real bridge and a real train in The Bridge on The River Kwai, even tho producers begged him to do it with a model.
      Just compare the aerial combat sequences in in films like Tora Tora Tora, Battle of Britain and Blue Max with those from Pearl Harbor, The Aviator and Red Tails. The former leave you gasping for breath while the latter make you… nothing I suppose – I have some flight simulators on my PC which look as spectacular, and interactive to boot.
      Not to say that CGI doesn’t have it’s place. I’m still mesmerized by those fleeting moments of pure genius CGI in Tron. But it is not an answer to absolutely every filmmakers’ dream!

    • Girard says:

      Obviously the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network would have been more successful if one of them were just a dude in a rubber mask, or a shambling stop-motion puppet.

      • Brainspore says:

        Or actual twins. My favorite low-tech special effect was a scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor is looking in a mirror, which is obviously a shot that’s tricky for a camera to capture without catching its own reflection. Instead of using fancy CGI or compositing effects James Cameron just enlisted the help of Linda Hamilton’s identical twin sister.

    • Ok I can agree with this. Remember Iron Man 1 and 2 the CG suit was pretty much indistinguishable from the real suit, but in the 3rd one a lot of the animation looks slapstick like. Kind of like the old loony tunes cartoons motion. When I really notice it usually is when the motion of the character is stilted in some way, like when “John Harrison” is jumping around like a damn monkey in Star Trek Into Darkness. Also when the camera tracks too perfectly like in the train scene in Suckerpunch, although most of the CG in that movie is obvious and is supposed to be. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have movies like Prometheus where David is playing basketball while riding a bike and none of you realized that the basketball wasn’t really there. Sometimes I think people make CG noticeable so they can be noticed by the SAG and such for awards, because if no one knows it’s CG than no one will nominate it for awards ie: Interview with a Vampire.

  22. wil says:

    Stop Motion has a long and bright future as a technique of animation. It’s future in VFX however is limited. Do you see no warmth in Wall-e? Or Spirited Away? Of course they’re warm and beautiful because the technique they use embraces the stories they tell.

    Stop Motion is a technique and it’s awesome. The question is whether or not it is tenable in VFX and the answer is almost certainly that while it’s probably as good as as CG for animation it is much much harder to composite into the real footage – that means it’s more likely to look fake and remove suspension of disbelief.

  23. StandardXI says:

    I get what you’re saying but be honest, you’d kill to have access to a holodeck or to jack into virtual reality, however pixelated it may be. Now, excuse me while I load up Skyrim.

  24. taerog says:

    I have to TOTALLY agree with Will above.    “Stop Motion is a technique
    and it’s awesome”  and so is CG.  This discussion is kinda off base.

    This “I can tell” and “only physical effects have real warmth” is no
    different then people dissing digital photography or Color over B&W
    or even farther back Film photography over paintings.  There are always
    the “why do you need something different”?

    When film first debuted people fainted at the “realism” (a grainy, high contrast, B&W, flickering and dimly protected image)

    Now people complain if the CG is not always 100% perfect?  (irony here is all the times people do not notice at all)

    I think this is only nostalgia talking here for most people.  People
    feel connected to the old and childhood memories and are substituting
    those feeling in talking about the feel of the technique of those old
    films.

    What people do not understand is that modern Stop Motion technique has
    come a long way and more often then not do not give the same Ray
    Harryhausen feeling.  Do people really think Ray Harryhausen would limit
    himself if he has additional tools to work with and push the
    boundaries? It may be nice to think so but I think people underestimate
    the drive to push the limits of your current boundaries (just like he
    did then)

    Also, I do not think people realize CG can reproduce the effect Ray
    Harryhausen Stop Motion technique and feeling if they wanted to? the
    effect is dictated by the technique/style but not unique to that single
    technique/style.

    Also don’t forget CG in the movies (beyond displays and titles) was in
    the 1980’s  Going from wire frame models to meshing CG simulation into
    reality seamlessly and undetectably.  Stop Motion has developed much
    slower and not as far because of real physical limitations.

    When I went into film school I did allot of Stop Motion and loved it,
    but when the first real CG started coming out I saw the additional
    creative capabilities and went full steam – that does not mean I forgot
    or will never do Stop Motion again.

  25. johnnyaction says:

    I wonder if we will ever see another “Dark Crystal” where as much as possible is done in camera with physical effects.

  26. Brian Thabault says:

    Surprised the author didn’t mention ParaNorman, possibly the most advance stop motion film to date. 

    • hi-endian says:

      Christ, I’m not even sure that I realized that movie was stop motion. Now, it came out almost a year ago; and I never actually watched it or anything, but I did see the trailers. Impressive.

      • wil says:

        Perhaps someone can correct me if I’m wrong but did ParaNorman use 3D printing for the heads/faces of the characters? I know the technique was explored in Caroline.

        That to me as a really cool combination of CG and Stop Motion.

        Another brilliant combination was a Canadian short stop motion where all the eyes of the characters we composited over with real human eyes. It gave a mesmerising effect.

        I think it’s good to celebrate all these techniques. Then we choose the one (or combination) that allows us to best communicate our story.

  27. you only notice when it’s bad. when it’s good it’s invisible

  28. hi-endian says:

    While I’ll be the first to bitch about crappy CG, the question “How real can these pixels feel? Can they truly have heft or presence? I would argue, no — no matter how perfect the texture, rendering, shadow, and digital lens flare (as J.J. Abrams is clearly in love with in movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness) mixed and layered into an FX sequence’s cocktail of CG imagery.” is preposterous and idiotic.

    Seriously? Did you just ask that? Of course pixels can look real. For one, Jurassic Park is one example that’s being mentioned over and over again in the comments — and for good reason. Two — pretty much by definition, almost any CG that you can notice is shitty CG.

    Just like painting, film-making, and stop-motion animation, CG is an art. Bad artists, bad directors, bad ideas create bad art, not pixels. Considering the fact that most CG is about the same quality as a McDonald’s hamburger, it’s not surprising that so much of it today looks cheap.

    • Brainspore says:

      I agree, when special effects are done very well you may not realize that they’re special effects at all. A good pre-CG example of this is Citizen Kane, which Roger Ebert often compared to ‘Star Wars’ in terms of how extensively it made use of visual effects.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        The tornado in The Wizard of Oz still looks good.

        • Brainspore says:

          Absolutely, but everyone knew that was a special effects movie. Relatively few people realize that Orson Welles didn’t actually have a giant mansion set to shoot Kane, or that a deep-focus scene like the one where he fires Leland would have been impossible to capture in-camera at the time.

    • hypnosifl says:

      All the CG shots of dinos in Jurassic Park are pretty obviously CG (particularly in daytime shots), the shots that look really convincingly textured are the ones where they used animatronic dinosaurs. I agree in general that pixels can look real, especially for inanimate objects, but for creatures I’ve never seen any that look 100% non cartoon-like, even if they do look quite good and certainly enough so to suspend disbelief.

      • Brainspore says:

        …for creatures I’ve never seen any that look 100% non cartoon-like…

        It’s quite possible that you have, but didn’t realize they were CGI.

        • hypnosifl says:

          Well, I can’t recall seeing any fantasy creatures in any movie from since 2000, say, that looked 100% non-cartoon-like (excluding humanoids that were obviously just people in makeup, of course). I guess it’s possible they might have used CG for some real-world types of animals that I was fooled by, though I doubt it–even in a very recent movie like Skyfall, the CG animals weren’t entirely convincing (I haven’t seen Life of Pi though). Can you think of any examples of movies where you know for a fact a given shot was CG but still thought it was indistinguishable from something physical (whether a real animal, an animatronic, or a stop-motion puppet)?

          • wil says:

             Knowing that there are some real shots of tigers in Pi, and being a VFX professional, I have trouble deciding for some shots if they are real or are CG (and too what extent they are CG) without multiple re-watches and pauses. And bare in mind that often those tell-tales could has as easily be the result of a strange light setup or some in camera artifact.

            There are other incredible CG creatures and characters. Benjamin Button and Davey Jones digital makeup. Some of the creatures in Harry Potter and District 9 also seemed pretty convincing (more so than many poor actors!). Also Iron Man’s suit can be difficult to distinguish between the practical and cg version. I also have not seen but have heard Warhorse has some incredible CG animals in it (and animatronics).

            Finally some recent lower budget work on Kon-Tiki I thought was pretty incredible. The wonderful thing about Kon-Tiki is it was done outside of Hollywood and for under 20mill USD which is an incredible feat. The bird in the water (Important Looking Pirates) and the sharks are both incredible:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFpL2XzAn44

  29. bcsizemo says:

    60 comments and no one mentions Farscape.  That was some seriously good puppeteering and creature design.  I agree with a lot of what is being said about good vs. bad CGI, but if you are looking for a life like completely CGI character I don’t think we can produce that yet.  And I mean real life like, not this is an alien and this is some fancy world, but real as in I could turn around right now and this is what I would expect to see.  Sure models and puppets (and even actors in costume/makeup) can only be so convincing, but a lot of what connects the audience to the character goes beyond the physical to the actual movements, actions, and emotions that the real world touch brings.

  30. Antinous / Moderator says:

    It’s so real that I can practically feel the cold.

  31. Kimmo says:

    Okay, how about CGP – computer-generated puppets?

    3D printing, people! IIRC ParaNorman was made this way.

  32. zotlerg says:

    I’d like to point out that when you don’t see the CGI is when it’s working best, and increasingly people are being fooled by it. Here’s a demo of what I mean, and I bet you’ll be surprised at more than one scene, and this is just from a TV show:-
    http://vimeo.com/20541810

  33. Why is it ironic for Pete Jackson to say that?
    You do know he had a movie career before those faggotous Lord of the Rings movies.
    Jackson was a PRO at handmade gore effects.
    Look up his first 3 movies, Braindead / Dead Alive, Bad Taste, and Meet the Feebles, then when you are done, edit this atrocious excuse for an article.

  34. Noah Dillon says:

    99 people comment and no one mentions Walter Benjamin? It sounds as though the author is rehashing “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” What else is a CGI orc but a monster without an aura?

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