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Why Do Special Effects Seem Less Special Lately?

Why Do Special Effects Seem Less Special Lately? (photo)

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Den of Geek publsihed a piece Tuesday entitled “The Numbing Ubiquity of Computer Graphics.” Its thesis is one that I’ve personally held for a while: that the better and more widespread computer generated effects get the less interesting they become. As Ryan Lambie writes:

“Twenty or 30 years ago, even the tiniest glimpse of a computer-generated effect had an almost magical air of futuristic novelty about it… And yet, since the advent of a holy trinity of groundbreaking movies in the 90s, namely, ‘Terminator 2,’ ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Matrix,’ it has become increasingly difficult to get particularly worked up about special effects of any kind. Audiences may have cooed and gasped over the imagery of ‘Avatar’ and ‘Inception,’ but we’ve now become so numbed by such visual flights of fancy, whether they’re in films or adverts, that they appear to be set to a side almost as quickly as we’ve seen them.”

In other words, the story of special effects in movies is the story of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman”: escalation. Advancements in technology can reap huge benefits for filmmakers and for studios, but as we see in “The Dark Knight,” escalation always comes at a price. The shelf life for an effect’s impact keeps growing shorter and shorter and even as filmmakers face competition from others trying to outdo them, they always need to be prepared to outdo themselves as well.

This pressure exposes one of the biggest flaws in modern Hollywood’s filmmaking model, which is built around a steady supply of franchises and sequels. But escalation doesn’t sit well with sequels, since sequels are, by their nature, more of the same, and more of the same in the realm of special effects is simply not good enough. So while directors of sequels need to satiate returning audience’s desire to re-experience what they loved about a first film, they also need to show them something they’ve never seen before. Accomplishing both simultaneously is nearly impossible. If they don’t do the former they’re told they forgot what made the first film great and if they fail at the latter, they’re told they made something too much like the first film. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Take, for example, this year’s “Iron Man 2.” The first “Iron Man” was a surprise hit for two reasons in my opinion: 1)Robert Downey Jr. at his charismatic best and 2)Iron Man looked cool. Both of these reasons carried with them an element of surprise: after years of problems with the law, many people had forgotten Downey’s charms, and the character of Iron Man was one a lot of people were unfamiliar with, and director Jon Favreau made meeting him a fun, visually stimulating experience. But a lot of the first “Iron Man” is simply the pleasure of Downey goofing off in his lab with the armor, and impressing us with the effects’ ability to convince that he can fly. For the second film, Favreau had to top himself. And talk about escalation: “Iron Man 2” had more armored heroes, more armored villains, more non-armored heroes, and more supporting characters. What worked so well in the first film was basically untenable in a sequel (and will be even harder to recreate a third time, perhaps part of the reason Favreau just decided not to direct “Iron Man 3.”

Lambie does see an upside and that’s the availability of previously prohibitively expensive equipment and software to independent filmmakers:

“The fact that it’s now comparatively cheap to create CG effects means that new filmmakers can let their imaginations run riot on a tiny budget. For evidence, look no further than Gareth Edwards’ ‘Monsters,’ a film created with little more than two professional actors, one Sony camera and a copy of 3DSMax. As Edwards put it in a recent interview, ‘You can go into a shop now and buy a laptop that’s faster than the computers they used to make ‘Jurassic Park.””

He has a point, but this can be a double-edged sword for filmmakers too. As I wrote last week “Monsters” is a remarkable technical achievement, but as Lambie points out, there are two new remarkable technical achievements in multiplexes every Friday. That’s not enough anymore. Lambie hopes that CGI’s decreasing emotional returns will force directors to reinvest themselves in storytelling. It’s a nice thought, but it feels like a pipe dream. We’ve already seen how lowering the bar to entry is encouraging more and more people to make their own films, and more and more special effects artists like Edwards and The Brothers Strause from “Skyline” are taking the reigns of their own productions. Democratization can be thrilling and maddening: more good voices, and more bad ones too.

The future I hope to see is one populated by filmmakers like David Fincher, who can use CGI as shock and awe (see the opening sequence of “Fight Club”) or as spy tactic (see the taxi cab sequence in “Zodiac,” or rather try to see it because the effects are so perfect you have no idea you’re looking at a soundstage instead of a street corner). To my mind Fincher’s current work is the best example we currently have for Lambie’s vision: a director who uses computer images as just another tool in his toolbox, no more or less important than composition, framing, mise-en-scène, costumes, or lighting. When a director like Fincher integrates digital magic into his films, he does so so seamlessly we stop looking for the seams at all and return our focus where it belongs: back to the film itself. The effect of that process can be quite special in its own right.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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