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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.