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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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

E.coli-class-

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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