why do special effects look less convincing over time?

Discussion in 'Movies' started by andrew markworthy, Jul 9, 2004.

  1. andrew markworthy

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    I'm not trying to initiate a discussion about which movies have good or bad special effects. Instead, I want to talk about a very specific phenomenon. In a nutshell - you see a new movie and eulogise about its special effects. Several years later you see the same movie and now the effects appear so obviously fake that you can't believe you ever liked them.

    I noticed this forcibly the other day when I rewatched Apollo 13 after a gap of a couple of years. The launch sequence now shrieks out that it's computer-generated, whereas when I first saw it I was really impressed (and I'm in good company - one of the Apollo astronauts who saw it asked Ron Howard where he'd found all the previously-unseen archive footage).

    The most obvious reason for finding special effects fake a few years on is increased sophistication of the audience. It's well-documented that people fled the nickelodeons when they first saw the short movie about a train coming into the station because they were convinced it would come through the screen. Likewise, in World War I people were convinced they were watching genuine footage of naval battles that to a modern audience are obviously some model boats filmed in a bathtub. Okay, this explains the really very obvious special effects in older movies, but it doesn't really explain more modern computer-generated stuff.

    Again, it's not that we gain experience of something in real life which leads us to spot something that's fake on the screen. E.g. how can we judge the accuracy of battles between spaceships from first hand experience?

    Yet again, it's not that increased sophistication of effects makes it easier to spot previous fakes. Newer movies may make us realise how clunky earlier movies were in retrospect, but I think they only allow us to make a judgement on the quality of the fakery, not spot the fakery in the first place.

    So what causes the effect? I'm at a loss. The only thing I can think is that we become more blase about special effects and so are less willing to suspend disbelief (e.g. take a look at Terminator 2 - it looks so dull compared with the 'wow!' factor that morphing created when it was first released). However, I don't think that is the whole story.

    Anyone any ideas?
     
  2. chris winters

    chris winters Second Unit

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    I would say that it is desensatisation to CG imagery. We are so bombarted by CG of all kinds now, that its no surprise audiences eyes get more sophisticated whenit comes to spotting it. Advances in technology also contribute, so the imagery all becomes more sophisticated and makes the older stuff look simple in comparison. There are examples of older special effects that still work great, as in stuff from robocop, early star wars movies, and ray harrihausen monsters etc...so it doesnt all age badly.
     
  3. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

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    It's not just CG, which has become a too-popular whipping boy; practical effects lose their luster over time, too. And I wouldn't necessarily call it "desensitization" as much as "practice". As we laymen learn more about the techniques and see more examples, we develop a keener eye for details which would not necessarily jump out at us the first time we see something.

    Of course, that's true for everything, not just movie special effects; it's where we get the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt". For example, I reread a Tom Clancy novel a few months back. It had been one of my favorite books, and still is, but this time I was more able to notice some of the weaknesses in his style (for example, his characters have a lot of internal monologues that run "but that was only right, wasn't it? He'd been a good soldier, hadn't he..."). I don't know that I've gotten any smarter in the past ten years, but I know more, and was already familiar with the material, so I was better able to pick out details like that.
     
  4. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    Interesting. Wouldn't it partly be the "absorption" effect?

    Compare this: You try to solve a difficult problem, a riddle or a puzzle. You think you know you can - but you don't succeed. After staring at it, looking to it from all possible angles, breaking your head about it for a lot of time, in vain, you let it rest.

    This is the recommended procedure, BTW. In reality, you know the problem by heart now, and you're absorbing it, incorporating it from your short-term memory into your long-term memory (effectively changing your brain!). But you're not aware of that, you go on living your other life.
    Suddenly, two days or a week later, just when you enter a grocery store, it hits you in the face: you realize you know the solution to the problem. When you get home (or to your office again), you look at the problem - and yes, it's the perfect solution, the problem doesn't even seem that complicated anymore.

    Wouldn't this be similar? After incorporating the situation and the images in your memory, you can oversee the whole "picture" of what's happening better, so the impressions simply have a less overwhelming effect? Losing the advantage of taking you by surprise?


    Cees
     
  5. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    In his study of horror literature and film Danse Mcabre, Stephen King has a facinating discussion about "the set of reality" - the conventions and shorthand tricks that we're willing to accept at one time an not later when technology or fashion accustoms us to a greater level of realism. He's mostly talking about radio drama, and how the advent of television really destroyed even the possibility of later generations experiencing that form the way the folks of the 20s, 30s and 40s did, but he also uses examples from film. The original King Kong had women fainting in the aisles, now it is considered Saturday Morning kiddie fare.

    Both the advance in realism of effects in later films and the intrusion of real life conspire to render "state of the art" FX pretty lame looking within a few years. (When nobody had ever seen a real rocket ship, or even a jet, the "sparkler powered" cardboard ships of the Buster Crabbe serials were enough. Now we've not only seen better fake spaceships, we've seen real ones. And we've seen digitally remastered footage of the Apollo launches that are better than anything that broadcast TV was capable of showing us in 1969.)

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  6. Leo Kerr

    Leo Kerr Screenwriter

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    I think something that makes something stand out - later - as a 'bad effect' (that is, an effect that you notice!) is how the effects were handled by the film-makers.

    Some common problems:

    1. Effect cost $1000/frame. We bought all those frames, we're d--- well going to use every frame we bought. Never mind that the effect really needs to be 15 frames instead of 20. Just a few frames too long makes someone realize that we're lingering on the effect for some reason. Most of the time, it's cause the production crew didn't want to blow (in this hypothetical case,) $5000 to the cuttingroom floor.

    2. Effects look nothing like the rest of the film, Part I. Suppose you have a film with a lot of camera moves; the camera is always moving, panning, tilting, tracking, whatever. Then you get to an effect scene where for the first time, the camera is locked down hard, because (at the time) they couldn't cope with a moving camera. It represents a major discontinuity with the rest of the film. Spielberg got around this when he went to ILM for Jurrassic Park and said, "look, d---it, I'm not locking the camera down, and you're gonna put the effects in, anyway."

    3. Effects look nothing like the rest of the film, Part II. The camera is doing 'normal' things. No surprises. Then the camera is doing some incredibly swoopy things, chasing an arrow, a bullet, or who knows what. Or a really bizarre compound move involving rushing up to a rocket on a pad, pivoting to retreat up the side of the rocket as the engines ignite, et cetera. Barf!

    So what should be done?

    The effects shots need to blend in with everything else. Maybe the exploding building actually starts to explode before it's properly framed, just because you're tracking in an actor who pauses to sniff a rose. Tough tiddle-winks! So it explodes off-center! Deal with it. The most successful effects are ones that don't stop the film with everyone bowing to worship the effect.

    Perhaps one of the most memorable ones that comes to mind right now is a dead-simple, stupid one, from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Early in Hogwarts, going down the breakfast table. In the establishing shot, there was someone busy, trying to change his tea into brandy, or something. On the close tracking shot, we hear his voice off to the left. We see a flash from off-camera, and then he finally comes into the shot, with a scorched face. No dippy enchanting, no dippy magic-effect stuff. It's all off-frame.

    In general, Star Wars ANH and ESB did fairly well at 'ignoring' the effects. (Three exceptions: the animation of the trench, and the two big explosions: Death Star and Alderaan.) In some respects, yeah, the stuff in the garbage masher were pretty hokey and obviously foam-rubber. But the people on-screen took things as they happened; as if it was not unusual, even if it was an effect.

    Enough rambling...

    Leo Kerr
     
  7. Glenn Overholt

    Glenn Overholt Producer

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    At first I was just going to say - your age is showing - but I've changed my mind, even if that is still true.

    I watch a movie with the special effects part of my brain turned way down; like to a point of a child. If I then notice something that isn't 'right', I know they did a really bad job on it.

    Given an unlimited budget, I don't think that anybody would notice anything, but $$$ is the key factor here. The monsters of the 1950's could have looked more real if they had real people in them; so we would see a more 'fluid' movement. I gues the trick is to do the best with the budget that you have to work with, and hope that the audience will leave happy and satisfied.

    Glenn
     
  8. Stephen_L

    Stephen_L Supporting Actor

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    Is it also possible that the film is rewatched on television, video or DVD and that alters the perception of the effect? I was knocked over by the effects in The Empire Strikes Back, but when I watched it on TV, I could see the moving mattes around spaceships (the pale squares surrounding ships moving through the frame) and it ruined the effect. I swear I didn't see the matte squares on film, but it was glaring on television.

    Lastly, you have what I call the review effect. When you first view a film, your mind is occupied with taking in the details of story, character, visuals and sound. After a few viewings, however, you need less concentration for overall story and you become automatically more vigilant to details. This can benefit when you notice nuances of character and performance, but special effects can lose luster when you are watching them repeatedly and closely. It becomes easier to 'see the wires' of the effect.
     
  9. Kevin Grey

    Kevin Grey Cinematographer

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    I think matte lines are a special case where I do belive they show up much more prominently on video than on film, at least depending on the transfer.
     
  10. Mark Hedges

    Mark Hedges Second Unit

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    I think image size has something to do with this. At the theater the screen is so big that you really can't critically examine the whole thing at once. But at home the screen is much smaller and it is easier to pick out discontinuities.
     
  11. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    Interesting.

    A lot of you, including the thread's author, are answering the question yourselves. Which is to say that after the initial "shock and awe" of having first seen a wowie-zowie computer movie, we put on our critical-viewing glasses when revisiting said title years later. It is then that one notices all the flaws.

    But some effects simply hold up better over the years, despite advances in technology. Hence, the tornado in The Wizard of Oz looks more convincing (and "organic") than any of the stuff in that awful flick Twister.

    Also, a 1968 movie involving space exploration, of which I am fond, looks more convincing — and is, hence, more evocative of the cold vacuum between the planets — than just about anything that has come out since.
     
  12. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    Let me see.... that would be The Bamboo Saucer?

    Or else... Barbarella? or Mars Needs Women? Mission Mars? Mission Stardust? Planet of the Apes?

    No??

    Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women? Zontar, the Thing from Venus?

    No CGI in those two latter, heh?

    OK, I give up, Jack!


    Cees
     
  13. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Executive Producer

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    The effects don't become less convincing; our expectations become more demanding.

    When I saw Jurassic Park, I knew the dinosaurs were fake but just seeing them move so naturally distracted me. Now the expectation is that they will move fluidly and we are distracted by the fact that the lighting is off.

    Likewise, I'd never seen Spider-Man swing through the city before when I saw the first film in theaters. That was exhilerating enough. When it came to film 2, however, I was looking closer and could tell by the compositing and the rubbery-ness which shots were CG.

    Just as audiences in 1978 had never seen a man fly so realistically as Superman did and so didn't look the slight jarring between background footage and foreground footage. Now we are used to perfectly synced CG backgrounds, so the effect stands out to us. (Although I'd argue that Superman remains one of the most realistic portrayals of human flight to this day. Reloaded Neo was more seamless, but he should through the air like a rod. Christopher Reeve's physicality made him FLY.)
     
  14. MatthewLouwrens

    MatthewLouwrens Producer

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    I am on the other side. Right from my first viewing of number 1, I could tell what parts were CGI, what parts weren't. There just didn't seem to be any substance to the effects shots. By contrast, there were no such moments in the second film. The CG seemed much more real and substantive.
     
  15. Ernest Rister

    Ernest Rister Producer

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    "Is it also possible that the film is rewatched on television, video or DVD and that alters the perception of the effect? I was knocked over by the effects in The Empire Strikes Back, but when I watched it on TV, I could see the moving mattes around spaceships (the pale squares surrounding ships moving through the frame) and it ruined the effect. I swear I didn't see the matte squares on film, but it was glaring on television."

    Check your brightness and contrast settings. This is maybe the third time I've addressed this very issue in the space of two weeks on the HTF. If you're seeing big matte squares around the ships - your brightness setting is too high.

    Start Empire. Turn your brightness setting down until the black of space matches the black level of the letterbox "bars". Adjust to taste somewhat, but that's the problem. Your brightness setting is too high. Might also lower your contrast, but not too much, as this can create a dull, underlit image.
     
  16. Scott Weinberg

    Scott Weinberg Lead Actor

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    Answering the title question without looking at the thread as a whole, my first answer is:

    For the same reason you look real young in old photos, and are shocked by it.

    The aging process (for a person or a movie) is so gradual as to be invisible through the day-to-day passage of time.

    When we see newer and more seamless forms of F/X, we unconsciously recall them as we sit down to watch Zardoz or Logan's Run.

    And then we giggle at something that, 30 years ago, looked pretty damn neat-o!
     
  17. George_W_K

    George_W_K Screenwriter

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    I have to disagree about the Spiderman 2 effects being more convincing than the first movie. I thought they looked faker myself, for the most part.

    This thread is an interesting topic.
     
  18. Lou Sytsma

    Lou Sytsma Producer

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    Scott post pretty well sums up my thoughts. My 2 cents on Spidey2 - the effects were much better than the first one.
     
  19. andrew markworthy

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    A lot of interesting answers that I think attack the issue at one of two levels. I think at one level - it's down to experience - we've pretty much nailed it. At another level - what are the microprocesses involved? - we're some way there. I like Cees's explanation and I guess this could be right, though perhaps it doesn't explain every instance.

    What I find intriguing isn't that over time we become more attuned to things, but why the very same images that we took to be real now look plain wrong. In other words, the same visual stimulus moves from signalling 'genuine' to 'fake'. Sorry to go on about Apollo 13 (which I still love, incidentally), but the very images that looked so real are the ones that now shriek out 'computer generated'. I know experience is the cause of this, but what is the process by which this takes place?

    I should perhaps have added in my first post that not all effects looks fake. At the risk of grovelling to the administrators, I agree that 2001 still looks convincing (except for those hideous costumes on the space station). Likewise, a lot of incidental special effects tend to remain convincing (heck, there were trick shots in Citizen Kane I didn't even realise were fakes until I heard the DVD commentaries). Nor (though nobody's suggested this yet) is it meant to be a criticism of special effects technicians, who by and large do a superb job. I can still very happily watch King Kong etc even when it now very obviously looks fake.
     
  20. Stephen_L

    Stephen_L Supporting Actor

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    Andrew, as a fellow fan of Apollo 13, which shots 'scream CGI"? I felt the effects in the film were outstanding. Some I knew were CGI (the camera sliding down as the tower arms swing away, the aerial shot of the Saturn 5 whizzing directly at the camera) because of the angles, but most were really clean.
     

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