Saturday, October 8, 2011

Harryhausen vs CGI

So when I finally got up this morning, TCM was just starting to run The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the second installment of Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad 'trilogy'. I was in the right mood to sit and watch a film I own on DVD. I say this is one of the best adventure fantasy films of the pre-Star Wars 70s. It's also an example of why I prefer Dynarama to the way CGI is used.
Notice I said the way CGI is used. When done properly, yes CGI is an absolutely amazing innovation. But Hollywood can't resist ruining the process by saturating films with it and making it obvious when it's applied. The great thing about CGI is that, in the 'pre' days you could tell when you were about to see a process shot (except in Star Wars, of course, which is why it kicked ass)(And except in a few other films, but I'm speaking generally).
With CGI, finally the blend of effects process and real images is seamless. However, the problem is that all producers go crazy with making primary objects CGI yet few do it right, i.e. spend the money and time to do it right. That results in a computer cartoon image that, for me, looks like a boring cartoon image from a video game.
What has this resulted in? As presented these days, CGI usually does not look realistic enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Ironically, old school effects turn out to look more realistic, mainly because they are, at least, physical. Case in point, the works of Ray Harryhausen as in Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
One of the reasons Harryhausen films are so beloved by film fans who are aware that movies existed before 1980 is because his physical Dynarama style was perfect for the creatures his films depicted. Mythological and fantastic beasts simply look cool in the stop-motion style and their physical reality fits within the context of the scenery. You watch a Harryhausen creature and it looks like it is there. Even if the sculpture isn't the most amazing work you've ever seen, it just works. Harryhausen achieved what I call making your limitations serve your style.
Sure, the objects are rubber and plastic, but they work in the visual context. This is what CGI has, surprisingly, failed at in over 90% of the movies wherein a primary character object is CGI. The computer work itself might look really cool, but the nature of the CGI image rarely looks like it fits in the reality image surrounding it. Who knew that Harryhausen's Dynarama would turn out to do this better?
So what does that mean? How about we use CGI to touch up or enhance scenery, but take stop motion and model animation to another level? Go back to using physical miniatures for primary objects.
Lucasfilm did a fine job with this in the first three produced Star Wars films and that was thirty years ago. Imagine what could be done now with miniatures if they really wanted to. Of course, that means paying someone to build the miniatures and animate them which, for some reason, Hollywood studios must be reluctant to do. Barron Entertainment, producer of Secret of the Amazon Queen is letting me use miniatures and practical effects on the film. I am excited about that and intend to put my money where my mouth is on this.
Sure, we are using some CGI, but I won't tell you exactly where. I'll let you see the film and decide where we used it. What I promise you is that no primary object will be CGI in that film. In fact, I can tell you we will also be using classic stop-motion in at least one scene. Consider it an homage to Ray Harryhausen.
If you appreciate Dynarama and Harryhausen's films in general, check out the book that came out a few years ago, The Art of Ray Harryhausen by Harryhausen himself & Tony Dalton.
If you've never seen a Harryhausen film, shame on you. His style is perfect for the adventure and fantasy genres and I would love to see someone take up the mantle...

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