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Filmmakers Reviving Sci-fi By Going Old School 422

Posted by samzenpus
from the back-to-basics dept.
jjp9999 writes "The special effects arms race sci-fi films get stuck in has pulled the genre further and further from its roots of good storytelling and forward-thinking. The problem is that 'When you create elements of a shot entirely in a computer, you have to generate everything that physics and the natural world offers you from scratch There's a richness and texture when you're working with lenses and light that can't be replicated. The goal of special effects shouldn't necessarily be to look realistic, they should be works of art themselves and help create a mood or tell a story.' said filmmakers Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier. They hope to change this with their upcoming sci-fi film, 'C,' which will be shot entirely without CGI or green screens, opting instead for miniature models and creativity. They add that the sci-fi genre has gone wrong in other ways—getting itself stuck in too many stories of mankind's conflict with technology, and further from the idea of exploration and human advancement. 'In an era where science and technology are too often vilified, we believe that science-fiction should inspire us to surpass our limits and use the tools available to us to create a better future for our descendants,' they said."
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Filmmakers Reviving Sci-fi By Going Old School

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  • Dunno... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday December 05, 2011 @10:17AM (#38265974) Homepage Journal

    The problem is that 'When you create elements of a shot entirely in a computer, you have to generate everything that physics and the natural world offers you from scratch

    I don't see that as a problem, and the thing is, with GCI you can do things that are impossible, impractical, or incredibly dangerous without it.

    I was impressed with Apollo 13. I don't know if they used models or CGI for the outside the capsule shots, but the weightless scenes were shot in the Vomit Comet" [wikipedia.org].

    The goal of special effects shouldn't necessarily be to look realistic, they should be works of art themselves and help create a mood or tell a story.

    I disagree; unless you're shooting a cartoon, everything should be as realistic and beleivable as possible. And everything in the movie should strive to be a work of art in itself.

    They hope to change this with their upcoming sci-fi film, 'C,' which will be shot entirely without CGI or green screens

    Yeah, do that scene in Star Trek where Spock walks into the lift from one part of the ship and walks back out in another. Without a green screen they'd have had to have an acutual elevator.

    I think it a bit ironic that a sci-fi movie would eschew real-world technology.

  • by Droog57 (2516452) on Monday December 05, 2011 @10:27AM (#38266102) Journal
    Fans of Firefly, the old Joss Wheadon Fox Sci-fi show that was fan-driven into a movie a la Star Trek TOS, will understand this argument. That was a (damn good) story driven show/movie with limited and low cost CGI, but still managed to innovative. I remember reading somewhere (OK don't kill me, but I did read it years ago) that the Serenity movie was the first to use a virtual camera style that moved around a lot giving an effect almost like a hand held camera. Have noticed that style of CGI in many movies over the last few years, and I suspect that CGI in general is not as expensive as George Lucas would have us believe. There is probably good software solutions out for that industry, pop in a model and manipulate the shot. Why not, "we have the technology..."
  • Nope, sorry (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Kjella (173770) on Monday December 05, 2011 @10:41AM (#38266358) Homepage

    Things that are clearly props don't look good any more than obvious CGI does, unless you're going for a "Who framed Roger Rabbit?" style movie. Toy scale models don't act like the real thing would either. Early CGI often looked too clean, too perfect, too cartoonish but recently they look more real than you can manage with rubber masks.

    Of course "realism" in sci-fi is relative to the context. If there's a shot of the Enterprise I want to think that's a real space ship, not a cardboard prop or a computer animation. I want to think it's a "real" spaceship. Same with various monsters, I want to think that's a real monster, not a guy wearing a monster suit nor a badly painted in CGI monster.

    Take something like Gollum, I don't really consider that he's a CGI character and the hobbits are real actors. Both do a good job of looking very different compared to the humans, they don't look like humanoids with pointy ears like series who had to rely on human actors had to. The actors in Avator too, even though the world is a bit of an acid trip in colors.

  • Re:Dunno... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ephemeriis (315124) on Monday December 05, 2011 @11:16AM (#38266852)

    The problem is that 'When you create elements of a shot entirely in a computer, you have to generate everything that physics and the natural world offers you from scratch

    I don't see that as a problem, and the thing is, with GCI you can do things that are impossible, impractical, or incredibly dangerous without it.

    Sure, if you're doing something that's straight-up impossible, being free of the constraints of real-world physics is pretty nice.

    But if you're just trying to do something impractical or incredibly dangerous, and still want it to look somewhat realistic, you're adding a lot of overhead by doing it in CGI instead of practical effects. A ball bouncing down stairs shot with practical effects looks real because it is real... The same shot using CGI looks real because some guy spend hours/days/weeks tweaking the shot until it looked right. There's nothing intrinsic to the CGI process that'll make a ball fall down at all, much less deform and bounce and roll correctly. All that is the result of many lines of code and many hours of tweaking.

    The goal of special effects shouldn't necessarily be to look realistic, they should be works of art themselves and help create a mood or tell a story.

    I disagree; unless you're shooting a cartoon, everything should be as realistic and beleivable as possible. And everything in the movie should strive to be a work of art in itself.

    Really?

    Right after you talk about how CGI is nice for doing impossible things, you say that it should all be as realistic and believable as possible?

    Needless to say, I disagree.

    Sure, if you're doing some kind of gritty cop-drama or something, realism is pretty nice. But what if you're doing a fantasy or science fiction movie? Do you really want realism? Once you introduce magic or dragons or FTL travel or something, realism pretty much goes out the window.

    They hope to change this with their upcoming sci-fi film, 'C,' which will be shot entirely without CGI or green screens

    Yeah, do that scene in Star Trek where Spock walks into the lift from one part of the ship and walks back out in another. Without a green screen they'd have had to have an acutual elevator.

    They'll probably do it exactly the same way the original Star Trek did it... And Next Generation did it... Without a green screen.

    I think it a bit ironic that a sci-fi movie would eschew real-world technology.

    But, they aren't.

    They're making a decision to use a specific real-world technology to tell their story in what they believe to be the best way possible.

  • Re:Well.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Creepy (93888) on Monday December 05, 2011 @11:56AM (#38267458) Journal

    From a "realism" perspective, the original Star Wars films are about as scientific as a cartoon, which is why the genre is generally called space opera [wikipedia.org] and not science fiction. I have no problem with George Lucas messing around with Star Wars, as he wants to keep the movies "current" and sell more toys - if he pisses off his adult fans in the process, so be it. The movies aren't targeted at adults, they are targeted at 12 year old boys (for the most part) and have to stay relevant for that market to keep the merchandise bandwagon going. This is all about capitalism and making billions of dollars at the expense of art, but in this rare case the artist is making the money - if you don't like that, stop buying his stuff (like I did 20+ years ago).

    Sci-fi seems to have gone a couple different directions lately. First you've got man vs machine and man vs alien - this is almost always CGI driven schlock like Cowboys and Aliens, Battle:Los Angeles, Transformers, I am Number Four (haven't seen it, but if Michael Bay is involved it goes here), etc. Then you've got the mind benders like Moon, The Adjustment Bureau, and Inception. A genre that popped up in the last few years is "let's rip off ET" where you get Super 8 and Paul.

    Here are some of my personal peeves I hope they avoid:
    20th century medicine or earlier used 200+ years in the future (cancer is still a scourge, "he's dead Jim" insti-death, etc).
    Troll 2 quality monsters
    Giant spaceships hovering over cities (they would crush the city)
    Creatures that behave like they're in a computer game with a bad AI
    Groaner names for anything - I started hating Avatar when they first uttered "Unobtanium." - not unwatchably bad, but it is essentially a Michael Bay-like action movie with a hippie theme. Independence Day wasn't unwatchably bad, either, and that was the CG pinnacle of its time (it was an action movie with wafer thin characters and almost no plot, which is why I disliked it, but many of my friends thought it was the best movie, ever, and saw it 10+ times in the theater).
    Tossing in impossible things just because CG can do it or some 1960s art showed it. Avatar's floating mountains, for instance, which is based on 1960s art (or 1970s at the latest). Or Terra Nova's dinosaurs that keep attacking as they are MACHINE GUNNED (these things have brains the size of a pea, yes, but so does a turkey, and they still feel pain).

    Here are some issues I see as a problem in the future, and may be good sci-fi issues:
    A society that doesn't age, has machines that clear their arteries, etc - death is rare and usually accidental, so how is population controlled (birth control? gladiator combat? suicide?)
    A society that doesn't need to work. Maybe a bunch of capitalists run everything and everywhere else is a slum, or maybe there is a Star Trek like society, or maybe everyone owns a robot that works for them.
    People needing technology to do their jobs.
    Discovering life on another planet, but it is vastly different and possibly inferior to our own (so how do we deal with it? what do we do with it? if we found Egyptian society of 4000 years ago, would we make contact and be gods to them?)
    People that no longer need to bear children (vat grown babies - and we already have artificial uterus's for sharks, so I think this is an imminent issue) - is it really immoral (I don't think so, but the Catholic church may feel different)? Does society become hedonistic? Do Jesus, Allah, and Buddha join forces on a murderous rampage to redeem humanity?
    Cybernetics, though I think there are many issues ignored in sci-fi, like powering them, and I think people are attached to their human parts - augmentation is no big deal, but, say lopping off your arm for a cyber arm would be.
    Growing replacement anything in a lab (limbs, eyes, pets, people, etc).

    Here are some things I don't have a problem with, but may or may not be possible or may have limited potential:
    Warp drives (some like time bubb

  • Re:Dunno... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gfxguy (98788) on Monday December 05, 2011 @12:02PM (#38267554)

    When something looks too perfect, then it doesn't look "too real," it looks as out of place as bad special effects. Your Star Wars example is a really great one to use... the ships looked better, in many ways, in the Star Wars OT than the prequel for exactly that reason.

    So real is real... real is not "perfect" because reality is not "perfect." It doesn't matter which technology you're using... a lot of model based effects have the same problem - perfect, clean models.

  • by k6mfw (1182893) on Monday December 05, 2011 @12:28PM (#38267958)

    >For your information, the most realistic Sci-Fi movie ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey, did not used any CGI nor green screen.

    For starters, Kubrick did his homework before shooting the movie. Along with teaming up with highly respected author (Clarke) he consulted with IBM (in early 60s their research team created a computer voice synthesizer which sang a song "Daisy"), anticipated contract workforce in LEO (Hilton on the Space Station) and (I read someplace) the Discovery spacecraft was designed by a aerospace consulting company in UK instead of movie studio model makers. He also had the characters (astronauts, Heywood Floyd and others) were kind of boring people (like most real engineers and astronauts) instead of flamboyant and expressive people like actors (compare the sequel 2010 to 2001 which was really painful for me to watch). Kubrick also consulted with fashion designers to see what they anticipate styles people would wear by 2001, that was a huge miss. But for techie things like glass cockpits, I say those consultants hit it right on. They missed the ipad by a few years (2001 had a similar wider and longer than the Apple product). For other things like procedures, 2001 portrayed tedious detail on spacewalk to replace AE35 unit and working computer based troubleshooting system, and realistically had mission control run simulations before actual space walk (in real life it would be much more tedious, only got so much time i the theatre). Unlike 2010 as other space movies where they just jump in the spaceship like a sports car and dash off to fix the problem.

    However there was some major misses on prediction, i.e. Pan Am went bankrupt, USSR collapsed, Apple is a computer company (not a vinyl record company), and we never went back to moon. Because there was much work and planning of actual technology and people, the movie 2001 is highly admired by engineers. What I like about it is it is one of very few space movies that is not about alien space monsters and laser beam battles (which those plots have been overused like westerns). As other posters have said, it is not the CGI, it is lacking of story material which makes much of sci-fi suck these days.

    In the 1990s at an engineers week banquet in San Francisco, a speaker (I cannot think of his name at the moment) talked about the tech in the movie 2001. In his possession is a frame for the HAL9000 which is one a just a few pieces of what is left of the props. Kubrick had everything destroyed to be sure there was not a sequel. Props made for 2010 were all done by model makers looking at the original movie. There was a book in early 70s about the movie, it had some photos of the stages. There was one letter by a young boy where him and some of his friends making a sequel with their 8mm, they sent some of their clips to Kubrick along with a letter about borrowing on of the 2001 spacesuits, "we are honest and will take good care of it."

    Pan Am space shuttle was called the Orion and unlike the movie, the real thing is a capsule which has a dubious record so far.

  • Re:Dunno... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday December 05, 2011 @04:51PM (#38272420) Homepage Journal

    It was a hell of a lot better than I expected. I have yet to see a film that follows its book very closely. Look at the True Grit movies. Two completely different movies from the same book (with almost identical dialog). The 1969 version set it in the summer, while the book and 2010 version had it in the winter. But the 1969 version followed the book when they carted off the corpse, while the 2010 version had "if he wanted a decent buriel he'd have got hisself shot in the summer".

    Or how about I, Robot? I mean WTF, a hot Susan Calvin?

    LOTR was closer to the book than any movie I can think of. I really expected it to suck, and was pleasantly surprised.

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