theexitisontheleft ASKED:

I've not seen the film yet but Ridley Scott went on record at the premiere of Prometheus saying that it wasn't a prequel to Alien but then said in the same interview that if it was there would need to be three more films to bring it up to the period that Alien is set; what's your opinion on writers/directors going back and adding to a series after a period of time? Is it worth potentially diluting the series just to utilise the computer technology we have today?

That’s a tough one. In the case of the ‘Star Wars’ prequels it’s abhorrent, but I think that it was more an issue of execution (script, casting, the whole nine). I think it becomes okay if the script is universally excellent and respectful to the original material. And in terms of the effects, the main issue I see is if filmmakers wish to take advantage of the new technology that we have, then they must use that technology properly. It’s a particular failing of the CGI craft, which I was going to write about in a post, but since you’ve brought it up it’s likely the best time and place to address it.

The beauty of films like Ridley’s original ‘Alien’ in 1979 was the use of practical effects in front of the camera. The creature was done so incredibly well, and was lit accordingly. Same could be said of the aliens in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens.’ But with the advent of CGI, the use of puppets / costumes / miniatures has dwindled, and replaced with CGI.

I’ve no particular umbrage with CGI, but like any other tool, it has to be applied correctly. A lot of the CGI I see in films today lack - for lack of a better term - gravity. The characters move within their own physics and seem to have a different mass and sense of weight than the live action characters in the film. They are very clearly CGI, and we know it, and for me that renders the film as that much less effective in making me take the leap of faith it is requesting me to do.

I still put forth that the best CGI in any modern film is still the velociraptor sequence in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Even though the CGI is done on technology that is 22 years old, the film’s effects still hold up, in large part because the filmmakers gave the CGI dinos true mass - they move with the same logic and rules as the humans in the film - and we feel their weight. They are also lit in the same scheme of the cinematography, and there is no separation of CGI from the image. To their credit, it was also a mix of CGI and puppetry. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

If we compare this to George Lucas’ use of CGI, we can see the problem of doing prequels with new technology. First let’s look at Jabba the Hut in ‘Return of the Jedi’, done as a puppet with no CGI.

And here’s Jabba with CGI, versions 1997 and 2004:

Even in the ‘upgraded-upgrade’ version of 2004, the creature lacks veracity. No person or creature actually moves like that, and it feels flat and two dimensional, because it actually is.

It’s sad that with all of our technological advances that we haven’t pushed the use of miniatures and puppets even more. Servos and motors are so small, and everything can be controlled wirelessly. We should, I think, strive for that balance of CGI and practical, and I think we’ve swung way too far into CGI. I know with ‘Prometheus’ that Ridley Scott liked to keep as much to production design and practical effects as possible, and it’s a large reason why the film looks so incredible and convincing. But it still lacks the true depth and gravity of ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner.’

The old adage with CGI and visual effects is that the best ones are the one that aren’t seen, meaning that they are integrated so seamlessly into the film and our own perception of reality that we are no longer aware of it. I think of “The Dark Knight” where Christopher Nolan pits the Batman against the Joker and uses practical effects to give us impact - he upends a real semi truck - and we feel the weight of the situation, the characters, the film. The only CGI in the sequence was to get rid of the safety riggings. Nolan’s use of wires and rigged sets to make people float and fly in “Inception” is another brilliant use of practical effects over CGI. He created a revolving chamber and the effect is outstanding.

I know that the production team on “The Avengers” used a mix of puppets and CGI for the Hulk, and on a whole I think their efforts paid dividends. After all it was the same team at ILM that gave us the velociraptors from ‘Jurassic Park.’ But in the end I still knew I was watching CGI, and I don’t know if that is my problem or the filmmaker’s dilemma.

So long answer short, I think it’s okay for filmmakers to go back in time and expand the universes of their previous creations, but it must be absolutely in concert with the craft in which the originals were created. Upgrades in technology should never be the reason to make the attempt, that’s just putting the cart before the horse. Ultimately the script and the concept behind the script should be stronger than the available technology. I like that ‘Prometheus’ is exploring an entirely different aspect of the ‘Alien’ world. But it doesn’t feel like a prequel because, strangely enough, the image quality is so outstanding and crisp. It was wise then for Ridley to distance this film from the others, to make it its own animal. But had I been given a crack at this (which would never happen), I would have appropriated the similar cameras and film stocks used to make the 1979 original, and make a ‘dirty’ film. But I guess you can’t do that if you’re shooting 3D. That’s where business and art comes to a head, I guess.

Old school VFX.

Lilith has zero CGI shots, which is unheard of in today’s horror film landscape. I do have one matte shot, which is about an ancient a special effect as they come. A matte shot is when a photographed or painted backdrop is superimposed over footage that contains action or movement, thereby creating an entirely new environment. It’s a common practice in science fiction films and period pieces.

Matte paintings for ‘Blade Runner’ used to stunning effect.

I do have some level of disdain for computer generated effects, in that they are rarely done correctly, and to do them correctly requires an enormous amount of time and money, and an equally enormous amount of talent. And the best effects are the ones that are never noticed, an adage that is rarely adhered to because effects have slowly become stronger cornerstones to filmmaking than things like screenwriting and performance. Entire films exist on the basis that they have cool visual effects.

On my first feature, 19 Revolutions, I had to use CGI on a fight sequence. It was to cover up a technical mistake. There is a shot where the lead character shoves a guy’s head through a car window, and we had rigged a small charge to shatter some candy glass to really send glass flying. The stunt went well, and my stuntman really pulled it off, but there was one small problem - the charge emitted just the tiniest amount of smoke, just enough to show that we rigged the glass. It was infuriating, and we could only afford to shoot the sequence once.

I had no other option but to approach a VFX house and have the smoke removed. Getting an appointment with a VFX house is a pain in and of itself - quality houses are booked around the world ten times over, simply because of the large quantity of visual effects shots the the global film industry is requiring. It’s an extremely profitable business, and VFX houses are popping up all over the world, and especially in China, Korea and India.

So I put my producer hat on and pulled a few strings via some friends I had written scripts for, and they got me an appointment with a top VFX house. I sat with the president and creative director and explained my needs, and it was about as simple a job that they would ever have - removing smoke. But then I got the estimate for the work, and my jaw dropped: $16,000.

I’m not a violent person but at that moment I felt like punching the president of the company in the throat. And he said he was giving me a deal because his friend sent me to him. In fact, he was giving me a deal, and this is why. My fight sequence was shot in a single take - it was a brutal two minute shot of a guy getting the living crap kicked out of him. I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a real fight in an alley, with no music or cuts, just the sounds of meat and bone.

So to remove that wisp of smoke, they would have to process and scan the 35mm negative for the entire two minutes of footage, work on the smoke removal, splice the CGI bit back in, and then print a new negative of the rendered work. This new negative is what would be cut into my print. It was a lot of work to cover something that lasted 2 seconds, and it would cost me almost 20% of my overall budget for the film. I had no other choice but to do it.

Now in today’s computing landscape, some might say that I could have done it myself with Adobe After Effects or Motion, but there’s one thing to consider - I have no background in computer programming or visual effects. Sure I could learn, but a) that would take forever and the expense of me not doing other things (in business parlance we call this the opportunity cost) would outweigh the actual expense of the CGI work, and b) CGI is a true artform, and not just a programming exercise.

The latter is something which I feel is far under appreciated in our industry. CGI is an artform, and it requires a comprehensive knowledge and skill of sculpture, design and cinematography, and on top of that it requires programming and computer prowess. When you see true CGI at work - my best examples are films like the first Jurassic Park or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or most recently Black Swan - you are seeing true magic, the art of illusion. A lot of people find it hard to believe, but Black Swan contains over three hundred visual effects shots, but they are so seamless and expertly rendered that they become invisible to the eye, and we accept them as part of the visual narrative. Doing effects on that level requires precision and skill, and more so time. Studios and bigger budget indies can crunch time by paying more, but choosing the right effects house is like choosing your cinematographer or your actors. You have to evaluate their innate talents and perspective, and see if they can aesthetically and emotively deliver what you want, within the budget you have.

Subtle effects are extremely complicated and nuanced, just like in acting. From ‘Black Swan’.

Bad CGI is like bad sound - it can sink your ship so fast because it pulls away any credibility or suspension of belief. Which is why I like to avoid it is much as a I humanly can. I find it cost prohibitive and stressing, and I’d first rather try to shoot as many effects practically and in-camera as much as possible. In Lilith we never used CGI blood, all the blood was practical. The only nightmare on that was to have to clean it up for every take.

For my next film, the Paul Pope project, I’m going to have to use CGI effects because the story calls for it, but I’m going to try something very, very interesting. I’m going to first do a CGI pass to cover the basics, and then I’m going to physically alter the celluloid, a la my mentor Stan Brackhage. It’s a risky proposition, but I’m pretty used to that by now.

Brackhage created eye-popping visual effects without the benefit of a computer.

"We’ll just fix it in post."

In the process of reviewing the footage and making notes, it’s readily apparent that aside from the standard hard work of sound design, editing, mixing and three static CGI plate shots (no animation), our post-production requirements on Lilith are actually very, very small.

This is in large part due to our budget - we have no money for fancy CGI effects - but also to our commitment to doing as much as possible in-camera and with practical effects. We could very well do things like add CGI blood and wounds, but then nothing can ever replicate the real thing. We relied on old-school camera tricks to create effects, which are still remarkably effective and make my editing life that much easier and cost-effective. I can’t imagine doing this particularly grisly scene from Lilith with CGI blood:

Now I’m not eschewing the use of CGI, as it has become a staple and extremely valuable tool of filmmakers. But I do think that there is a growing trend of turning over more and more of physical filmmaking to the computers in post-production, a trend which personally irks me.

I was recently watching the amazing extra features on the Criterion edition of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and was incredible to see that despite the CGI-intensive work on the film, the overriding philosophy was to physically capture as much veracity as possible during photography. Fincher’s commitment to physical authenticity rings true in all of his films, and the key to this is in his planning. Fincher knows exactly what the computer must do, and what the camera must capture. He doesn’t rely upon post-production to provide things that he can’t readily capture with his camera.

I feel this is a dying mindset, as I’ve been privy to film shoots where the director so-readily declares “we’ll fix it in post.” No. You don’t fix it in post, you fix it right then and there, by re-doing it. It takes valuable time and physical resources, but it’s all about maintaining the truth of the material and the moment.

This unfortunate idea of correcting flubs in post before even reaching post-production doesn’t limit itself to photography, it’s extending to performance as well. I was on a film shoot where an actor continuously flubbed a line, and the producer of the film made the executive decision that instead of doing re-takes to get the scene right, that the actor would just ADR (re-record) the line in post-production. My jaw dropped.

Our reliance upon the technological gifts of post-production has now extended far beyond the normal boundaries, and the skills of directing, cinematography and acting are being handed over to the tech wizards in a disparate number of post houses. This is not a slam on the artists of post-production, but rather an observation of a growing complacency in physical filmmaking.

We should only utter the term “fix it in post” after all other options have been exhausted, or when we are actually in post-production and we notice a flaw that went under the radar. We cannot think of post-production as a universal fix-it solution; it’s cold and distant, takes a lot of time, and costs a hell of a lot of money. It’s a band-aid on a bullet hole.

Are there things on Lilith that I wish I could fix in post? Honestly, no.(EDIT: at least not yet!) As I go through the footage, my crew did an admirable job in covering our bases. Are there things I wish I could re-shoot or gather more footage of? Absolutely. But that’s not about fixing in post. That’s just being able to capture so much in a given amount of time.

But with filmmaking becoming increasingly post-production oriented, our responsibilities and descriptions as filmmakers are evolving. Can we call the camera work in Avatar true cinematography? Of course we can. But now we have to include CGI artists along with the traditional gaffers and grips in the lighting team. It’s all becoming very gray.

I don’t know. I’m a bit old-school in that I like to keep it as real as possible whenever I can, and if I need a character to jump flat-footed into the Earth’s atmosphere then I know I’ll need to do that in post-production. I love that filmmakers like David Fincher, Spike Jonez, Kathryn Bigelow, Jonathan Glazer, Neil Blomkamp and Darren Aronofsky, all of whom fully embrace post-production, use it only as a tool to amplify what they physically shot. It boils down to these filmmakers knowing exactly what they want and not compromising the truth when it comes to telling their stories.

But we also have to acknowledge that less than two decades ago, some of the most amazing and eye-popping sequences in cinema were created without the benefit of high-tech computerized post production, and the budgets of those films were significantly less. CGI has its place in movie magic, but it has to serve the film, and not the other way around. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button uses cutting-edge technology as a narrative tool - the aging of a single character and actor - and not as a gimmick or a patch. The original Star Wars trilogy was not a slave to post-production, unlike their dismal prequels. Compare Ray Harryhausen’s work on the original Clash of the Titans and compare it to the 2010 remake, and the ‘updated’ version lacks heart, it’s only bells and whistles, in my opinion. It’s the classic case of post-production effects driving the principles of classic filmmaking, and it is a consistent result that these films lack the depth and heart of the epics of yesteryear.

Again, I’m not poo-pooing the use of CGI, but unless it is used for an entire film (i.e. what Pixar has accomplished) it is only a tool to bolster the original captured image. As is consistently stated throughout this blog, it is my opinion that the technology works for us, and not vice-versa. This applies at every stage of filmmaking, and for that matter for our lives in general. When I see the ad for the new iPhone that states “I don’t know what I would do without my iPhone” it makes me cringe. We could, and did, do a LOT of things before there were iPhones. Some might argue that we were actually more productive before apps like “Paper Toss” and “Pocket God” were created. Just a thought. :)

P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend watching the DVD extras for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Many times we hear the term ‘DVD film school’ and this is one of those discs that embodies it. I might just make a list of DVDs with amazing extra features in a future blog post. These are invaluable tools for filmmakers, as it’s the next-best alternative to sitting with David Fincher in person or being on a major film set.