Special effects are going old-school

While the digitally rendered dinosaurs of “Jurassic World” ruled the box office this summer, there was ample evidence that Hollywood has renewed its reverence for doing things old-school, i.


e. the way they were done before the first “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993 and thrust computer generated imagery-infused storytelling onto every filmmaker’s frontburner. The art of the practical – physically creating special effects that are captured in-camera, as opposed to crafted in computers in post-production – has returned on the big screen in a major, blockbustery way.

Earlier this year, “Furious 7” continued its long-standing tradition of Vin Diesel daredevilry by hyping up a centerpiece scene in which five cars were legit lobbed out of an airplane. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was praised as one of the more viscerally exciting franchise reboots in recent memory, in part because so much of its desert-dust, crash-bang, flame-shooting guitar insanity was captured as it happened by director George Miller and crew.

And then there’s “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” another tent-pole release that beat its authenticity drum by, among other things, hanging actual movie star Tom Cruise by his actual finger tips from an actual Airbus A400M as it took off from an actual runway.

All of this realness prompted the Verge to declare 2015 the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback, a comeback that may be cemented further by such upcoming releases as Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which features a pivotal dust storm shot in-camera using a mix of vermiculite and black paper to double for Mars detritus, and a modestly publicized little film called “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.”

Sneak peaks of the J.J. Abrams-helmed Jedi adventure have emphasized the movie’s return to the DIY (that stands for Droid It Yourself) approach that characterized the original “Star Wars” trilogy and that many felt was missing from the computer generated-heavy prequels. Dennis Muren – the legendary visual effects wizard who has been with Industrial Light & Magic, the godfather of special effects studios, since it was born 40 years ago during the making of the first “Star Wars” – says Hollywood’s obsession with computer-generated imagery intensified because of Episodes I, II and III, which demonstrated how CG could create much broader filmmaking canvases.

“I think this whole thing started with George (Lucas) and ‘The Phantom Menace,’ where his ideas were so big that you never could have made that movie (practically) without spending a billion dollars on it,” says Muren, who has won nine Academy Awards for his work on the milestone effects in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Jurassic Park,” among others.

“He pushed that and showed all the possibilities. Everything got big because you could – you could tell these huge stories. I think now, if anything, people are saying, you know, maybe we don’t need to see five miles away. Maybe we don’t need 20,000 creatures coming at us. We can get by with 20. They’re thinking more in terms of human nature and something that you can relate to more than the vast set. And that is saying, then, that maybe we don’t need CG for this. Maybe we can shoot it another way.”

“The tools in the digital world got a little more robust and it was kind of like having a shiny new toy, so people wanted to play with that and really explore it and push off in terms of what was possible,” says Stephanie Allen, executive vice president of visual effects at Paramount, the studio behind “Rogue Nation.” “Now I think the shift is really coming back to the best of all worlds, where all those points converge and we’re using the right tool at the right time for the right reason and not just because it’s in the box.”

CGI may have reached a tipping point, but it’s hardly about to become obsolete. Nearly every major studio release that lands in a multiplex involves some post-production tinkering; even “Fury Road,” with its spectacular vehicular smash-ups and swirls of genuine Namibian desert sand, contains about 1,600 visual effects shots. But if the pendulum is swinging back toward the practical, even a little, it’s because such directors as Miller, Abrams and Christopher Nolan, the man behind “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” are demanding it. Also, perhaps, because moviegoers want it, too.

“The audience is getting smarter and has a better eye and has more interest in how movies are made, in a way that they didn’t before,” says Mike Chambers, a visual effects producer whose credits include Nolan’s “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Adds Simon Rosenthal, head of Iloura, the Australian studio that handled “Fury Road’s” visual effects: “It does give a bit of excitement to the theatergoer to look at it and say, ‘This is actually real. This happened. These guys did this.’ I mean, over the last 10, 15 years, visual effects have probably removed people from that authenticity and reality.”

Well, what’s really removed people from that authenticity are badly executed effects. Freddie Wong, co-founder of RocketJump, an online digital studio and virtual film school, recently narrated a video tutorial called “Why CG Sucks (Except It Doesn’t)” that argues that the explosion of digitally driven cinema led to a misplaced backlash against CG. When it’s executed well by meticulous and skilled artists, Wong argues, CG can conjure really stunning and convincing movie magic. Those sentiments clearly struck a nerve; since it was published in early August, the clip has racked up more than 4 million views on YouTube.

“We’re huge fans of practical effects and CG effects,” says Lauren Haroutunian, dean of RocketJump’s film school. “I think one of the main things we try to get across … is that you can’t really pit those two things against each other as competing tools.”

That’s a point on which everyone agrees.

“I’m all for one, that there’s a place for CG and there’s a place for special effects, and it’s really coming up with the best combination,” says Neil Corbould, the special effects supervisor who won an Oscar for bringing his practical expertise to the visual effects majesty of “Gravity,” and also oversaw effects on “The Martian.” “I have to say, a lot of the visual effects supervisors these days are becoming more aware of what we can do and are actually embracing what we do because they know it’s a good basis for them to then carry on and build visual effects around it.”

“Filmmakers are finding they really can do some great stuff in-camera and some of them in particular are exploiting that to great benefit,” Chambers says. “Does that eliminate some CG work? Sure it does. But you don’t see that part of it going away, because I tell you, a lot of it will still be enhanced or worked on regardless.”

Even pioneers like Muren, who has always embraced tools both tangible and digital, understands how valuable contemporary CG can be when it’s handled judiciously. When asked whether the creatures in “Jurassic World,” many of which were created digitally based on motion-captured behavior of dino-imitating actors, are more convincing than the ones he designed to freak out Laura Dern, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes: “The (new) work, when I see it, looks more realistic than anything you’d seen before.”