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Jun 6, 2013 — Through the early 1990s, my dad often took me to the “big” movies. Together we were wowed by the spectacle of an exploding White House in Independence Day, and we were amazed watching Forrest Gump interact with cultural icons from the Twentieth Century. In July 1991 we saw one of the hottest action movies of the decade, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Combining the traditional special effects of Stan Winston Studios, T2 got a lot of press for the T-1000, the “liquid metal” Terminator played by actor Robert Patrick. Using computer animation, the film depicts the T-1000 morphing into different shapes, an effect that would be difficult to achieve with traditional special effects. It was a sparingly used (and expensive) effect that had a big wow factor.
Two years later in 1993, Steven Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park, again combining digital and traditional special effects with Stan Winston studios. The number of digital effects shots in Jurassic Park compared to T2 had increased many times over. After leaving the theater, I noticed a classmate being interviewed by the television news, who asked him what he thought of the movie. “It had great graphics,” he responded, describing it in terms normally used for a video game. Still, it was the onscreen action of the film that carried the story. And while it does not hold up as well to modern viewers, Jurassic Park remains a decent popcorn flick.
The line between video games and movies was blurring. Eventually (post-Phantom Menace) we would get films such as 2004’s abysmal box office flop Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow [($70M production budget; $37.7M domestic gross) that featured a cast of real actors including Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow being filmed in front of a green screen with all backgrounds and props added digitally] and 2007’s Beowulf [($150M production budget; $82.2M domestic gross) that prompted someone to ask me as I watched it “What video game are you playing?”]
Phantom Menace changed how filmmakers used digital effects. It proudly touted that it contained only one shot that was not digitally altered (it was never announced, but I think it is the closeup of the vent spraying gas on the Trade Federation battlestation). It had a major digitally created character in Jar Jar Binks (and minor characters including Watto, Boss Nass, Captain Tarpals, other Gungans, and the Battle Droids.) While other films would make successful digital characters (such as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings series), Jar Jar would set a bad precedent for an animated character. As a character in a slapstick animated comedy, Jar Jar would be appropriate – if not entertaining. But in a supposedly serious space opera with “serious” actors including Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, and Liam Neeson, he detracts from the real emotion and action on camera (in theatre this is called “upstaging.”) The extreme appearance and cartoonish voice again convince viewers they are watching a digitized homunculus, not a realistic character that can exist in this (or any) world.
Come back next month. I’m not done on this one yet…