Monday, October 24, 2011

Horror Movie Monsters: CG vs. Practical Effects

I recently read an interview that Evan Dickson over at Bloody Disgusting did with Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter of "The Thing" 2011- who really did not like what was done with the film in post-production. Some of Mr. Heisserer's comments about how they were originally using practical effects for the creature in the movie, i.e. "old skool" special effects with prosthetics and latex models of monsters, and that they were completely and utterly ruined by their replacement with computer graphic animations got me thinking. I've seen a lot of horror movies. Some good, some mediocre, and some just outright bad.  The main thing that really set the good apart from the terrible movies was how the monster was shown on-screen. Some movie makers seem to think that if it's CG, it's awesome, and that you don't need to do anything else other than film the actors and plug in the CG afterwards. And that line of logic is totally and utterly wrong.

It's not that CG is bad. It's just that when it isn't done right, it really stands out. The best movie monsters that I have seen are the ones that combine real practical effects with CG. It's the marriage of old techniques and the new technology that make the most convincing creatures come to life on-screen.

Let's look at an example of what happens when you only use CG to make a movie monster. In "The Bone Eater", a construction company is digging up a desert to build a resort. Why in the middle of a desert? We don't know. Anyways, the local Indian tribe the Katonahs are protesting the dig, and of course, the man in charge of building the resort refuses to listen to them.  Three um.. archaeologists? are digging at the site of the resort and uncover an Indian burial mound. As soon as they dig up some bones, the Bone Eater appears.

The Bone Eater is a large silly looking CG skeleton monster with bones for hair and glowing green eyes that tosses bones at people and when they are touched, the victims dissolve into dust as the bone eater "eats" their bones. Which makes no sense and could've been done a heck of a lot better. The monster could've at least ripped their skeletons out first before eating them.

The CG monster is the worst part of this movie; aside from the unbelievable dialogue and bad acting. There are scenes when the Bone Eater is flying through the air and I guess it was supposed to look cool, but it's not. The skeletal monster appears to have absolutely no weight to it whatsoever, like a piece of paper drifting in the wind. The Bone Eater monster is a trite, two-dimensional graphic that does nothing to evoke a feeling of fear. They would've been better off using a plastic skeleton on a pole than a CG animation. At least then it would've matched the look and feel of the movie, which is to say cheesy and shallow.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have a movie that is all practical old school special effects, the 1984 Steven Spielberg classic "Gremlins." "Gremlins" is about a young man, Billy Peltzer, that gets a strange pet called a mogwai as a gift from his eccentric inventor father for Christmas. Billy soon learns that the mogwai can reproduce, and unfortunately, its offspring are malicious critters that transform into gremlins that go on a rampage throughout the city on Christmas Eve. Watch a scene from "Gremlins" here.

All of the monsters in "Gremlins" were made with practical effects, in other words, they are puppets. At the time it was made, CG effects were not commonly used. The monsters look real; they have depth, their faces can emote, and they all have their own unique personalities.  I highly doubt that if this movie were done today with all CG that it would've been a hit, let alone a good movie at all.

A movie that best represents the marriage of practical effects with CG is "Silent Hill." "Silent Hill" is based off of the popular game series of the same name that first made its appearance in 1999 on the PlayStation. In "Silent Hill" Rose finds herself traveling to a small mining town called Silent Hill in search of her daughter, only to find that it is a demonic ghost town crawling with terrifying monsters.

All of the monsters in this film are created by filming performances by people in latex prosthetics; most of them are dancers who can manipulate their bodies to do creepy movements. After the monster makeup is put on and they are filmed, they are gone over with CG.

In one of the earlier scenes with the ash babies- the children the burn up and turn to ash that are following Rose- the monster was played by one woman, who was filmed doing a lot of different movements while in the monster suit. The monsters were then copied in post, given a little CG magic, and viola! a horde of them chase after the main character of the movie.

"Silent Hill" is a shining example of what can be achieved when old movie techniques are combined with new CG animation. The monsters in this movie are creepy, scary, and most importantly, they look real. They have a depth and realism that makes them horrifying to watch; which adds to the overall feel and mood of the movie.

If all movie monsters could be approached in this manner, with practicals enhanced by CG, then they would all be very convincing objects of terror.

You can find Mr. Heisserer's interview with Bloody Disgusting here

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