Mad Max vs Life of Pi: FX Explained

Bringing a dramatic story to life on screen demands many things, but in the world of Bleeding Art Industries it requires the perfect marriage of two very different processes.  In today’s blog we give a quick definition of these with a dive into some issues surrounding the topic and how the processes can work together.

In recent years, the explosion in motion picture technology has created an almost limitless range of worlds and happenings. Mechanical special effects, visual effects, and CGI (computer generated imagery) are often referenced as the same when they in fact mean very different things, draw on different skill sets and happen at different stages of the production process. It is small wonder that while audiences have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to recognize effects, there is at the same time growing confusion that even engulfs professionals in the industry.  Add that to a growing dissatisfaction by audiences (termed the “WETA effect”) and we find a situation that makes for difficult waters to navigate.  Click on this link to see Story Brain’s very apt assessment about how the WETA effect affects our enjoyment of filmic special effects:

So, let’s start with some definitions.

SPFX, SFX, FX or Special Effects are mechanical illusions (also called practical, “in camera”, or physical effects that are usually accomplished during the live-action shooting and use a magician’s sleight of hand to trick the mind into making assumptions about an image. This includes the use of mechanized props, scenery, scale models, animatronics, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects: creating physical wind, rain, fog, snow, clouds, etc. This is our profession and what we as the special effects crew were in charge of for the first season of Wynonna Earp, with the autopsy scene in Episode 8 being a great example of combining mechanical effects and prosthetics, with extremely minor digital work.

CGI or Computer generated imagery is when  digital 3D computer graphics are used to create or contribute to images in art, printed media, video games, films, television programs, shorts, commercials, videos, and simulators. CGI is done on a computer, not in the real physical world like special effects.

VFX or Visual Effects is the process by which imagery is created and/or manipulated outside the context of a live action shot. Visual effects involve the integration of live action footage and computer generated imagery to create environments which look realistic, but would be dangerous, expensive, impractical, or impossible to capture on film.

Can you see how these words could be used interchangeably?  It is this last term “VFX” where the confusion is most prominent.  Often elements of physical special effects are combined in the digital realm creating the best and most believable image for the world of the motion picture.  Indeed awards have been won by CGI artists when in fact most of the heavy lifting was done by the physical effects team.  Indeed even visual effects supervisors are sometimes mechanical effects supervisors that oversee both departments.

The work we did on Terry Gilliam’s Tideland is a perfect example of how different effects were well blended and complementary to one another.Tideland1

In these shots you can see how a physical space utilizing wind machines, fabric, and a flying harness was used to create the effect of the actor (Jodelle Ferland) swimming through reeds in the water in a dream sequence.

Tideland2

The character is completely interactive with the important elements of her surroundings.  Set against a green screen, the imagined water, other objects and backgrounds are expertly added in on the computer in post-production.

On set during the planning, Tideland Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Bain turned to Leo, who was the Special Effects Supervisor, saying that Leo’s advice saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars just by creating that particular scene with the practical special effects coming first and the CG enhancing it later. Which brings up a key point – to be most effective from a time and cost perspective, special effects and visual effects should be working together with thoughtful and deliberate planning from the start. When this doesn’t happen, attempts are made to fix scenes on the computer in post-production, with very mixed results. The best melding of two worlds happens when they’re dealt with at the beginning and not as an afterthought.

In 2012, Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi was adapted into a theatrical feature film directed by Ang Lee. This is a great example of a film that successfully uses a huge amount of CGI and visual effects and speaks to the use of CG instead of physical effects for the sake of safety. This slightly less graphically realistic visual style also served the spirit of the story aesthetically. If you have seen Life of Pi, you know that it would be fairly challenging to incorporate real animals in the film. There is a great clip in a piece here of how a real hyena was used in the film, but only for shots when the main actor was not present. The VFX companies then recreated the hyena digitally for other shots that incorporated the animals and actor.

Unfortunately, because of the proliferation of CG programs available to just about everyone, it is sometimes used to the detriment of the story and production, looking pasted on or in fact defying the laws of physics, which can disconnect viewers from the story rather than increasing their engagement.

The world of CG is changing radically now that there are so many more people working in the industry from all over the world, driving down the costs. A casualty of this trend was Life of Pi visual effects and animation house Rhythm & Hues which filed for bankruptcy on the heels of the film winning Oscars, including for Best Visual Effects.  Here’s a short documentary on YouTube speaking to this:

 

Mad Max: Fury Road is a 2015 action film considered the best film of 2015 by many critics and publications as well as one of the greatest action films of all time. It is estimated on IMDb that around 80% of the effects seen in the film are “real practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets” and that “CGI was used sparingly mainly to enhance the Namibian landscape, remove stunt rigging and for Charlize Theron’s left hand which in the film is a prosthetic arm.” Here’s an interesting link that shows some of the before and after shots so you can see what was real and what was done on a computer.

We hope you enjoyed today’s blog about effects.  I’m sure you will be looking very closely to see whether something is a computer generated effect or a mechanical one next time you’re in the movie theatre. This is also a great reason to stay to watch the credits when you’re at the movies – you can see the teams of people working in the different areas of visual effects, CG and special effects. Although drawing on different skill sets, whether working in CG, VFX, or mechanical special effects, everyone brings something to the story, hopefully combined in a way that elevates the experience for the viewer.

In what film, series, or other production do you think one or all of these effects has been used well – or not? Follow the blog and post your comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

 

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