Misunderstood Movie Magic

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Peyton Ludwig

The world of CGI and special effects in movies is often overlooked by the casual viewer, but one that should have much more credit (Photo courtesy and credits to Peyton Ludwig).

Here’s a test: name every actor and director you know. You have a long list, right? Now, name any special effects designer or any artist that worked on CGI, special effects, or motion capture.

More likely than not, you couldn’t name any in the second category. Why do you think that is?

“You’re always looking at the actors – they’re always on screen. They’re in social media, but the special effects artists and people like that you can only see in the credits, and no one really pays attention to those,” said sophomore Logan Bates.

Computer-generated imagery, or most commonly referred to as CGI, first started in the 70s. The first CGI used in a feature-length film was in the 1973 film Westworld, using raster graphics for a point of view shot of a robotic character’s vision. 

Since then, modern-day CGI has allowed for incredible graphical effects that often go overlooked. Recent movies of the last decade like Interstellar and the Planet of the Apes trilogy have shown how much technology has developed and evolved.

“[CGI] has changed dramatically over the years…the fact that they can computer animate a person or an animal and you can’t tell that it’s not real is astonishing to me,” said senior James Nelson.

Despite being often overlooked, special effects can be what decides if a movie is fantastic or lackluster. It can even be the arguing point for the quality of the movie itself. Review sites have used headlines like “Great Movies Characters Ruined by Awful CGI” or go so far as to say the CGI ruined the film itself, like “Great Movies Ruined by CGI”. CGI is similar to acting in this way; when it’s good, it’s invisible, but when it’s poor, it can ruin a movie. 

Take the movie The Mummy Returns, for example. With a heavy reliance on CGI at a time where it wasn’t nearly as well-developed, the Scorpion King, meant to be a formidable villain, looks more laughable than scary.

The best CGI, however, makes its way into the history books and solidifies the quality of a movie. Some of the most iconic movies of all time like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Lord of the Rings owe some part of their popularity and respect from their special effect work. Their special effects are everything they need to be: creative, immersive, and nearly invisible.

Star Wars has always been considered revolutionary for its special effects. It used a wide variety of methods to give the movie a perfect feeling of a swashbuckling sci-fi adventure. In order to create these effects, they physically built models, puppets, and sets. George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, strived to create a high-level realism in its design; this shocked and delighted many when they came in expecting a fantastical space story and got realistic effects. Using animation, highly detailed miniatures, and stop-motion animation, Star Wars artists John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Garrett Brown, Richard Edlund, and the rest of their incredible team achieved what seemed impossible at the time.

“The opening scene on Star Wars, when the Star Destroyer came in from above, changed special effects forever. The moment that happened, everyone was a believer — it set the entire tone for believing that story, and what could be done with special effects,” said Nelson. 

Jurassic Park was created using both physical models and CGI; out of 14 minutes of dinosaur visual effects, around half was physical and the other computer-generated. In total, there are about 63 individual visual effects shots. Despite CGI not being especially developed at the time, they managed to pull off effects that still hold up today. It was a long process developing the physical models, scanning them in, reconstructing the data, figuring out the joint placements, rigging with wireframes, rendering by massive computers, and finally compositing into the scene. To give an idea of time, four minutes of CGI took a year to make. Thanks to designers Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, and John Bell, ancient dinosaurs came to life for an iconic movie.

“For its time, Jurassic Park looks really good — even though it’s not the same level as today, it’s really impressive what they could do back then,” said Bates.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the most recent out of the aforementioned, and also the most graphically impressive; with lead designer Jim Rygiel, it features huge armies of computer-generated soldiers, elaborate 3D environments and creatures, and photorealistic digital doubles of many of the film’s main actors. It doesn’t stop there, however; the Battle of Helm’s Deep, one of the most iconic battle scenes in movie history, may be the most impressive out of all these feats. They created an entire AI system to simulate what individual soldiers would be doing on the battlefield.

“Every agent has its own choices and a complete brain,” said Stephen Regelous, the creator of the special effects engine. “The most important thing about making realistic crowds is making realistic individuals.”

Everything was taken into account with this simulation: how they see and hear, how fast they run, how slowly they die, how their body types, clothing, weather conditions, and aggression level influences their capabilities, and how they make decisions based on their point of view. Some even made the strategic decision to run away. All of this work ultimately made the battle feel highly authentic and real, which greatly added to the scene’s quality.

“I’ve always really loved [Lord of the Rings], but I never really thought about the special effects that much. That’s crazy that they can do that kind of stuff,” said sophomore Lauren Wayne.

Overall, the physical and graphical effects in movies are often overlooked aspects that in actuality play one of the most important roles. Special effects can determine the respect, immersion, and tone of a movie; CGI, whether fantastic or atrocious, can define a film’s worth. With the sheer time and work going into every single effect, special effects artists truly deserve much more credit and respect.