Last week, when discussing the recent glut of superhero movies, we pondered whether the boom in computer-generated special effects was actually making those effects less special: Ten years ago, the CGI landscapes of Asgard in Thor: The Dark World would have been a stunning, ground-breaking sight, but now, they're just the norm for what we expect from $200 million movies. Still, even though special effects have advanced to the point where these computer-programmed spectacles now feel commonplace, that doesn't mean they're perfect. If you've caught all the big blockbusters this year, or even this week's trailers for Noah and Maleficent, you've likely noticed that for as effects-soaked as these movies appear to be, some bits still look just plain unconvincing. Here are four sorts of special effects that all the money in the world still can't seem to get right.
There is a moment in Thor: The Dark World where our hero jumps off a balcony in Asgard and goes rocketing toward the horizon, and I felt instinctively moved to grab for a controller, because the only explanation for that shoddy shot was that a video game cut scene had surely just ended. Crazy jumps are the staple of almost every action movie, whether you're jumping from roof to roof or cliff to cliff, but you've got to cut around them cleverly (as they do with the big leap in the new trailer for Divergent), not animate the actual leap with a fake character that doesn't even seem to propel himself from the ground properly. I know that Thor hardly obeys normal rules of physics and gravity, but come on: Use a stunt guy next time.
This was a problem back when David Fincher made the otherwise immaculate The Social Network in 2010, and it hasn't seemed to get much better since. In Thor: The Dark World, when Natalie Portman's Jane explores an abandoned factory on one wintry London afternoon, her visible breath serves to signify the chill factor … but instead, it just looks fake. Guys, if you're not actually going to put your actors in settings where they come by that cold breath naturally, just skip it. A lot more audiences are going to be turned off by the fake effect than by the lack of any wintry breath at all.
Computer-generated camera angles
Early on in Captain Phillips, a film distinguished by its jittery handheld close-ups, there is a smooth-as-silk shot of a shipping yard shot from way, way up in the air, panning from left to right over all those shipping containers and smoke stacks as though God himself were surveying the view. It is the only thing in the entire movie that looks fake as hell. For one, it looks formally different from every other shot in the film, but it also feels like the kind of shot that would be difficult to really pull off at that speed, height, and smoothness of motion, so they just had a computer concoct it. Just because a computer can give you camera perspectives you couldn't earn otherwise, however, doesn't mean it should.
The Marvel movies are often guilty of this: When we see Tony Stark and his mansion collapsing toward a waiting camera in Iron Man 3, objects whooshing past us and directly into our field of vision, we mentally check out. It isn't just that most of that debris is faked, it's that we know immediately that the shot is fake, too, because there's no way a cameraman could safely shoot it. You can't just disregard the rules of moviemaking that we've bought into all our lives: If you've got an action scene where a camera swoops around and into places where it can't normally go, you're emphasizing freedom of movement at the expense of our ability to believe in a movie.
Now that any movie can conjure up an army with a few computer keystrokes, do we still feel all that moved when we see vast hordes of antagonists advancing? It's become pervasive, sure, but more than that, it doesn't look quite real: Compare the angry-crowd scenes in yesterday's Noah trailer, for example, to the ones in 1956's The Ten Commandments, and the newer movie (or at least its trailer) is left wanting. There's just something about the subtle vagaries of human movement that's still hard to pull off, especially when you've got hundreds or thousands of CG humans all running together. You can appreciate the storytelling in Noah even if you don't completely buy the attempt at scale; in The Ten Commandments, however — or any other classic film that actually recruited hundreds of human extras — you can't help but feel a real wow when you see all those people marshaled into one frame. The brain knows the difference. The brain always knows the difference.